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Learning at its Best

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Four Decades of Education Reform

I get a real kick out the best-of lists that pop up at the end of the year. Two years ago, the First Decade of the New Millennium had passed into ignominy, so there was a lot commentary on the establishment of the No Child era: What was the great cosmic takeaway for educators?

While there are always transformative events and legislation, most real change in education feels sluggish, rather random and exceedingly difficult to analyze. Education policy thinkers tend to be Covey-esque in the upbeat, step-wise way they approach change: anticipate, arrange, administer and assess. That’s how we got No Child Left Behind, which was supposed to be the Grand Strategy to identify inequities, raise and equalize standards (a word meaning different things to different stakeholders), harass teachers into somehow teaching better, and then test diligently to ensure accountability.

But– no plan on such a scale succeeds unquestionably. NCLB may have changed the tenor of the conversation, but the First Decade of No Child ended two years ago and we’re still considering why the results are proof that you can spend billions and not improve the worst education crises in any meaningful way.

I have been a teacher in four distinct decades, each with its own  policy slogans, public perceptions and real problems. We’ve been “at a turning point” more times than I can count. We have surfed the rising tide of mediocrity and been embarrassed by the soft bigotry of our low expectations.  But what has really changed in classrooms? What’s the net impact on actual practice?

My–admittedly ultra-personal and non-scientific–report on Four Decades of American Education:

The Seventies: Got my first full-time, regular-paycheck teaching job in 1975–something of a miracle, as there was a teacher glut in Michigan. Was hired because the principal needed someone right away and we were on the same humor wavelength in the interview. Soon learned that there was no district curriculum for music or any other subjects. Chose my own teaching materials from catalogs–wasn’t that a curriculum? Taught whatever and however I wanted–no content or instructional oversight and nothing resembling “professional development.”

Heard “don’t smile until Christmas” about 50 times from other teachers, sum total of any “mentoring” I got.  Saw teachers smack kids (still permitted by law)–and heard lots of lounge talk about chaos that would happen if the right to paddle was taken away. Was pink-slipped in Years two, three, four and six. Was always called back–once because of a lawsuit, after registering for unemployment. All of this was tied to precarious, locally voted school funding.

Gave statewide tests–the MEAPs, then a basic-skills check–but nobody considered them a big deal. Was happy that Jimmy Carter instituted a cabinet position for education–about time! Had a few friends who taught in Detroit–envied their superior facilities, resources and paychecks. Teaching seemed like a fulfilling, creative, autonomous profession. Most days, it was lots of fun.

The Eighties:  Economic downturn in the early 80s meant further pink-slipping and annual changes of building/teaching assignment necessitated by constant personnel shifts. Had daily loads of up to 400 students in two buildings and–since any certified MI teacher could teach any subject to 7th and 8th graders–a year of teaching math. All of this change was oddly invigorating, if exhausting.

Finished a masters degree in Gifted Education, one of a couple dozen au courant cafeteria-style ed specialties (Career Ed, Distance Learning, Women’s Issues). Got serious about teaching. Read many books, took fake sick days to observe admired teachers. Sought leadership roles in Music Ed organizations. Downright hungry for professional conversations. None of this was required, encouraged or even noticed by the district, which did institute its own curriculum benchmarks in the 80s. Teachers called these curriculum guides “the black notebooks.” Problem: not enough staff or resources to teach all the good things in the black notebooks.

Reagan’s release of “A Nation at Risk” interpreted by colleagues as rhetorical excess and unionized-teacher bashing, an imperialistic extension of right-wing momentum gained in the air traffic controllers’ strike. Hoped it would blow over, but having to listen to Bill Bennett’s nostalgic morality fables most irritating. Still giving the MEAPs, which got harder in the 80s. Took leadership roles in the union–since they were the only teacher leadership roles available.

The Nineties: Decade opens with some optimism. Goals 2000 goals are kind of inane–first in the world in math and science?–but there’s the sense that policymakers are paying attention, and belief things can and should improve. Visit Detroit, shocked to see decayed and racially polarized schools–what happened in the last 15 years? Outstate Michigan residents, tired of seeing wealthy suburban schools funded at four times the rate of rural and urban-rust schools, pass a funding bill to get rid of property taxes as source, using sales tax instead. Outstate schools ecstatic as times are flush–auto industry will last forever! Got into an argument in the staff lunchroom defending basic teacher proficiency tests in Arkansas.

