Why Education Reforms Fail

The education reform debate is filled with attacks as both sides level a prodigious amount of invective against their opposition. Meanwhile, as adults question each other’s motives and name-call, children continue to sit in failing schools. They deserve better.

The ultimate purpose of education reform efforts is to improve education for millions of students who are stuck in a school system that, for various reasons, does disservice to students in thousands of districts. Obviously, there are divisions over how to improve education. Propositions range from charter schools to online learning to privatizing all schools to doubling down on the existing public school system and contributing even more resources to it.

With such differing opinions, disagreement is inevitable. How advocates handle those disagreements will help determine how effective their reforms will be and how much progress they make.

Teachers and administrators should try to understand that efforts to increase accountability are not intended to restrict them or make their lives miserable, but to ensure kids are taught by motivated and talented teachers. Calls for shifting to a weighted-student funding model, or backpack funding, are not designed to undercut public schools, they are attempts to get more money into the classrooms and to improve how districts use their resources to help students. Public school officials, after decades of increased education spending, should recognize that sending even more money to chronically failing schools is difficult for reformers to accept, especially in tough economic times.

Similarly, school reform advocates should try to realize that most teachers chose their career to help kids. Reformers’ calls for more accountability should recognize that much of teaching is an art, not a science, and teachers need time and freedom to improve their craft. It often takes years to become a great teacher. Pressure to raise standardized test scores at all costs makes it increasingly difficult for good teachers to teach in ways they believe would be much more effective. Some of the additional benefits a quality teacher provides, such as being a good role model and supporting students during tough times in their lives, will not show up on a test.

There are no instant cures to the nation’s education woes. Education reform is a long, slow process that requires compromise and cooperation. Respect can help any collaboration to succeed. Both sides in the education debate want the same thing: to educate and prepare students for life in this complex, wonderful world in which we live. A little civility goes a long way.