Inside Our Schools: Teachers on the Failure and Future of Education Reform
reviewed by Sheila L. Macrine — October 09, 2017
Title: Inside Our Schools: Teachers on the Failure and Future of Education Reform
Author(s): Brett Gardiner Murphy
Publisher: Harvard Education Press, Boston
ISBN: 1682530426, Pages: 296, Year: 2017
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Inside Our Schools: Teachers on the Failure and Future of Education Reform is framed by real stories and grounded in research to present an indictment of how corporate models of education reform have taken over our schools, educational policies and practices, teacher education, teacher tenure, and curriculum. It accomplishes this by providing a much-needed platform for classroom teachers to share their stories and experiences with the current top-down educational reform movement. This collection brings together the testimonies of the silenced and ignored teachers in the field. These unheard voices rise up from the pages, not just to critique counter-productive education reform policies, but also to provide teacher-led recommendations and alternatives for providing an equitable, engaging, and empowering education. The teachers perspectives advocate for capacity building, not threats, and for viewing teachers not as policy makers, but as the experts on student learning (Murphy, 2017. p.4). The books heartfelt essays provide an antidote to many debates about education reform policies and practices, which have become sharply politicized and polarized.
The author, Brett Murphy, a former New York City public school humanities teacher, reports that she has a background in urban studies, teacher leadership, curriculum design, professional development, writing, and research. The book shows how education reform has promised silver bullets to fix public education with little positive results. It is organized around five education reform buzzwords: accountability, quality, choice, failure and equity. Murphy created primers reflecting fifteen-plus years of information on education policy, rhetoric, and media coverage, noting that the teacher testimonies comprise the bulk of the book by design.
Murphy reports that she conducted four years of research and solicited more than a thousand emails from teachers, writers, scholars, union leaders, parents, and activists, in an effort to narrow her contributors down to 25 veteran teachers, award-winning teachers, and people brand new to the profession. She explains that these contributors have collectively moved the conversation about improving education from rhetorical abstractions to the real world, populated with real kids who thrive and struggle in real classrooms every day (p. 4). The teacher essays are palpable, bringing readers directly inside their schools while providing an honest look at what it takes to help students become their best selves. In the process, these essays provide a referendum on education reform, calling out many of the policies that have made the day-to-day work of teaching students harder, more frustrating, and less just (Murphy, p.4).
Chapter One, Accountability: High-Stakes Testing Takes Over, begins with an introduction by Murphy explicating the past 20 years of educational reforms and policies. In her introduction to Chapter One, Murphy reports that much of our current accountability system comes from the 1990s as a result of changes to 1965 ESEA law which established Title 1 federal assistance to schools that educate poor students. She traces reform efforts from Goals 2000 to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2001 and the Race to the Top (RTT) in 2009 to the NCLB-Waivers in 2011, inviting states to overhaul low-performing schools and adopt more rigorous teacher evaluation systems. This gave states the ability to apply for relief from the Bush-era laws 2014 deadline to bring all students to proficiency in reading and math, along with other unpopular provisions.
Chapter Two, entitled Quality: Measuring A Teacher's Worth, opens with an introduction by Murphy. This chapter, along with the teacher essays, explicate the impact of alternative certification programs and the push for teacher performance evaluations tied to high stakes test results. This chapter, along with the teacher essays, explicate the impact of alternative certification programs and the push for teacher evaluations tied to high-stakes test results. Within this market-driven education reform movement, alternative certification programs like Teach for America have been touted as the panacea, yet havent been shown to be especially impactful. A number of studies over the past 10 years in fact suggest Teach for America educators have been no more effective raising childrens test scores than teachers from all other avenues (Goldstein, 2014).
Chapter Three, Choice: Competition as the Path to Innovation, is introduced by Murphy, who argues that market-driven reforms like charter schools, vouchers, and privatization are undermining public education. While the majority of charter schools funded with public education dollars were started by independent organizations and individuals, Murphy writes that a growing number are led by for-profit Charter School Management Organizations (CMOs) and Education Management Organizations (EMOs) (p. 98). The rapid growth in charter schools is disproportionality high in urban areas, high-poverty cities and districts with large numbers of students of color.
