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Why Have Past School Reforms Failed?


Q. Seems like the more money we spend on K-12 education, the worse the schools get. With all these efforts at reforms over the past few decades, how come we don't have the schools we want yet?


Over the past 30 years, we've gone through the reforms prompted by the big report, "A Nation at Risk." We've had sweeping federal interventions, starting with America 2000, then Goals 2000, and now No Child Left Behind. We've spent an unbelievable amount of money through continuous updates of LBJ's Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Head Start, the special education laws, and much more.


But you're right. The bottom line: is anybody happy with these "reforms"? Doesn't seem like it.


Our government has spent beaucoup bucks trying to reform our schools. Educators are laboring under an avalanche of "research" telling them what to do - so much that it's hard to keep up with the fads. Teachers, parents, taxpayers, state and local policymakers, elected officials, academics, and all kinds of government professionals on the federal level have tried to change things for the better. Some of the best and brightest of our business and community leaders have devoted countless hours and money to the cause. They all echo your question: how come so little of what we try seems to work?


The crux of the problem, according to a lot of deep thinkers who've tackled this issue, is that we forgot one thing: the KISS Rule. As in: "Keep It Simple, Stupid."


We've been throwing money and staff training and "programs" at our educational problems and adding all kinds of staff and technology, when the answer is really very simple and extremely cheap:


Back to the basics . . . and use traditional principles of what a school is.


Distinguished educators such as the late Jeanne Chall of the Harvard Graduate School of Education have tried to explain how the research really does show that old-fashioned, tried-and-true, content-based, teacher-led learning helps kids do the best in everything: basic skills, higher-order thinking skills, and self-esteem.


But instead, because it is fashionable, there's "groupthink" and a headlock on the opposite philosophy - "child-centered education" and "progressivism" - with a much weaker curriculum, much less power and say-so for teachers, much easier textbooks, bedlam in the classrooms and halls, and demonstrably lower academic achievement, especially for disadvantaged students, who desperately need the structure and order of content-based, teacher-led education . . . but are being denied it by the educational establishment, which controls teacher training and licensure, and has its head in the sand in a big way about the need to go back to what works, which is traditional schooling.


Homework: Two books sum this up beautifully: A Century of Failed School Reforms by Diane Ravitch, and Jeanne Chall's The Academic Achievement Challenge. Here's a long read, but a helpful one to take you through the various fads of progressive education and how each one has hurt schooling:


By Susan Darst Williams Bright Ideas For Change 01


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