#LSLD: The Tragedy of School Reform

Education Reform. It is a very popular topic in a number of countries, and it’s the banner under which a lot of changes will soon be made to the way schools in NSW and Australia will be managed and, eventually, funded.

In the U.K. and U.S. Where ‘education reform’ policies have had a couple of decades to play themselves out, it seems that the focus is much more on the desire for ‘reform’ than on any focus on education. As many as 1/3 of public schools in parts of both countries have been semi-privatized under the headings of charter schools or academy schools, and test results and league tables are published to identify ‘failing’ schools and teachers. Results, however, haven’t been significantly affected by the changes, making either their original purpose or implementation suspect in the mind of anyone who is even peripherally aware of the concept of critical thinking.

My purpose here is not to go over the well trodden territory of evaluating the policies themselves, but instead to point out a massive gap in the logic behind the mentality that these policies allude to.

The whole idea of a failing school or even a failing teacher seems to assume that the institution is singularly responsible for the academic success and failing of a student. they deny the historical reality that schools are manifestations of the local community and that as such it is a microcosm of that community.

In contemporary culture the concept of ‘local community’ might be rapidly evolving, but in educational circumstances, the geographic relationship of ones home to nearby schools still result in most schools being a reflection of the surrounding suburbs. Short of a full residential education program for all students, in the style of the ancient Spartans, or perhaps even of Aldous Huxley, it is very hard to make any argument that the community of a school is in some part a reflection of the community surrounding it.

A school isn’t likely to have problems with drugs, crime or violence unless the surrounding community has problems with drugs,crime or violence. Likewise academic results are more likely to stay buoyant at a school whose surrounding community is made up of educated, middle class families. The end result is that there aren’t too man difficult to staff schools on Sydney’s northern beaches, meanwhile many of our ‘underperforming’ schools are in working class suburbs and areas with large socially disadvantaged populations.

This is a problem for school reform policies because, in the effort to shift responsibility (dare I say blame?) onto schools for failing results or poor completion rates, it takes the spotlight away from the broader community whose social and economic advantage or disadvantage are reflected those student results.

Communities that need social support or adult education programs are therefore more likely to get vouchers that let them bypass their local public school in the belief that the neighboring public school is somehow better (after all, they do have greener grass inside their fences). Instead of targeted resources for literacy support going to schools with poor test results, school budgets and teacher positions are placed at the mercy of league tables and the needs of the students are excused by the explanation that their teacher was somehow ‘substandard’, and their actual educational needs risk being passed on to their next teacher, next year.

This is the tragedy of such reform policies, that by focussing exclusively on Schools, rather than on the communities they reflect, we risk blinding ourselves to the real needs of communities that, if addressed with the same zeal as reform policies, might actually improve the educational outcomes of local students.

While we wait for the NSW govt to release the full text of its proposed ‘local schools,local decisions’ policy, we are already familiar with the publication of league tables and the my school website, signposts on the road of reform that have, in other countries, led to a lot of change, but not a whole lot of improvement.


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