January 4th, 2012
08:11 AM ET

My View: Time for the status quo to make room for meaningful school reform

Courtesy Anthony Codyby Anthony Cody, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Anthony Cody worked in high-poverty schools in Oakland, California, for 24 years. For 18 of them, he taught middle school science. He now lives in Mendocino County and leads workshops for teachers.  He writes the Living in Dialogue blog and you can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyCody.

We are now three decades into a huge effort to improve our schools using standards and tests. This project has become the status quo, but it has failed to live up to its promise. I spent the past 24 years teaching science in an urban school district, where I experienced this all first-hand. The students that were supposed to be served are still being “left behind.”

Let’s take a look at some of the big ideas that have become the status quo in education, contrasted with what I believe to be more meaningful reforms.

Status quo reforms promise that schools or teachers alone can eradicate the achievement gap in a few short years. Anyone who makes such promises, no matter how fervent or urgent they might be, is selling silver bullets. Don’t buy them - they don’t shoot straight. The status quo for high-poverty schools for the past decade is to have their test scores used to label them as failures and threaten the teachers working there with termination or reassignment if scores don’t rise. But school closures have not provided the results promised, and the constant pressure to raise scores results in a narrowed curriculum.

Meaningful reforms do not promise magical results. They focus attention on the learning conditions for students, including class size, safe and well-supplied schools, and resources for special education.

Take a look at the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) in California. This project provided high-poverty students with lower class sizes and support for teacher collaboration. The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education has more examples.

Status quo reforms rely on test scores to measure student learning. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers all attach ever higher stakes to student test scores.

Real reform will not narrowly define student outcomes as those that can be measured on tests, even on those new and improved computer-based tests that will cost billions.  Real reform will challenge us to elevate rich assessments rooted in the classroom, featuring authentic evidence of student learning. This evidence will not all look the same but will reflect the learning goals of each school. Jon Mueller, professor of psychology at North Central College, explains what this means.

Status quo reform recruits recent college graduates to become intern teachers after a short summer of training, asking only a two-year commitment. These interns turn over in high numbers, but their sponsors claim that this is OK because they get good test scores, and some stay in the education field. But meanwhile, students at the high-poverty schools where they are concentrated suffer because of the lack of expertise and instability this brings.

Meaningful reforms focus on retention of excellent teachers from the very start, recruiting people who wish to make teaching a career. Programs such as TeamScience in Oakland likewise pair novice teachers with experienced mentors for support and have shown some success in boosting retention.  An even more thorough approach has been taken by Urban Teacher Residencies, which honor the complexity of teaching in high-poverty schools by matching novices with experienced mentors. Teaching becomes more like an apprenticeship, with teachers receiving close guidance from the mentors, gradually increasing responsibility as their expertise grows.

Status quo reforms promote competition between teachers for bonus funds based on test scores. Systems that rate teachers based on test scores, and offer rewards or humiliation, are demoralizing and corrode collaborative relationships at a school. What is worse, they have repeatedly failed to even raise the test scores on which they are focused.

Meaningful reforms build collegiality by giving teachers time for autonomous, collaborative work, through processes such as teacher action research, and the National Board process.

Lesson Study is another model of collaboration with a strong track record. Mills College research scholar Catherine Lewis explains:“The professional community (at a school and more broadly) changes as teachers become more willing and able to share their instructional knowledge and challenges with each other. As one veteran teacher put it, ‘Lesson study changes how teachers talk to each other around the water cooler.’ Teachers see how students' development depends on the efforts of many teachers, over many years, and they become committed to improving colleagues' practice, as well as their own practice. They think in terms of ‘our’ students, not ‘your’ and ‘my’ students.”

The big reform ideas of the past few decades have ripened into a stultifying status quo that allows us to avoid the real challenges we face in our schools. We can no longer pretend that another round of tests or harsher consequences for low scores will spur our nation’s schools to new heights. This status quo is on life support and ought to be allowed to die. Its departure will make room for more meaningful reforms that address the needs of our students and build on the strengths of their teachers.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Anthony Cody.

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Filed under: Practice • Teachers • Voices
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. search engine promotion services

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    January 13, 2012 at 10:17 am |
  2. Stephen Vetack

    THANK GOD I'M NOT ALONE!!! Too many of the people that make the decisions continue to blame the teacher for what is going wrong. You can't hope to create the education system we want when parents and students simply don't care about education. Too many times over the course of my career I've run into parents, administrators, and students who believe making a child feel good about TRYING is the equivalent of learning. What ever happened to the idea that success through hard work will build the self-esteem that will lead to educational success? Now I remember, its been replaced by NOT MY KID and spending more time on social networking and video games. Let's really try something revolutionary START BEING A PARENT!!!

