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Reforms and Revolution

by Anthony Kunkel - November 16, 2017

This commentary examines the history of reforms, the realities of the vast amount of research on educational reforms, and makes a case as to why teachers need to unify and gain a sense of solidarity in demanding a voice in decision-making and policy.

The idea that reforms are bad for education is old news and tiresome. Politicians, policy makers, and reformers have been implementing one change after another for over one hundred years now, and in truth, it doesn’t appear that they are going to stop creating new mandates any time soon. According to Hilliard, "The high-stakes standardized movement actually interferes with and impedes the opportunity for educators and communities to frame a human future for our children” (2000, p. 297). David Berliner, past president of both the American Psychological Association and the American Educational Research Association writes that, “Under current policies, teachers and school administrators are at the mercy of high-stakes tests that can cause children to be left back or not graduate from high school” (2008, p. 254).

With the 2001 passage of “No Child Left Behind,” accountability became the buzzword for new reforms and the rationale for new mandates upon teachers. "A new form of accountability alienates students by stripping the process of learning from its situatedness in the world. It reduces learning and knowing to numbers" (Kostogriz and Doecke, 2011, p. 404). Researchers, academia, and teachers in the classrooms have pushed back, but the call for political action from educators has fallen short of creating even a whisper to those who make the decisions. “Fast-capitalist policymaking standardizes educational systems and positions people who work in them as commodities to be capitalized for profit, rather than treating them as the expert actors they would be otherwise” (Burns, 2012, p. 94).

To say that education is about money does not begin to offer a complete explanation why education reforms consistently go against the research on what’s best for education. It was near the end of the second industrial revolution, during the first decade of the 20th century, that “Frederick Winslow Taylor is credited with pioneering a set of principles that he called Scientific Management” (Iorio and Yeager, 2011, p. 9). Taylor, unlike the education reformers of the past, was an industrial engineer. Taylorism, as it was called, was interested in production, efficiency, and time management. Implementing Taylorism in schools, it was believed, would allow for the scientific study of the most efficient way in which a worker, student, teacher, or school administrator could carry out their ‘tasks’ with a minimum waste of time and money (Taylor, 1911). Applied to education, the principles for education reform included:

Standardized records of efficiency ratings, standardized tests, and building score cards.

Standardized conditions of school buildings and classrooms.

Standardized operations for school personnel and students.

Monetary rewards for teachers whose students met assigned goals. (Callahan, 1964)

This model is no different than today’s model, and sadly enough, it is over one hundred years old and came to education at the same time America was still deciding whether the gas turbine automobile was a passing fad or a lasting new technology that would replace the horse and carriage.

Over the last 100 years, though, classroom education, cognitive learning theory, and pedagogy research have become fields that have progressed, diverted, collaborated, innovated, identified, and imagined countless approaches to teaching and learning. To date we have such foundational ideas as Dewey’s progressivism (1902), Skinner’s behaviorist theory (1938), Bloom’s taxonomy (1956), Piaget’s constructivism and schema theories (1963), Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (1978), Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory (1993), Gagne’s instructional events (1965), Keller’s motivational ARCS (1987), and so on, to name only a few of the more recognizable big ideas. The research that is specific to identified learning theories is equally vast, as are the countless identified teaching approaches that combine and incorporate the various learning theories into various environments and practices.

Yet, for over one hundred years politicians have been giving schools (and educators) the same mandates that Taylor introduced in 1907 to assess “school quality.” For the teachers in the field, though, education is something much more complex. Given the realities of day-to-day interactions with their students, teachers recognize how completely out of touch the testing mandates are within the realities of their students’ lives. To a teacher, each child is an individual with unique needs, wants, learning styles, etc., and yet each teacher is given the task of turning this child into a test score, or series of scores. Given that the overwhelming body of research on education reforms is still being completely ignored, something intentional is taking place where policy and reforms are concerned.

The result of countless reforms and mandates with no alignment to a teacher’s classroom reality, is the creation of an oppressed classroom culture. Teachers, and especially English Teachers, are expected to raise test scores at the expense of the welfare of the child’s learning. Those who refuse are given few options. They learn that they must submit, compromise in their concerns for the students, or leave the profession (Achinstein and Ogawa, 2006; Hilliard, 2000). The language of education reform is manipulative. Terms and phrases such as accountability and high-stakes testing have become a national cry for reforms. The word “accountability,” though, is divisive. It is a word meant to create distrust. “What has to change, fundamentally and in practice, is the captivating and pervasive mindset of ‘accountability’ that transforms our administrative practices into costly ‘rituals of verification’ and our citizens into an increasingly distrustful Audit Society” (Stickney, 2006, p. 359).

