The Need to Reframe Education Reform

Education Policy Brief #58 | By: Steve Piazza | December 2, 2022

Header photo taken from: Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images




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Elementary and secondary (K-12) education at the local level is provided by school districts, which run all public schools within their jurisdictions. There are nearly 16,800 school districts in the U.S. Each state creates the boundaries for its school districts differently. In many cases, they fall within the geographic boundaries of counties and municipalities.

Chart taken from: World Education News + Reviews

Policy Summary

In the United States, no single, comprehensive K-12 academic curriculum exists at the Federal level. The states maintain the authority to design and mandate systemic curricula, but even then there is no real consistency.

Once statewide curricula reach the district level, there may or may not be some room for deviation. Exactly how teachers go about adhering to the curriculum is often prescribed, though at times it may be left up to their discretion providing that it fulfills all of the requirements as mandated by state standards.

All this is to say that what is to be taught is determined by state authority, but it also means that there is no real agreement on teaching methodology, let alone on how students learn best.

Policy Analysis

Most legal decisions on student learning seem to avoid what it actually means to learn and instead reflect everything but. Once all students were mandated into schools by 1918, the history of education has been marked by labor law disputes, social issue standoffs, school management conflicts, common core debates, assessment anxieties, and funding blitzes.

Many laws related to education improvement have been passed in most states. Yet, even though 29 states may have passed laws policies relating to evidence-based reading solutions, a closer look reveals that the majority of education related laws are mostly about budgets, security, and board and administrative protocol.

Standards, social issues, measurement, laws, etc., are only part of the story. They too often simply overshadow what really matters in education by not directly addressing what it means for a student to learn.

The phenomena involved in learning are rooted in tenets of educational psychology but unfortunately become quickly obscured by seemingly not diminishing philosophical and political divides. Discredited one-size-fits all approaches are repeatedly seen as the way to accountability, while calls for a concentration on basic skills versus more creative and critical thinking are still being answered.

This doesn’t mean that some progress in the teaching of reading or providing STEM opportunities hasn’t been made, or that objective discussion about improvement cannot take place. But even though there’s plenty of talk about innovation or meeting individual student needs, the widespread delivery of it still appears insufficient.

For example, Georgia allows for more flexibility by allowing entire systems to have charter status, but 42% of the charter schools have closed and thus have critics wondering if schools free from typical rules and regulations go far enough in helping students in need. Or, Colorado has sanctioned “innovation” schools designed to encourage increased school autonomy, but recent operational changes have threatened to reverse some gains.

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In New Hampshire, proposed legislation made headlines last year regarding the banning of the teaching of critical race theory characterized as the “negative account or representation of the founding and history of the U.S.” — like the fact that America was “founded on racism,” echoing  a Cold War-era law that banned teachers from discussing anything with a pro-communism, socialist or Marxist tilt in classrooms.

Photo taken from: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / Getty Images

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Once things have leveled out, maybe the profession can be allowed to get back to considering and securing best practices.

All this has been exacerbated by school closures during the pandemic and any discussions about teaching and learning are now minimized by strategies attempting to make up for time lost. Funding from The Department of Education has mostly concentrated on out of school activities and increasing assessment. But out of school support, though always vital, is only part of the overall solution, and assessment should never, ever be confused with teaching and learning.

It cannot happen too soon because sometimes it seems we’re still stuck in the 20th Century. States like Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, have prioritized social issues over the learning process by spending time and resources legislating bans against teaching certain concepts on race or sex. In other states, hotlines for reporting teachers in exchange for bounties exist.

One has to look extremely hard to find where the discussion of inquiry or problem based learning, gamification, or experiential learning is touted enough to permeate the day to day vocabulary of the mainstream public. For that matter, where is there legislation that precisely spells out protections for teachers’ judgment regarding long proven approaches to design “constructivist” and “formative” learning activities (as opposed to mere training and conditioning) that allow students to flourish as individuals?

We certainly have to be wary of laws that mandate one methodology over another, or that require standardized lesson scripts. But laws ought to exist that protect an educator’s judgment in providing learning opportunities in manners that meet the learning style of each individual student. If words teachers are prohibited from using can make their way into the law, protecting words that are vital to learning surely can.

Protections that encourage best practices for learning outcomes go a lot farther in a democracy than mandates that are a poor substitute for them.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

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Click this link For an overview of classroom teaching methods:

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Here is another way to learn more about legislation regarding education:

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Teachers are encouraged to become agents of change, and this Louisiana special education teacher provides some paths to increased involvement and leadership (worth a read by non teachers as well):

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