Chapter Four, Failure: When Schools Don't Pass the Test, begins with Murphy expanding on the concept of failure. With approximately 90% of American K-12 students attending public schools, many reports concern the "failure" of public schools to focus much attention on schools serving middle-class children. Yet the schools and teachers serving poor children come under fire and face a deluge of prescriptive changes. According to Dreier (2013), the major concern is closing the achievement gap between middle-income and low-income students, with the latter group disproportionately of Black and Latino students in urban school districts (Schmidt, 2013). It is the schools serving poor children that receive the majority of criticism and prescriptions for change.
Chapter Five, the final chapter, is entitled Equity: From Here to Educational Justice. In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that segregated schools were illegal, yet 62 years later U.S. schools seem more segregated than ever. Today, African-American students are more isolated than 40 years ago, while most education policymakers and reformers have abandoned integration as a cause (Rothstein, 2013, p. 2). The proliferation of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds put in detention or suspension is another rampant method of segregation (Macrine, 2010).
These are indeed dark times for public schools and public-school teachers, mostly women, who are blamed for the failure of public education. David Hursh (2008) notes that market driven reforms aim to restrict educators to particular kinds of thinking, thinking that conceptualizes education in terms of producing individuals who are economically productive (p. 33). Blackmore (2008) summarizes it as: "Educational policy has shifted emphasis from input and process to outcomes, from the liberal to the vocational, from education's intrinsic to its instrumental value, and from qualitative to quantitative measures of success" (p. 34).
The book points out these struggles are political and plagued by clashes between liberals and conservatives with little or no input from teachers. Saltman (2012) writes that While this movement began on the political right, the corporate school model has been heralded across the political spectrum and is aggressively embraced by both major parties...[imagining] public schools as private businesses, districts as markets, students as consumers and knowledge as product (2012, p.1).
Giroux (2000, 2013) argues that market-driven reforms represent an attack on the public education system itself. He adds that the constant devaluing, silencing, and deskilling of teachers work is a result of the increasing development of instrumental ideologies that emphasize a technocratic approach to both teacher preparation and classroom pedagogy (2000, p.1). Beyond issues of educational reform and in defense of teachers, Giroux writes that teachers work needs to be defined as intellectual, and not as technical labor (2013, p.4).
In sum, I enjoyed the book. Murphy and her contributors provide sobering analyses offering hope and grassroots responses to the current neoliberal reform machine. However, being an academic, it was hard for me not to notice gestures to so-called public intellectuals who have maintained intelligent vigilance for the past two decades during the ever-mounting war on public schools, public school teachers, and kids, including: Henry Giroux, Noam Chomsky, David Hursh, Antonia Darder, Ken Saltman, Christine Sleeter, Paulo Freire, Donaldo Macedo, Michael Apple, Stanley Aronowitz, among numerous others. Nonetheless this book itself is an important contribution to the ongoing effort to challenge market-driven reforms. It should be read by all concerned with the future of public education and the struggle for a socially, politically, and economically just society. The book is also a great companion text for those in teacher education. In the end, the book invites us, policy makers, politicians, practitioners, academics, school leaders, and parents to take a step back and look at another perspective on the future of public education.
Dreier, P. (2013, July 8). The billionaires war against public education. Retrieved from http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/17455-go-public-finally-a-film-that-celebrates-
Giroux, H.A. (2000). A system of war against youth. Against the Current, 86, 1721.
Giroux, H.A. (2013). America's education deficit and the war on youth: Reform beyond electoral politics. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.
Goldstein, D. (2014, September 5). Teach for America has faced criticism for years. Now its listening and changing. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2014/9/5/6079493/teach-for-america-criticism-changing
Hursh, D. (2008). High-stakes testing and the decline of teaching and learning: The real crisis in education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Macrine, S.L. (2010). Barriers to inclusion of culturally and linguistically diverse students. Peace Studies Journal, 3(1), 7690.
Saltman, K. J. (2012). The failure of corporate school reform. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
Schmidt, G. (2013, September 6). Waiting for Superman. Retrieved from http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=4483