Educational Reform

I’ve been in Norway for the last few days, attending this year’s American Studies Association of Norway conference. There were many good presentations, but two in particular that I want to blog about. This first post will address the research of Thomas Hatch, professor at Columbia’s Teachers College and co-director of the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching. Tom was on Fulbright a year ago in Norway and presented his research comparing Norwegian and American school systems.

Norway and the United States are similar in both student performance on the PISA assessment and the amount of money they spend on education. However, there are some crucial differences that illustrate cultural difference and allow both countries to consider a different approach to school reform.

Ultimately, Tom makes the argument that both school systems would be better served by a balance between two approaches to reform: accountability/answerability (US) and responsibility (Norway). One of the most provocative points he made was that “promoting accountability involves helping people develop the means to act responsibly, making sure they have the resources, support, and skills to do the jobs they are being asked to do and to reach the goals they’ve been asked to reach.” 

In this short statement, he pointed towards a number of problems with American schools. In my work, I see how teachers feel that the onus of responsibility for student success is placed on them, yet their attempts to act responsibly are undercut by administrative policies that take teacher autonomy out of the equation. In the Fresno area, these policies include the use of scripted curriculum which transforms the teacher into a delivery person without any control over content or methods. Other problematic policies include top down structures that remove the teacher from decision making or problem solving in both schools and districts. These kinds of policies have resulted in passive teachers who don’t see themselves as able to act professionally and responsibly. Thus, teacher morale has plummeted and many excellent teachers have either already left the profession or are considering doing so.

If we expect teachers to be accountable, we must allow them to build supportive learning communities–which involves giving time on the job to work together on curriculum, staying current on new disciplinary ideas and approaches, and otherwise exploring the work of teaching. Administrators need to trust teachers, to give them room to make well informed decisions about their classrooms and students. However, since teacher autonomy has deteriorated over the last few years, I can see how this will require great efforts to recast the relationship of each contributor to the educational process (teachers, administrators, staff, parents, and students). Moreover, schools and districts will need to provide meaningful, thoughtful, and well informed resources and support for their teachers–and by this, I don’t mean packaged curriculum, text book company designed PD which is often transmitted by people who have become disconnected from the realities of schools.

Tom’s presentation challenged me to look at an even broader context for school reform in that he argued that we are all responsible for the success of our schools: “funding, facilities, technology, textbooks, teacher education, leadership preparation, researchers, policy makers, social networks, community organizations, political support, public support.” That is a striking list. Our reform efforts have been short sighted; if we want to succeed at improving schools, we need to look at the many different aspects of reform that will support and nurture student learning.

As a teacher educator and leader of a professional development organization for teachers, I need to do some hard thinking about what I can do to promote educational reform.

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