5 Bad Assumptions Behind 'Education Reform'

Reading Newspapers

Education reform efforts have been facing quite the backlash recently. You may suspect that teachers as a body are resistant to change, and perhaps afraid of a little accountability. You may wonder why they resent rhetoric promoting ‘higher expectations’. 

Fisher CostumeYou’re not entirely wrong. Few of us, teachers or no, like change or higher demands on our time and energy – especially when they come from people who have no idea what we do or what they’re talking about. 

I’d like to respectfully suggest, however, that we make note of some of the assumptions behind most education reform talk. If the assumptions are accurate, then we can debate the best course forward. 

If, however, the majority of ‘reform’ rhetoric is based on mistaken assumptions or intentionally propagated inaccuracies (what we in the education business sometimes call ‘lies’, or in the Latin, bovis stercus), then those assumptions and assertions must first be corrected. Otherwise, anything built upon them is destined to fail – and perhaps do great harm along the way. 

Assumption #1: Teachers just aren’t trying very hard.  

Bad TeacherThe only way VAM and TLE and other teacher evaluation measurements make any sense or improve anything is if they spur teachers to do a better job. If teachers are capable of doing something better, and aren’t doing it now, the only reasonable inference is that they don’t care enough to improve otherwise. 

If we believe that, let’s say so. A little evidence to support such an idea wouldn’t hurt, either. It’s probably not true in most cases, so that part might be tricky. 

Assumption #2: Teachers aren’t very good at anything, including teaching. 

You remember the old line – “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” It’s been updated recently – those who can’t do, can’t teach, either.  

Pink Floyd TeacherIf the solution is ‘raising the bar’ for those entering the classroom, then the problem must be that those choosing education aren’t smart enough to do what they’re hired to do. If that’s true, it’s worth asking what would be useful in drawing ‘smarter’ people into the field - or how to better educate those already willing. 

But in the same way it’s tricky to devise a universal method to accurately assess a diverse body of students, it’s nearly impossible to delineate a specific knowledge base and set of skills you wish to demand of adults working with a heterogeneous mass of kids through a long series of unpredictable circumstances.

So… good luck with that. 

Assumption #3: There’s a surplus of highly qualified, brilliant, dedicated people just dying to get into the classroom if the bad, tenured and unionized teachers would just get out of the way. 

History 101No one wants this job.

Buy a few drinks for an administrator of your choice and start asking them for funny ‘teacher interview’ stories. You don’t like the people they’ve hired? You should see the lot they’ve turned away, even when it means unfilled positions. 

I’m curious… what’s preventing YOU from applying for the gig? 

Yeah, that’s what I thought. 

Districts can’t keep warm bodies in place, let alone top notch, hungry-to-martyr-themselves educators. It’s a real wet blanket on the ‘higher standards’ rhetoric when you can’t fill the positions already open. 

Assumption #4: Every kid should be able to master a certain level of math, history, reading, writing, science, government, financial literacy, computer skills, current events, and a wide variety of both life and academic skills, and demonstrate those things on some kinda big test. 


Also, they can’t. At least not all of them can. Turns out kids aren’t as similar as you might wish. 

I’m bewildered why adults who maintain such passion about various subject areas or testing standards won’t take the same tests we want our kids to master. If that knowledge and those skills are so essential, you should do great! If they’re not – and if you’re doing just fine without being able to score whatever arbitrary number has been chosen this year – why should 16-year olds have to die in that ditch? 

EOI History Sample

Do you know the answer, without looking anything up? 

If not, you have no value as a person, student, or employee. Period. Let’s try another. 

EOI Biology Sample

How’d you do? 

Keep in mind that if you can’t answer these off the top of your head, you’ll never be successful at anything ever, and neither will they. 

EOI Math Sample 1

EOI Math Sample 2

Should I even ask?

There’s nothing wrong with any of these subjects or questions, but every time you hear yourself or someone else wonder why kids can’t be expected to know “the basics” or “anything important,” remember how you did with these and the extent to which that answer has shaped the rest of YOUR life.  

And if you got them all, congratulations – you’ve mastered 10th grade. 

Assumption #5: Schools fail because of problems within the school – bad teachers, bad leadership, bad kids, etc. 

The obsolete structure and mindset of the public school system is a disaster. There are certainly problematic students in the mix, but most behavior and other problems stem from trying to fit 21st century teenagers with a wide variety of interests, backgrounds, and skill sets, into a 19th century factory model designed for entirely different priorities in very different times. 

We can’t break all of them – some of them survive, unfortunately for our state rankings.  

Dude WTFWe can’t vary the curriculum significantly – state law. We can’t afford meaningful, hands-on learning of the sort you keep reading we should be doing, nor can we spare ‘core curriculum’ time to do anything interesting that kids might actually want to explore (and on which we could then build essential universals, like reading and writing and mathematical reasoning) – state law and legislative purse strings. 

We can’t show great flexibility with time trapped in desks, whether in quantity or times of day students must be detained – state law. We can’t toss the A-F grading system or the 100% scale which reduces everything a child learns or does in a semester to a single digit, nor can we commit to something more meaningful and descriptive than traditional GPA – higher ed and parents demand those numbers. 

We can’t pull out kids with similar needs or challenges to receive customized help or guidance in separate classes or specialized schools – state law. Nor are we given the resources to do it properly within our current structures - legislative pursestrings.

Testing CartoonWe can’t hold kids with the most potential to real academic standards or expectations of personal responsibility – angry parents, strange cultural ideals about the need to have 102% in everything and never struggle or fail, and administrators who are under a lot of pressure to show that every single child in the district is Top 10%. 

I don’t offer any of this up as an excuse, or even a complaint. I do offer them as rebuttal to the most common complaints – and worse, the most common ‘solutions’ – I hear regarding public education. 

There are MANY problems with the current system, the current standards, current resources, current restrictions - maybe even some of the current teachers and current leaders. But until we can address the whole picture accurately and honestly, no degree of rhetorical chicanery will do much more than kick the corpse of our ideals and rifle its pockets for change.  

Fixing Kids

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Man, you are on a roll lately.
Could you stop writing such awesome stuff? You're making the rest of us look bad (or at least me).
I know I can always count on you and Rob M. for my occasional dose of vocabulary (chicanery?).


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