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The Cynical Approach to School Reform

As he admits in this week’s Class Struggle column, Jay Mathews loves to trash the writings of others who disagree with his very intractable (my word, not his) views on how to “fix” high schools.

But for a recent report on the topic, evidently influenced by the birds in his yard (?), Mathews decided to look at the positive aspects instead.

Why don’t I, just this once, write about this report’s good points? They include at least seven astute warnings about sloppy thinking in the high school reform debate. Here they are, plus one mistake in their thinking that I could not resist trashing.

As far as they’re outlined in this short opinion piece (I haven’t read the full paper), the authors of the report make some very good points. My favorites are

3. Recommendations for higher standards in high schools, based on entrance requirements for selective four-year colleges, ignore two-year community colleges and the many non-selective four-year schools.

They also ignore the possibility that some students might be better off preparing for high quality vocational training after high school instead.

4. Beware of high-flying objectives in high school reform proposals, such as higher-order skills or problem-solving or critical thinking or creativity, because nobody yet has found a foolproof way to teach them and measure them.

But aren’t those the same attributes everyone is pushing as “21st century skills”? Of course, we’ll never find a way to teach and measure them as long as we’re obsessed with “cheap standardized tests”.

6. Amid all the talk about involving employers in high school reform, few people have good examples of this actually working.

And the businesses really have no clue of how their involvement might improve schools.

7. More rigorous high school standards that bore many kids and leave behind those from low-income families are not good, but neither are exciting and involving standards that don’t teach much.

Which is exactly why the one-size-fits-all approach to school reform has never worked. “Exciting and involving standards” may not teach much to the majority of students but might be exactly what smaller groups of kids need.

And that leads us to the part of the report that Mathews feels the need to trash.

Their most irksome proposal, which comes up several times in this paper, is that educators develop approaches to the high school that can address several goals simultaneously, rather than, as they say, “lurching from one critique to another in endless rounds of reform.”

Yeah, right. That’s really going to happen. Both Grubb and Oakes are members of our species and reside on this planet. They know that lurching from one critique to another in endless rounds of reform is precisely the way we human beings — particularly American educators — do everything.

So, according to Jay’s rules, instead of proposing approaches to school reform that break with past attempts, the authors should just accept the stupidity of that past and resign themselves to recommending yet another lurch.

And they call me cynical.

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2 Comments

  1. You know… how does anyone take Matthews seriously? Grubb and Oakes are two of the most respected scholars in the education field. Oakes’ book “Keeping Track” is *landmark* stuff.

    What an incredible backhanded compliment when Matthews talks about all the things he found horrible in their research and then deigns the report worthy of mentioning a few good points.

  2. Tim

    The Post is one of the few major media outlets that pays for someone to write full-time on education. It’s a shame they choose to waste their money on someone who is so inflexible in his thinking on the subject, especially when it comes to ideas for reforming the system.

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