Thirty Years of Reform

I have been living in the United States for 26 years now. This is quite some time. Four more years and it will be three decades. Speaking of three decades, it has been thirty years since the report, "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform" was submitted by the National Commission on Excellence in Education to the United States Department of Education. Professor Jal Mehta at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard reminds us in his New York times Op-Ed piece, "Teachers - Will We Ever Learn?", of the report that possibly started most of the massive education reforms in the country. Mehta then takes us to an examination of where public education currently stands in the US after thirty years of education reforms. Mehta laments that nothing much has really changed:
"How schools are organized, and what happens in classrooms, hasn’t changed much in the century since the Progressive Era. On the whole, we still have the same teachers, in the same roles, with the same level of knowledge, in the same schools, with the same materials, and much the same level of parental support."
Mehta's conclusion, of course, is an overall assessment. There are islands of progress. There are school districts or schools that have improved. What is disappointing is that these small points of success do not really represent the gigantic and expensive education reforms that are sweeping the entire country. This is the sad part and Mehta provides the following observations and explanations. First and foremost, he thinks that the debate over how to improve education has not been laid out correctly. Education reforms do not turn out to be the panacea advocates want us to believe. The differences between old and new programs are not founded on the real factors that influence learning outcomes. Mehta enumerates the conditions that are usually present in good learning environments: "a clear mission, talented teachers, time for teachers to work together, longer school days or after-school programs, feedback cycles". 

Mehta then focuses on the teacher factor since most of these conditions are related to what teachers do inside the schools:
"Call it the industrial-factory model: power resides at the top, with state and district officials setting goals, providing money and holding teachers accountable for realizing predetermined ends. While rational on its face, in practice this system does not work well because teaching is a complex activity that is hard to direct and improve from afar. The factory model is appropriate to simple work that is easy to standardize; it is ill suited to disciplines like teaching that require considerable skill and discretion. 
Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work."
In this regard, it is useful to go back to the original report in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education and focus on the section that involves teaching:

Findings Regarding Teaching  
The Commission found that not enough of the academically able students are being
attracted to teaching; that teacher preparation programs need substantial improvement;
that the professional working life of teachers is on the whole unacceptable; and that a
serious shortage of teachers exists in key fields. 
• Too many teachers are being drawn from the bottom quarter of graduating high
school and college students.
• The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in
"educational methods" at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A
survey of 1,350 institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time
of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses, which
reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses.
• The average salary after 12 years of teaching is only $17,000 per year, and
many teachers are required to supplement their income with part-time and
summer employment. In addition, individual teachers have little influence in such
critical professional decisions as, for example, textbook selection.
• Despite widespread publicity about an overpopulation of teachers, severe
shortages of certain kinds of teachers exist: in the fields of mathematics, science,
and foreign languages; and among specialists in education for gifted and
talented, language minority, and handicapped students.
• The shortage of teachers in mathematics and science is particularly severe. A
1981 survey of 45 States revealed shortages of mathematics teachers in 43
States, critical shortages of earth sciences teachers in 33 States, and of physics
teachers everywhere.
• Half of the newly employed mathematics, science, and English teachers are not
qualified to teach these subjects; fewer than one-third of U. S. high schools offer
physics taught by qualified teachers. 

The above were the findings in the United States K-12 system thirty years ago. The absolute numbers may have changed but most of the conditions remain the same. The fact that teachers are coming not from the cream of the crop of college graduates is in stark contrast to Finland's extremely selective teaching schools. The teaching side of education is one aspect that cannot be addressed by simply tinkering with the standards and curriculum. Doing so ignores the real problems and reforms are predictably going to lead us to the same place we were thirty years ago thirty years from now.

The idea of "one size fits all" likewise goes against the perspective required to address a complicated system such as public school education. The solutions that will work are more likely to come from people who are on the ground. The problems and conditions are as diverse as the communities where pupils and teachers live. These are supported by the fact that islands of excellence can be found even within a large number of struggling schools. There are glimmers of hope that demonstrate local approaches are oftentimes more effective than grand schemes.

Recently, in the Philippines, the Manila Times reports on a school in a rural area in the province of Negros Occidental. The school serves some students who have to travel a long way from home just to attend classes. The map below shows roughly where the school is located:

GoogleMap showing a rural high school in the island of Negros in the Philippines

Both teachers and students find it time- and energy-consuming to commute. This has been blamed for the 17% drop out rate of the school. The Manila Times reports in "Dorms help slash dropout rates":
To address the problem, the school principal has suggested establishing a boarding house within the school premises making both groups closer to school, thus enabling them to focus better. 
“The idea came up when I realized that teachers and students cannot afford to travel to their school. Although means of transportation is available, the teachers still had trouble with the school’s distance since they are residing in the city,” Gariando Jr. (the school principal) said. 
Funding the dormitory project, he said, was not a problem with the help of the Tan-awan community, and the local government unit. 
According to him, as of school year 2012-2013, the school had successfully decreased the dropout rate to 0 percent.

Contrast this local solution to the following:

And why is Grade 1 reduced to only half a day? In many countries with K to 12, Grade 1 is a full day. 
“Unlike in other countries, many of our Grade 1 students spend hours walking to and from school,” Luistro says. “They are tired when they reach school. I want them to enjoy school, not (to feel) that (it) is imposed on them.”
From: Straight talk on K to 12 By

The local solution targets the problem head on while the approach at the national level skirts around the issue and works on an entirely different side of education, the curriculum, which has nothing to do with the problem at hand.