by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY
Education writers, policy-makers, administrators, union leaders, and teachers alike drape their ideas in the rhetoric of reform as if it were some magic cloth immune to criticism. It peremptorily turns the critic of said idea into a behind-the-times hairsplitter who is getting in the way of progress.
The way industrial food corporations like Dole scramble to affix the “organic” label to their product, purveyors of educational policy are all too quick to identify themselves as “reform-minded.” But what does “reform” actually mean? Has the word been so overused as to have lost all meaning (much in the same way the meaning of “organic” has been appropriated to the point of meaninglessness)? Or is it kind of a deceptive concept to begin with?
Literally, the word simply means “to form again.” This means every time I change the seating arrangement in my classroom, I’m engaging in a mild version of educational reform. In this sense, the word carries no qualitative connotation. It just means changing shit up, for better or for worse.
The Random House dictionary, however, is not so nebulous. It defines “reform” as “the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc.” In which case, anything that makes our education system better, could be described as reform. But if it makes our education system worse, then it would be the opposite of reform, right?
Merit pay is one of those ideas that’s consistently peddled under the umbrella of “education reform.” Problem is, at this point, we have no idea whether merit pay would make our education system better. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan theorizes that it would. But that in itself is not “reform.” The dictionary demands certitude in the matter, a kind of certitude that is impossible in the present moment.
Shouldn’t a policy like merit pay at the very least be tagged as “potentially reformative,” in the same way someone accused of theft is an “alleged” thief until proven guilty?
On the one hand, this is purely semantics. But on the other hand, when a word carries with it such strong connotations of the right kind of progress, isn’t it a little manipulative to attach it to a theory? Especially when it’s a politically trendy and hotly contested theory like merit pay (or charter schools, or longer school years, or the publishing of test scores)? The use of the word “reform” feels more like a kind of branding than it does an apt descriptor. In other words, if such-and-such policy can be branded as reform, then it has a better chance of gaining public approval. I’m resigned to this kind of purposefully deceptive advertising when it comes to product marketing, but within the context of policy-making, this strategy seems patently dishonest (or, as some cynical readers may offer, “politics as usual”).
How about this for a new reform? Every teacher should begin the school year by performing a costumed acapella version of their favorite early 90’s R&B jam (dibs on “Humpin’ Around”). This reform would build school community and increase student engagement. I don’t have the research to prove this yet, but I’m pretty sure there’s an “independent” education research foundation out there that will find data to prove just about anything if I donate the requisite funds. Furthermore, anyone resistant to such reform is a self-serving dinosaur more interested in protecting their own neck than fixing our broken educational system.
Okay, that was a little glib. But you get the point, right? The current usage of the word “reform” serves a purely rhetorical purpose. It is a tag line, an essentially meaningless vestige of a once vital word, a fossil made of straw and air.
How does this all affect real students and teachers in real schools?
When I hear about the new principal of (alas) my old school making clear his resolute intent to scrap all small learning communities and return to a comprehensive high school model, all in the name of school-wide reform, I feel a deep resentment towards this corruption of the term. I want to say, no, that’s not reform. It’s just going back to the way it used to be. And the couching of this decision in the language of reform… it just feels so manipulative, so contrived. It achieves the dual purpose of diverting his audience from the specifics of the decision, and imbuing the decision with the divine authority of reform. What’s that, boy? You don’t like reform, you say? Let it be known then—Alistair Bomphray is against improving schools.
This is a mercurial time in the education world. As I write this, important, culture-shaping decisions are being made in schools and districts all over America—many of those decisions carefully spun as harbingers of reform. It is up to us to not be so easily thrown off the scent, to retain our good senses long enough to ask important questions like, “Whose reform?” and “Exactly how will this lead to better schools?”
Maybe it’s time to reform “reform.”
Alistair is a high school English teacher currently on one-year sabbatical. He promises to return to education with a vengeance, but until then, he has some wandering to do.