Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Why School Reform Has Not Produced

obriena's picture

In an op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson claimed that school reform efforts have disappointed for two reasons. One, no one has discovered transformative changes that are scalable. And two, shrunken student motivation.

Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.

Samuelson may be on to something here. Student motivation is rarely mentioned in education reform discussions--except, of course, as part of carrot and stick conversations about how incentives can help students do better (an idea that research both within education and in other sectors has shed doubt on). Perhaps if reform discussions focused more on getting students invested in their learning, they would be more fruitful.

But then he takes it a bit far for me:

The unstated assumption of much school "reform" is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded.

While I think student motivation is too often ignored in broader discussions of reform, I do not think that schools and teachers should be let of this hook so easily. As I just learned from Gallup's youth readiness survey, about 37% of students are either just going through the motions at school, or are actively disengaged. One possible reason that emerged from that report: Less than half of American students strongly believe that they will find a good job after graduation. I might not be too motivated either, if I didn’t think school would get me a good job. Perhaps schools and teachers could make classes more relevant to the student’s future.

And some other ways to increase student engagement emerge from that study as well. Students receive less praise and recognition as they age, so perhaps more praise for academic accomplishments could motivate students. Another issue? Teachers are not conveying to students the importance of their studies. By getting more engaged themselves, teachers might find that they better motivate students.

But these are not the governance changes that are so popular in education reform debates. Nor are they necessarily related to standards-based education or teacher pay, other hot topics. But maybe if more teachers had high-quality support in developing strategies to help motivate students, we would get better results. And that is a reform strategy that may even address Samuelson’s first criticism of previous reform efforts: it could be scalable.