What Do We Do When School Reform Fails? Redux.

Twenty-seven years ago, Center of the American Experiment hosted a daylong conference with the less-than-inspiring name, “What Do We Do When School Reform Fails?”  Dreary as the title was, it perfectly captured the “two pessimistic assumptions [that] underlined the event’s main question: ‘What Do We Do When School Reform Fails?’”

As you read the several indented paragraphs below about those assumptions, please keep in mind news stories earlier this week about how poorly many students faired most recently on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs.  Try to recall as well the dispiriting gist of headlines such as “Minnesota Test Results Show Math Down a Bit, Reading Flat.”  And a subhead that read, “State’s Achievement Gap Hasn’t Moved in Five Years.”  Both were in the Star Tribune on August 8.

“The first assumption” of the conference held on November 16 1990, at the Minneapolis Convention Center, dealt “with the way schools work.”

Of course many educators and others are working hard to improve the ways schools organize themselves and the ways teachers teach and students learn.  But is American public education too politically and bureaucratically cumbersome to remake itself beyond tinkering?

The second assumption deals with the way society works.  Is it reasonable to expect American children, many millions of whom grow up in fractured homes and communities, to do as well as other children around the world?  Is it reasonable to expect American kids to succeed when students and parents elsewhere better understand the tie between hard work and learning?

Very much on purpose not all speakers agree with these premises.

Of those speakers, while I don’t remember, for the most part, who said exactly what, it’s fair to assume that panelists such as the superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, Robert Ferrera, and the president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Louise Sundin, were among those who didn’t like the premises and probably really didn’t like the conference’s title.  Though I was grateful they joined us.

As I was for the participation of former Governor Al Quie; the perpetual fount known as Ted Kolderie; one of the country’s great scholars of international comparative education, the late Harold Stevenson of the University of Michigan; and the late John Chubb, coauthor, with Terry Moe, of one of the most important education books of recent decades, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools.

But so much for the impressive roster.  What will it take so that Star Tribune and Pioneer Press headline writers aren’t tempted in the future to crib what they wrote the other day and call it a night?  And then another night?  Another year?  Another score of years?

The answer, I’m afraid, is more potent than anything I can envision, as the educational pits we’ve dug for ourselves are too deep to escape fully enough so long as so many children continue growing up in “fractured homes and communities.”  So long as educational superstructures and cartels in places like Minnesota, starting with teacher unions, ferociously refuse to enable more boys and girls to attend private schools, including religious ones, when it’s as clear as clear gets that many young people learn more and do better in them.  And so long as public education remains injuriously cumbersome, politically and bureaucratically.

I’ll check, but I’m guessing I said pretty the same thing, albeit a bit more hospitably, in kicking off the conference a generation ago now.