Real and substantive school improvement begins to impact daily practice. Standards and benchmarks in all subjects, and teacher committees to update, align, discuss. Several disciplines in the district adopt the national standards–remember them? Required mentoring for new colleagues. Performance assessments, and portfolios of student work. Required professional learning as opposed to blow-off in-service days.

Further upgrades in the MEAPs, including hands-on tasks for kids, new constructivist tests for science, social studies and writing. Better assessments begin to drive instruction. New teacher hiring done by colleagues. Plus–fab new instructional toy arrives in classrooms: the computer, full of infinite possibilities for teaching and learning. Some teachers begin experimenting immediately; others are intimidated.

Best Secretary of Education ever–Dick Riley–provides eight years of continuity of purpose and coherent policy. Education is still a local-control thing; Feds just there to ensure equity, promote innovation. National certification identifying accomplished teaching becomes reality. Next stop: real leadership roles for exemplary teachers, whose expertise will help policymakers solve problems. Nagging worry: all of this still takes money–and a growing number of poor kids are still completely underserved.

The Naughts: A slow U-turn in policy and conventional wisdom. We’re not gradually improving, after all–in fact, we’re an international educational joke.  All public schools (not just poor/urban schools) are bad. Decidedly awful–and the people who work and believe in them are intellectual dimbulbs who care only about their inflated salaries. How would they handle this in Singapore? China? India? We must compete!

Buzzword of the decade: data. Every person with a computer sees data analysis as the solution. In the lunchroom, colleagues express skepticism about the Texas Miracle even before it’s exposed as just another Data Hustle. Some of the best teachers in the building discover they are not Highly Qualified. Meanwhile, the worst teachers in the building–genuine stinkers–look good under NCLB regs.

We begin administering tests to third graders–and relinquish development of performance assessments that tell us real things about kids’ writing, number sense, comprehension, familiarity with the scientific method. No time for that now–the data-driven race to the top has begun even before it’s formally named.

Saw well-regarded suburban districts become defensive and start advertising as schools of choice. Urban and rural districts, shamed. Teacher preparation institutions–even the good ones– scorned. Paradox of the decade: We must have the smartest teachers! But should they bother studying the science of teaching? Or stay in the classroom for more than a couple of years? No. With data, we can replace teachers as often and as efficiently as we replace technologies.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.


About nflanagan

Nancy Flanagan is an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She divides her time between wondering how things got so messed up and dreaming up ways to re-energize America's best idea--a free, high-quality education for every child.


9 thoughts on “What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Four Decades of Education Reform

  1. I love the fact that you give a context by telling your own story. Sometimes in the blogging world, things get really amnesiac. Your own story suggests that the biggest goal that we strive for is one that is enduring.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | December 14, 2011, 2:04 pm
  2. So Nancy, what do you see over the course of the 40 years that worked best for you. What part of this complex history would you seek to share if you starting a school or helping a district to shape its vision plans?

    I wish more teachers would share this kind of overviews with such reflection and mindfulness.

    If education transformation is so slow, where should activist like myself and other here put there energy?

    thanks as always,


    Posted by dloitz | December 14, 2011, 9:54 pm
  3. Nancy, this is (for me) one of the most delightful blog pieces I’ve read in a really long time. Your sense of perspective–how views of teachers and their work, and what they actually do–has changed through the decades, perfectly mirrors my own, although I wasn’t in it then (I was negotiating high school, oh dear…). This kind of personal historical perspective, or any historical perspective at all on the decades of reform, is so often missing in the unmoored only-the-present-and future-exist-in-education-policy discussions, and WOULD MAKE A FABULOUS BOOK. You should write this. In fact, maybe it is your destiny to write this? You want to talk about that?

    I also want to suggest a blog post Part II, where you speak in much greater detail about 2000-2012: passage of NCLB, discourse around what that meant in the first couple of years, what the reality of it has been for teachers and students in your world…what was powerful and not powerful about those early years as a teacher when you first began in 1975. Many young teachers I work with don’t know that there ever was an era in American education that did not have state and federally-mandated testing, AYP, and weeks of test-prep as a part of the “curriculum.” (That is curriculum, right?)

    You need to write about this. Really. We need you to write about this, and to reflect on what your decades of experience suggest to you about the way forward.


