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Thompson: School Reform in Its Death Throes, Says Merrow

Sisyphus-300x297PBS’s John Merrow, in The Common Core Brouhaha, explains how grassroots, bipartisan outrage is toppling Common Core State Standards and the national testing that it accompanies. He says, “at least two other issues are at play: bubble test fatigue and concern over top-down ‘technocratic’ control of what most Americans think of as a local enterprise, public education.”

Merrow also notes that “lurking in the wings are profiteers hoping to grab a bigger share of the trillion dollars we spend on education, and ideologues determined to break apart the public system (and teacher unions), whatever the cost.”

Reformers once won a series of political victories, even as their educational theories were repeatedly defeated by realities in schools that are far more complex than anything they imagined. Improving schools, as opposed to defeating political enemies, has been an exhausting process of pushing a boulder uphill.

The rock of reality overwhelmed their theories and it is rolling back down. Merrow writes, “We can push a boulder down the hill but are powerless to control what happens next. That’s what seems to be going on here, and at some point we are going to find out what and who will be crushed. As often happens when adults do battle in education, some children’s futures will be ‘collateral damage.’”

Merrow recalls the unforced errors by Common Core supporters that linked them to the discredited teach-to-the-test crowd. The standards' planners should have anticipated and avoided the rapidly approaching meltdown.  He explains:

The CCSS call for developing ‘soft’ skills like working cooperatively and speaking persuasively. However, those cannot be assessed by a computer-based test, or by any sort of bubble test, but machine-based testing is what the powers-that-be have invested in. They did this because they want data that can be used to hold teachers accountable. The bottom line is pretty clear: the decision-makers do not trust teachers.

He then tackles the question that I repeatedly hear: after data-driven reform collapses, what next? “If we end up starting the higher standards process all over again,” he recommends, “let’s agree that teachers must be well-represented at the table.” After all, education is about relationships. “No matter what the technocrats believe or wish, Merrow notes, education is not a commodity, and “children are not objects to be weighed and measured.” "Teachers have to be trusted, because the enterprise cannot succeed without them, no matter what technocrats may believe or wish.”

The defeat of top-down corporate reform is good. And, Merrow's post is great. Frankly, however, I am torn. Job #1 must be the defeat of high-stakes testing. My fellow reformers often remind me of the dangers of easing up our counter-attack. At the same time, we must contemplate the next, hopefully very different, effort to improve schools that is bound to develop.

My gut tells me that teachers must take some risks, communicate with our opponents, and keep that boulder from crushing kids as it descends. It is possible that reformers' mistrust and ill-treatment of teachers will prevent us from working together in the foreseeable future. But, if we consciously set out to negotiate a truce, it may be possible to build some trust and lay a foundation for a completely different, collaborative era of school improvement.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.      


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