Predicaments Of Reform

Our guest author today is David K. Cohen, John Dewey Collegiate Professor of Education and professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, and a member of the Shanker Institute’s board of directors. This is a response to Michael Petrilli, who recently published a post on the Fordham Institute’s blog that referred to Cohen’s new book.

Dear Mike:

Thank you for considering my book Teaching And Its Predicaments (Harvard University Press, 2011), and for your intelligent discussion of the issues. I write to continue the conversation. 

You are right to say that I see the incoherence of U.S. public education as a barrier to more quality and less inequality, but I do not "look longingly" at Asia or Finland, let alone take them as models for what Americans should do to improve schools. 

In my 2009 book (The Ordeal Of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix The Schools?), Susan L. Moffitt and I recounted the great difficulties that the "top-down" approach to coherence, with which you associate my work, encountered as Title I of the 1965 ESEA was refashioned to leverage much greater central influence on schooling. Susan and I concluded that increased federal regulation had not fixed the schools, and had caused some real damage along with some important constructive effects. We did not see central coherence as The Answer.

In the concluding chapter of Teaching And Its Predicaments I built on that analysis, and put the central problem of school improvement this way: Can we build more coherent and less inequitable education in a system of government that was artfully designed to impede coherent action in domestic affairs, and in which domestic government has always been weak by design? The design of our government prohibits the sorts of coherence that are associated with etatiste nations like France or Japan, and the built-in weakness of domestic governments means that states and localities lack, to varying degrees, the capability to effectively use even the best-designed standards, curricula, and examinations (could such things be devised). The problem that the U.S. faces is not just how to build coherence with the instruments that have become familiar and are relatively easy to devise - academic standards and assessments – but also how to create the capability to use such instruments effectively and equitably. Excellent academic standards and assessments could be potent resources, but resources are not self-implementing; they become active only when they are used, and effective only when they are used well.

The problems that we face are enormous, because solving them would require that we somehow devise means to build state, local, and classroom educational capability in a system of government that has long frustrated such things, and that we find ways to build coherence in a political system that prohibits making one size fit all. The lack of general educational capability is not just a problem for the established school systems; it is one reason that so many charter schools have such poor academic records. We do not have an educational labor force that spills over with well-educated and highly capable teachers and school managers, nor do we have the shared occupational knowledge (familiarity with plumbing and electrical work, as well as with law and other occupations), that would enable most educators to do a good job in either charter or conventional public schools. 

Your "both and" idea is a step in the right direction, but it is only one step, for it aims at the coherence and not the capability problem. In the last chapter of Teaching And Its Predicaments I write that even if the Common Core (which I think has real potential) could get past the obstacles that now face it, including everything from Tea Party-ish and some liberal opposition to the problem of devising sound and usable curricula, it would remain to use those imagined educational resources effectively. That would require several sorts of invention and adaptation. On the matter of invention there would be teacher education that focuses on helping teachers to learn to teach a particular curriculum well to particular students. That is no mean feat when we lack the curricula, the teacher education, and the close connections among teacher education, specific curricula, and specific public schools and students. On the side of invention and adaptation there would be building systems of schools that could develop the capability to use the better curricula and better-educated teachers that might exist in response to the Common Core.

One reason that I am hopeful is that for the first time in our history we can see living. breathing, and working examples of the sorts of teacher education, schools, and school systems that major improvement in schooling would require. If I "look longingly" at anything, it is at these home-grown developments, not foreign nations. Some charter networks are doing impressive work as they build systems of schools that focus intensely on better teaching and learning, that develop managerial, curricular, and pedagogical capability as essential elements of the enterprise, and that are producing teachers and school managers who could be the educational DNA to fruitfully populate other schools and school systems. Some of the Comprehensive School Reform Designs have done the same sort of thing in even more difficult circumstances, for they work with public schools as they are, not with newborn charters. (It continues to amaze me that with all of the edu-babble about "school turnaround," none of the advocates seem to realize that Success For All, America's Choice, and Core Knowledge are very impressive school turnaround organizations, with impressive effects on teaching and learning. The advocates don't seem to understand that our educational problems are systemic and will require systemic solutions.) 

But if it is hopeful that we can see these examples of The Right Stuff, it remains to be seen how America could get from a modest population of such examples to large scale change. Might we discuss that? 

Thank you again, Mike.



I actually teach in a school using Core Knowledge, and I would suggest that those who tout this program as some kind of educational cure-all have not actually bothered to read the Core Knowledge sequence. The science requirements are terribly inadequate. Our state standards have much more rigorous science requirements. The sequence devotes 2-3 times as much space to history and geography as to science and this effectively crowds out the time needed to develop the science knowledge that students need to thrive in the modern world.