Learning Policy: When State Education Reform Works
reviewed by Robert Rueda - 2003
Title: Learning Policy: When State Education Reform Works
Author(s): David K. Cohen and Heather C. Hill
Publisher: Yale University Press, New Haven
ISBN: 0300089473, Pages: 224, Year: 2001
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Within the past few weeks, major federal legislation (the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001) focused on education reform has been passed. Significantly, one of the four “pillars” of this national education reform blueprint is accountability and testing (the others include flexibility and local control, funding for what works, and expanded parental options). This new law represents a comprehensive overhaul of existing federal law (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed in 1965 and the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1995 ) and now becomes the principal federal law affecting K-12 education today. Given this legislation and the policy direction that it reaffirms, Cohen and Hill have produced an extremely timely book that should give pause to those who view this initiative and other similar initiatives as instruments of school reform.
The basis of the book is a partly an historical account of California’s attempts to improve teaching and learning in mathematics starting about the middle of the 1980’s, and partly a detailed study of these same reforms through field research and a large scale survey of about six hundred strategically sampled elementary school teachers. Chapter One lays out the general context of the work and previews the major findings of the study. Chapter Two provides an interesting and informative account of the reforms as they developed throughout the decade of interest. Chapters Three through Six provide detailed descriptions of the study and the major findings, trying to trace and link the reforms ultimately to student outcomes. Finally, Chapters Seven and Eight provide a useful analysis and discussion of the findings and the implications and lessons that can be taken away.
The book is very well-written, although there are weaknesses (acknowledged by the authors) that should be considered. For one, the study was cross-sectional and not longitudinal in design, thus limiting some of its explanatory power. In addition, it was based on surveys and teachers’ self-reports of their beliefs, practices, and experiences. It is also the case that the “target” of the study was (and continues to be) a moving one – the state test on which the findings are based has been abandoned, for example, and the pace of new reform initiatives is occurring at a dizzying rate. Finally, some might wonder about the extent to which the experience of California is generalizable. Interesting developments in the State at the time of the study included, for example, an economic downturn coupled with a rapid increase in immigrant and non-English speaking students, leading to a more conservative mood on the part of the public. What role did public pressure on elected and school officials play in the process? As the authors document, public pressure was in part responsible for the demise of the state test developed to align with the math reform efforts. A corresponding public survey might have been informative in this respect. In spite of these limitations, the authors have done a commendable job of capturing an especially interesting slice of the educational reform movement.
Those familiar with the school reform literature will acknowledge two significant issues: the “scale up” problem and the “longevity” problem. With respect to the first, it is much easier to create reform in a small or controlled context, but much harder to move any successes past the artificial confines of the specific experiment. With respect to the second, it is easier to create successful reform than to ensure that it endures. Surprisingly, unlike many other studies of large-scale reform efforts, this study was able to document modest success in terms of scaling up a specific reform at the state level. Unfortunately, the success only happened for a small minority of the teachers. What is it that differentiated these teachers from those who did not demonstrate such success? Simply stated, these teachers had sufficient opportunity to experience coherent standards, assessments, materials, and professional development. It was found that professional development in particular had to be tied to specific curriculum and subject matter to be effective, rather than be on general and unconnected topics.
This last item should provide pause for thought on the part of those interested in accountability as a tool of educational reform. Based on their data, the authors argue that just having standards and accompanying penalties and rewards will not work without very specific types of professional development experiences such as those described above. The strong implication is that there is a need to invest in teachers, and to invest in a very strategic and coherent fashion.
The book raises some tough issues as well. For example, the findings argue strongly for the importance of well-trained teachers as “policy brokers” (p. 85) in the implementation of new reforms. Yet, in states like California the shortage of trained teachers is worrisome. The numbers of teachers with emergency credentials in some urban schools and districts is especially troublesome.
The book also raises another issue of great philosophical and practical importance, namely the balance between teachers’ autonomy and professionalism and the seeming importance of central policy guidance leading to coherent policy carried out in a systematic fashion. On the one end of the continuum is a well-thought out policy that is coherent and systematically implemented and supported, on the other is a set of rigid mandates that are enforced in an arbitrary, rigid, and punitive fashion. The authors seem to fall somewhere in the middle, recognizing the importance of teacher autonomy, but arguing that it needs to be better informed and based in the context of a coherent system. This would imply preservice training that focuses not solely on specific practices, but also on how to reflect and select strategically and coherently among various alternative practices.
Another troublesome finding is related to the ever-present race and class differences that often plague education. The opportunity to be informed about reform and then to learn in relevant, connected, and appropriate ways that then feed into higher student achievement was found to be more common for teachers from certain groups and for teachers in “better” schools. As the authors note, “…a white teacher was about twice as likely to attend a student curriculum workshop as a nonwhite teacher…also…teachers of low-SES students were less likely to attend a student curriculum workshop than their peers who taught high-SES students.” (p. 173). Apparently even the domain of educational reform is not free of these pervasive patterns.
One might wonder why, if policy makers have access to the kind of data presented in this book, is there not a more seamless connection regarding reform policies, especially among educational standards, assessments, materials, and professional development? The authors suggest that the reason is simple – rarely if ever are these factors studied in a reasoned and connected fashion. While studies such as that reported here are relatively inexpensive, it is much simpler to focus on simple test score comparisons. If there is one lesson to be learned in this book, such simplistic approaches fail to unpack the dynamics and complex relationships among key variables leading to specific learning outcomes. The authors convincingly argue that reform should be accompanied by systematic inquiry of the design, development, and implementation of policy initiatives, and this information should be used in the revision of future policy.
In summary, this book provides an important window into the school reform process. It is especially timely and informative given the current focus on school reform and educational policy, and should be read by researchers and practitioners alike.