    Posted by Kirsten | December 15, 2011, 7:09 am
  4. For a teacher of less than 10 years, this is a great read to put everything that’s going on in education today in historical context. Thanks for this!

    Posted by Tinashe Blanchet | December 15, 2011, 9:38 am
  5. Wow….what a beautiful, eloquent, thoughtful piece. Thank you so much for writing about the profound effects of educational policy on teaching and learning. Many times when I have conversations with colleagues about where education has been and where it is today, they compare it to a pendulum swinging in extreme directions and that hopefully, it will swing back to a more desirable place. I have begun to argue this analogy. I am hopeful that education will get off the arc that is has been on for the past several decades. What if we start thinking of the possibility that education can take a completely different path– a path that nurtures and cherishes the gifts that all students and teachers bring to the classroom, one whose primary concern is the health and well being of children, an education that teaches the importance of sustainability, culture, and community.

    Thank you again for writing this piece. I too think it would make an inspirational book.

    Posted by Francesca Blueher | December 15, 2011, 12:45 pm
  6. Thank you for sharing this personal journey, Nancy –

    Any predictions for the teens?


    Posted by | December 15, 2011, 1:42 pm
  7. Thanks, everyone, for your kind remarks. Just tellin’ the story, as I remember it. And thanks to those of you who reminded me that for teachers who have been in the field for less than a decade, what I see as an increasingly data-driven corporate takeover of a public resource, feels like business as usual to you.

    As the object of (rather than a partner in) that kind of reform, I have to say that I am beyond alarmed by the potential loss of one of America’s best ideas: a free, high-quality public education for every child, no matter what they bring to the table.

    And the perspective-over-time may help newer teachers to understand why the teaching profession and the education community did not push back, immediately and hard, against No Child Left Behind. First–we seemed to be on that path to continuous improvement. Disciplinary organizations had created voluntary national standards, for example. We seemed to be gently ratcheting up standards for professional teaching. Moving toward performance assessments. And so on. Second–the federal government had never entered our actual classrooms seeking to control curriculum and instruction before, so it was hard to believe that they were overreaching–only trying to close the achievement gap. Third–There was no indication that the considerable work done by states on constructing their own curriculum and assessments frameworks would be deemed inadequate or weak.

    The biggest shift over forty years has been the intrusion of the federal government and venture capitalism into what most of us assumed would forever be state oversight and local control of a public good. All of that is gone now. We have the Common Core Everything train barreling down. We adjusted federal HQT language to permit completely untrained and uncertified teachers work with our most vulnerable kids. We have sold off our public buildings and publicly created programs to ed-entrepreneurs. The Invisible Hand of school reform, with “demand” being pumped up by make-a-buck media, holds nearly all the cards now.

    So–no predictions for this decade, Chad. Every day, I read “the tide is turning.” And I want to believe. But I also know that in America, money talks.

    Posted by nflanagan | December 15, 2011, 2:14 pm
  8. As an aspiring teacher, one the greatest shocks to me has been how rarely I have been encouraged to seek the wisdom and mentoring of more experienced teachers. What you describe as the Paradox of the past Decade sounds exactly like the mantra I have been fed by any number of reform-based machines, and I would add to it the discrediting of any (usually veteran) teachers who stand in opposition to any of its goals. This piece was extremely clarifying and eyeopening for me, and I want to sincerely thank you for generously sharing your the breadth of your vision and experience. It is so invaluable to those of us who are new to this world–as others have said here–and it means a lot to have access to it.

    Posted by rad fag | December 17, 2011, 6:54 pm
    • Paradox, indeed. I didn’t try to sugar-coat my personal history. There were frustrations in all the decades, but also a sense of moving (sluggishly and erratically) toward better schools. I was in the classroom for twenty-seven years (and had achieved some solid recognition for good work) when NCLB began to roll out and it was by far the biggest game-changer. And the most shocking thing is the fact that the current Department of Education has put the worst pieces of that “reform” into overdrive.

      I would agree that teachers have been systematically discredited in the past decade. But I also believe that–as a profession–teachers need to pull up their socks and be as clear about what they want as what they don’t want. I’m not sure how that will happen, but I think it starts with a conversation about what we wish our schools looked like and were able to do.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Posted by Nancy Flanagan | December 17, 2011, 8:58 pm

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