    January 8, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  3. gerald peters

    i will let mr cody and the citizens of oakland worry about the problems in the oakland shcool system. and i hope that everyone else lets me and my neighbors worry about our problems in southern arizona. we do not need anyone else telling us that our schools are good or bad. we do not need a big washington bureaucracy telling us they will take over a school or close it. all the big natioanl policies over the last 30 years have accomplished nothing, but they have wasted lots of money, and created jobs for bureaucrats. we have lots of great teachers here locally, and lots of great parents. it does not matter whether the parents does a great job of parenting, or whether the teacher does a great job of teaching. if the 15 year old student decides to throw it all away, it is incredibly naive to blame the teacher, or the school, or the parent. the student failed, not the school. and NO amount of bureaucracy will change that situation. i've seen this too many times.

    January 7, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
  4. Brad Soliday

    Anthony Cody is wrong if he thinks school reform can fix education. Reforms can help, but schools are simply overmatched by the slow erosion of the family in our nation. Consider the dramatic rise in single parents in our country over the past 40 years. Liberals would have you believe that the traditional family is a historical relic, no longer necessary in a modern society. There isn't a child on the earth that would argue that having one loving, supportive parent is better than having two loving and supportive parents. Kids are suffering greater dislocation in our homes than ever before and schools cannot, despite their best efforts, consistently make up for the failing family structure in our country. Poverty only exasperates this phenomena. Here's an educational reform that would work: Every man in the nation who has sired a child spends 4 hours a week of devoted time with his child or children. If you could make that a reality, it would do more than anything schools could ever accomplish.

    January 6, 2012 at 12:59 am |
    • Brian

      I agree whole heartedly that the family situation is as important if not more important than what I've been doing in my classrooms the past 25 years as I have tried to do a quality job of teaching Math & Science at Inner City and Suburban schools both.
      But this stupid line: "Liberals would have you believe that the traditional family is a historical relic....." exemplifies one reason we aren't finding solutions to that problem. It makes this a political issue when it is not. Please note Brad, practicing Fundamentalist, Conservatives have a divorce rate equal to Liberals.
      Action speaks louder than words. Our society as a whole across the political spectrum, at all economic levels values things, toys, luxury status items far more than it does children.

      FOUR LOUSY HOURS per week? You think that is parenting? Geez

      January 6, 2012 at 5:00 am |
  5. Roflmao

    Here is a brilliant idea: How about the parents actually try to instill the value of a good education? HOLY SHIZZLE, A MINORITY/POOR PERSON BEING TAUGHT THE VALUE OF STUDYING? THIS WILL RUIN THE DEMOCRATS! Yes my dear moronic fellow Californians, stupid is stupid and won't be cured until the source is repaired

    Most Europeans and Asians put heavy emphasis on education and wouldn't you know it? The results speak for themselves. So no, poverty is no excuse for failing, the fault lies within themselves. Some people should remain as a cheap/free source of labor, at least you get something out of them that way.

    January 4, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • Mike Woodlee

      So what you are saying is that Latino/Hispanic parents don't put an emphasis on studying? How absurd!

      January 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  6. Peter Smyth

    Anthony Cody gets it right, but may have been too nice. Let me put it this way. If you consider your own four or five year old child or grandchild, curious, constantly learning, the love of your life, think about the school she will enter and will be molded by for the next thirteen years. NCLB and now Race to the Top, centered on narrow standardized tests and curririculum have been worse than failures. They have created schools that no rational, caring parent should want their child to attend. They have created a system in which that child may find a good education only by the luck of the draw or parent resources. And it is a system that does not have to be.

    January 4, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  7. Mary Tedrow

    Teachers can and must be part of the transformation of the system of teaching and learning. This report goes a long way to outlining changes needed to boost the nation's potential. http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/Transforming_Teaching(2).pdf

    January 4, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • AdamH @UseYrTcherVoice

      I agree with Mary and Anthony, which is why last fall I started the UseYourTeacherVoice Project. Modeled after the It Gets Better Campaign, teachers submit short YouTube videos outlining issues important to them in Education Reform. For too long teachers have been left out of the discussion, leaving non-educations to make policies we know are harmful to our students in our classrooms.

      Teachers, teacher-educators, and student-teachers:
      1) View the clips made already by teachers at http://www.youtube.com/user/UseYourTeacherVoice?feature=watch
      2) Subscribe to the UseYourTeacherVoice YouTube Channel
      3) Create your own video and tag "UseYourTeacherVoice" or send to useyourteachervoice@gmail.com
      4) Spread the word.

      Let's reclaim our profession on behalf of the people we serve and the dignity in the work we do.

      January 4, 2012 at 1:03 pm |