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The autopsy of school reform

05.16.16 | Learning on the EDge | 0 Comments

By Joseph Murphy

A few months ago, the School Reform Forensic Detective Agency unearthed and completed autopsies on the bodies of the last three generations of the School Reform Family. Using “data driven” protocols, they uncovered that all the family members died from one of three causes.

First, almost no one really wanted the reforms to begin with. They were generally left unattended in school lobbies and hallways. School people nodded ceremoniously as they walked about and sometimes pretended to be interested. Most of the few people who had wanted the reforms had claimed victory and moved on to propagating new generations of the reform family.

Second, on the rare occasion when the boxes of reform were opened, school people often found them empty. As this profound “empirical” finding was being digested, the reform detectives located the cause of the failure. They labeled it the “assumption of transportability” — the mistaken belief that importation of these reform boxes would bring new “stuff” to schools. They discovered that while a reform might work well at one school, in the boxing it up for exportation, the DNA of success was rarely included. It stayed in the venue where it was located. Thus the receiving schools were blessed with boxes (e.g., 9th-grade academies, advisory periods, and professional learning communities) devoid of DNA (e.g., personalization, adult-student hip-to-hip relations, and shared work and accountability). While this was productive for Fed Ex and UPS, the process had small impact on the development of school success.

In a third set of autopsies, the detectives did find DNA in the boxes (e.g., authentic work for students, mastery-based grading, and partnerships with parents). Their discovery brought little joy, however. What they learned was that good DNA (e.g., community and constructed learning) died because it could not flourish in the toxic soil found in schools (e.g., teacher transmission, hierarchy, and community relations as PR). It was clear to the detectives that unless the seedbed of the school was modified, future generations of reform would suffer a similar fate.

 

About the author: JOSEPH F. MURPHY is a professor of education, endowed Mayborn chair, Department of Leadership, Policy & Organizations, and an associate dean at Peabody College of Education and Human Development, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn. His most recent Kappan article was “The five intelligences of leaderhship,” Phi Delta Kappan, 76 (8), 80.

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