David Labaree and School Reform

David Labaree’s new book Someone Has to Fail is another book that seeks to explain why school reform fails to get any traction (So Much Reform So Little Change, Steady Work, Spinning Wheels, Tinkering towards Utopia). One of the things I like most about this book is the exceptional chapter in the middle where he talks explicitly about the nature of teaching and the ways in which the most important factor in formal schooling — what the teacher does — is rarely affected by school reform.

Beginning on page 158, he describes the different vantage points of teachers and reformers:

In order to make education visible for their purposes, school reformers at the district, state, or national level need to construct a map; and like any map, it necessarily represents its subject in a radically simplified form. It draws on data that are easily gathered, suitable for the task at hand, and amenable to a statistical summary. This means data like student social characteristics and test scores, teacher experience and qualifications, and state and local funding. Only one thing is certain about the map that reformers create in their effort to see schooling: it leaves out almost everything. The complex ecology of the classroom disappears into the simplified columns of summary statistics.

He continues, noting the differing ideas of success:

For teachers, a school reform works if it can be adapted to their own practice in a way that enhances the teaching and learning process in their classroom; for reformers, a reform works if it can be implemented uniformly across a large number of classrooms in a way that brings about convergent educational and social outcomes.

In talking to happy teachers these days (a small group, I know), nearly all of them indicate that they can do good work because they are shielded or protected from most school reform efforts. Keeping up with the content, developing one’s pedagogy, and getting to know your students: isn’t this enough for teachers to worry about?

Labaree, David F. Someone Has to Fail : The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.