Education policy makers today are not simply making policies, but are also intentionally using divisive language that is designed to create distrust against teachers. According to Paulo Freire (1979), creating distrust among the public toward teachers is a classic mechanism of control used to maintain the authority for those who have no background in education to decide educational policy. If any change is to take place, it is no longer enough to recognize that our policy makers have no interest in what’s best for education. What education requires to initiate change is a professional revolution.

The 1.7 billion dollars (Ujifusa, 2012) that is spent on testing and test preparation each year is ridiculous. In short: Massive sums of money are paid to a small number of very profitable entities that create tests, provide material and technology used to prepare students to take the tests, implement and score tests, and ultimately give schools a series of numbers that determine a student’s and school’s place on a line of averages. Then, massive sums of money are spent to establish goals for the next round of testing, which for many schools, include hiring expensive consulting firms to evaluate the school’s or district’s process for preparing students to take the tests.  

Now, consider this: Any teacher coming from an accredited education program at a four-year university has learned how to design curriculum that is based on learning outcomes and objectives. They have also learned how to assess these learning outcomes and objectives. It is required learning in all teacher preparation programs, and a skill that must be demonstrated prior to graduating or receiving a teaching certificate. Professional educators can design learning activities, can design assessments that measure learning, and they have been taught how to modify learning so that it becomes relevant to the individual learners within their classrooms. In short, given a skill, outcome, or objective, any teacher who has graduated from an accredited four-year university’s teacher preparation program can create the curriculum, design and implement the assessment, and report the successes and failures of the students. Teachers come pre-packaged with this skill. What’s more, and a large bonus within this package, teachers understand how to assess a child as an individual learner, and how to adjust their curriculum to help the individuals within their classrooms.

While not all teachers may be gifted at designing curriculum, most teachers will be very fluent in curriculum and assessment design. Also, within schools there is already an accepted hierarchy of administrators, department chairs, and mentor teachers who can take on specific roles for curriculum and assessment designs. For tech oriented curriculum, most tech programs at the district (or state) level include some of the most fluent code and tech writers in the states, and given the challenge to become involved in writing code and programs for curriculum needs, this would be the greatest area of cost reduction in comparison to what is being spent for primary school software programs and subscriptions.

None of this change can happen, though, until enough voices insist on being heard and demanding change. If teachers today wish to change education policy, it must be done in the pursuit of regaining a professional voice, along with the freedom and humanity that is requisite in caring for so many children and teenagers. Freire would point out that, “the pursuit of full humanity, however, cannot be carried out in isolation or individualism, but only in fellowship and solidarity” (p. 86). Fellowship and solidarity. Education needs this type of courage. And a revolution.


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Burns, L. D. (2012). Standards, policy paradoxes, and the new literacy studies: A call to professional political action. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(2), 93–97.

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Dewey, J. (1902). The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

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Hilliard, Asa G. III. (2000). Excellence in education versus high-stakes standardized testing. Journal of Teacher Education, 51(4), 293–304.

Iorio, S. H., & Yeager, M. E. (2011). School reform: Past, present and future. Manuscript submitted for publication, College of Education, Wichita State University, Wichita, KS,. Retrieved from http://webs.wichita.edu/depttools/depttoolsmemberfiles/COEdDEAN/School%20Reform%20Past%20Present%20and%20Future.pdf

Keller, J. M. (2010). Motivational design for learning and performance: The ARCS model Approach (6th edition). New York: Springer.

Kostogriz, A., & Doecke, B. (2011). Standards-based accountability: Reification, responsibility and the ethical subject. Teaching Education, 22(4), 397–412.

Piaget, J. (1963). The origins of intelligence in children. New York: W.W. Norton.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York, London: D. Appleton-Century Company, Incorporated.

Stickney, J. (2006). Deconstructing discourses about ‘new paradigms of teaching’: A Foucaultian and Wittgensteinian perspective. Educational Philosophy and Theory38(3), 327–371.

Taylor, F. W. (1911). The Principles of Scientific Management. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.

Ujifusa, A. (11/29/2012). Standardized testing costs states $1.7 billion a year, study says. Education Week, 32(13). Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/11/29/13testcosts.h32.html?intc=eml-contshr-shr-desk

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 16, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22197, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 4:45:56 PM

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