Reflections on Educational Reforms

“It is the mark of a sentient human being to learn from experience, to pay close attention to how theories work out when put into practice.”                                     (D. Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System)

Reflections on Chapter One: What I learned About School Reform

My dad was a high school teacher for over 30 years in the small Fraser Valley town where I grew up.  He was one of those no-nonsense Industrial Arts teachers who knew his content well, enjoyed the kids who took shop class, and was generally happy with the status quo of his (old school) teaching practices.  Consequently, he was highly skeptical of new teaching strategies and the false promises made by educational reformists during the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  As a child and teenager I had heard him bemoan the political pendulum swings and pedagogical fads so often, that when I became a teacher myself I swore I would quit the profession before allowing myself to succumb to that kind of cynicism. Generally speaking, I have stayed true to that promise.  But as I read the first few chapters of Diane Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System (Basic Books, 2010), I cannot help but recognize the many educational changes I have lived through myself during my own teaching career.  The American “infatuation with fads, movements, and reforms” (p.3) has in fact followed a similar path north of the border.

Since I began teaching almost 25 years ago, I have adopted new educational reforms and instructional strategies with unbridled optimism and professional zeal. I championed the ‘communicative approach’ in second language learning, incorporating it into my classroom practices as a teacher in the 80s, and later extolling its virtues to pre-service French teachers as a faculty associate at SFU in the 90s. I embraced with gusto the whole language approach in language arts at the start of my career, but quickly saw the error of my ways when more diagnostic and focused approaches were recommended by researchers and reading specialists.  When the trend in writing instruction went back to a more holistic approach, I ditched spelling tests, dictées, and all worksheets that decontextualized the teaching of writing skills, and discovered the joys of writer’s workshop; I experimented with constructivist, ‘hands-on, minds-on’ approaches to teaching science and math (with some success); and tried out numerous curriculum design strategies.  Each time there has been a new teaching approach or philosophy introduced I, like Ravitch, have “drunk deeply of the elixir that promised a quick fix to intractable problems” (p. 3).  Some approaches became engrained in my practice, others were fleeting and replaced by something new.  But I never lost my optimism or hope.

As a director of instruction in the North Van School District, a major focus for my current work is the implementation of new educational policies, curricular frameworks, and instructional practices.  The ‘in box’ of educational philosophies is constantly full with new initiatives from the Ministry.  In the last decade we have adopted Universal Design for Learning, Differentiated instruction, Assessment For Learning, Understanding by Design, Cooperative Learning, Social Emotional Learning, Self-Regulation, Inquiry-Based, Play-Based, Nature-Based and Problem/Project-Based Learning.  And the list goes on.

Most recently in our province the focus has been on ‘personalizing learning’ for students, part of a reform agenda that Ravitch, an outspoken academic rationalist, would not likely approve of, given her scathing criticism of the “freewheeling reforms” (p. 23) of the 60s and 70s.  Her mockery of A.S. Neill’s Summerhill (an alternative school in Great Britain) illustrates Ravitch’s disdain for non-traditional educational philosophies:

Let students design their own courses and learn whatever they feel like learning whenever (or if ever) they feel like learning.  Get rid of graduation requirements, college entrance requirements, grades, tests, and textbooks.  Down with the canon (p. 23).

For the reader, the description is meant to highlight the radical nature of the progressive reforms and the subsequent “erosion in academic learning” (p. 23) from which Americans were thankfully saved in 1983 by A Nation at Risk, considered by Ravitch to be “the all-time blockbuster of education reports” (p.24).

Interestingly, given our current, local context, Ravitch’s description of Summerhill could easily be mistaken as a critique of the BC Ed Plan, which promises “more choice for students and families with respect to how, when and where learning takes place” and the opportunity for students to “play an active role in designing their own education”.  Granted, there are many elements of the BC Ed Plan that Ravitch likely would endorse, including the emphasis on “quality teaching and learning” and “high standards”.  While the BC Ed Plan has been criticized by many, one has to admire its attempt to appeal to a wide range of educational orientations, emphasizing personal relevance, choice and flexibility for the more progressive thinkers, while increasing the focus on core curriculum, rigorous standards (for teachers and students), and quality teaching for the traditionalists.   Whether or not the BC Ministry’s new plan for educational reform will achieve all of its proposed changes remains to be seen.  This “royal road to learning” (p. 2) will be played out in the political arena of a provincial election year and another round of bargaining with the BCTF.  Those two factors alone will have a potentially negative effect on its successful implementation.

Nonetheless , I believe there are significantly positive changes embedded in the BC Ed Plan, particularly in the draft Curriculum and Assessment Framework.  A reduction in prescribed learning outcomes will enable the development of a stronger more explicit curriculum in each subject area; greater emphasis core 21st century competencies (communication, critical thinking, creativity, personal and social responsibility) will span across subject areas and promote cross-disciplinary curriculum design; changes to assessment and reporting policies, including exam requirements for graduation, are a positive move to a system that is less accountability-driven and more focused on students’ intellectual and social-emotional development.

After reflecting back on my own career in education, and looking ahead at future changes (as Ravitch has done in the first chapter of her book), I remain hopeful.   The future, as proposed in the BC Ed Plan, promises a significant and positive transformation of our education system.  The rollout of the BC Ed Plan is consistent with what Ravitch refers to as the democratic “gauntlet of checks and balances” required for successful implementation, including time for public review and feedback.  My only caution is that we remain firmly committed to the plan over the long haul.  We need ample time to adjust to the changes, revise the plan according to feedback,  and gain the trust and commitment of all stakeholders, especially teachers, in order to fully implement and sustain the changes.  This new plan is not a short-term fix, but a long-term vision for education in our province.  It cannot be rushed.  As Pasi Sahlberg so wisely notes:

“In this age of immediate results, education requires a different mindset.  Reforming schools is a complex and slow process. To rush this process is to ruin it.  The story of Finland’s educational transformation makes this clear.  Steps must be grounded in research and implemented in collaboration by academics, policy makers, principals, and teachers” (p. 3).

(Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Lessons)

 Ravitch, D (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books

Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? New York: Teachers College Press.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the invite to visit your Word Press Joanne, and for the points you share here from Ravitch’s book. I am waiting my copy in the mail, and have read a few book reviews in the mean time.
    I am pleased to read your optimism – not an easy mindset in the overwhelming challenges faced by the school systems.
    On a side note, I heard a discussion on CBC this a.m. regarding cognitive dissonance in changing belief systems. The more people are invested in their learned beliefs the more cognitive dissonance and resistance to change they will experience – even when faced with evidence against their belief. An open mind and recognition of the ideology that fuels one’s belief is helpful in being open to change. Thanks so much for sharing your early and evolving influences.
    I look forward to reading more….Laurie Harding (SFU cohort)

    Reply

  2. From my point of view, Ravitch’s criticisms of Summerhill come from a misunderstanding of Summerhill, or perhaps a look at the impact of a general misunderstanding of Summerhill that had an historical impact in America. I see the practice at Summerhill not as learner directed, but a complex negotiation of schooling that included the learners in the negotiation. And of course, “learner” here should not be read as meaning “all learners of any age, sex, culture, time,” but rather as the specific leaners in that specific place at that particular time–in negotiation with the specific educators, and so on. My suspicion is that A. S. Neill himself had a lot to do with the educational impact that place had–though it continues, I understand, following his “philosophy.”

    Because our language contains collective nouns, I think we need to be constantly on our guard about moving from an instance to something with the impact of a law. It’s not unlike the move from some charter schools having certain qualities to all charter schools having those qualities.

    Reply

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