I just completed my first season as a middle school debate team coach. Here are the basics: kids argue either the affirmative or the negative position of a general statement, called a resolution, and before the debate begins the key terms used are clearly cited or defined. This allows everybody—the debaters, judges, and spectators—to reference the same logic that serves as the basis of their argument, making it easier to figure out how to side. Next year, student debaters across the nation will argue for or against this resolution: “The United States federal government should substantially increase its funding and/or regulation of elementary and/ or secondary education in the United States.” Essentially, they will be debating the merits of education reform. I am excited about this! Not only will I get to see these beautiful youngsters display their brilliance, but I’m also hoping to get a better understanding of what we mean by “education reform.”
I admit I’ve used buzzwords like “college and career ready,” “education equity,” “accountability,” and “access” to quality schools without knowing exactly what I’m talking about. I’m not the only one. Let’s be honest: What is “rigorous instruction” exactly? We’ve defined rigorous standards by creating the Common Core State Standards (Point A) and defined rigorous state assessments through the PARCC and other standardized tests (Point C)—but we’ve punted on the crucial middle step of identifying what rigorous instruction looks like (Point B, the process that brings Point A and C together). We have the standards and assessments, but we’re missing the third part of the instructional trinity—the curriculum. “The net result of the new standards so far has been to make the tests harder to pass, but not make students better able to pass them,” writes E.D. Hirsch, Jr. in his book “Why Knowledge Matters.” My daughter’s fifth-grade class is reading “To Kill A Mockingbird,” for example, which is also taught to a ninth-grade English class at a nearby high school. Both schools claim to provide “rigorous” instruction. Is it valid to judge students based on their standardized test scores knowing that the sequence of content and instruction they receive is haphazard and as far from standardized as one can get? Can we really hold teachers “accountable” for student outcomes when there is virtually no mechanism in place to ensure that teachers are coherently building upon the prior teacher’s instruction? Speaking of “accountability,” what does it really mean? I asked five smart education leaders to describe it in two words or less, and I got five different answers: “Data and measurement.” “Parents and money.” “Good curriculum.” “Failure and testing.” “Results.” This is not the Family Feud’s top five answers on the board! [pullquote position=”right”]Can we create an ed reformers dictionary, please?[/pullquote] We often define our terms by describing what they are not. We know when instruction has no “rigor,” or teachers have no “accountability,” or a community has no “access” to quality schools or “equity” or “choice” or “college and career readiness.” But we have to stop defining these terms by saying what they are not. If we want to make a strong affirmative case for a school reform, then we must start saying what these terms actually mean—or at least what we mean when we use them. Defining words take courage, but it’s the only way to give them teeth. For instance, everybody’s talking about increasing “access” to a quality education. But what does that actually mean? If there are high-testing schools in every square mile of a city, do children of that city have “access” to a quality education? What if, like my neighborhood school, those high-rated schools have 40+ kids to a class and no extracurricular activities? That school does not work for me and my child, so does my family really have “access”? What about “choice”? Are we saying that district and charter schools should be the only option for low-income kids? Or does our “choice” include private schools, just like it does for people who can afford it? And how will we know when education “equity” has been achieved? When every public school in a city is as resourced as the $30,000 per year, elite private school in the city? Or when every student, rich or poor, across the state gets the same per pupil funding—or when poor kids actually get a little more? Perhaps “equity” is achieved when the Black-White achievement gap, high school graduation rate gap, or college attainment gap is closed? In the end, [pullquote]fuzzy-wuzzy wordsmithing leaves us saying a whole lot about nothing—and feeling quite proud about it.[/pullquote] (At the NewSchools Summit last month, three prominent educators did a good job staging a mock debate about whether charter schools should become ”Bigger, Better or Different.”) If we are ever going to win the hearts and minds of the public and make a seismic shift in the way we educate underserved children, then our arguments—no, our demands—for reform must be specific, precise, and as passionate as all get-out. Trust me, that’s exactly how the kid debaters will do it next year.