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Principles of School Reform

Posted: 2006-03-06

This document was prepared for the Minnesota Education Association, March 1986.

Dave Stratman recognized the threat of the Business Roundtable long before most of us even knew the organization existed.

The crucial question in school reform is: What are we educating

our students for? From the goals of public education follow the

policies and practices of public education and the level of

social resources committed to it. From the goals also follow the

principles which should shape education reform.

The following is a list of ten principles of education reform

which the teachers of the Minnesota Education Association believe

should be the framework for school reform in Minnesota. We have

developed these principles because we are determined that public

education in Minnesota be as good as committed teachers and

parents and students can make it. We believe that the schools of

Minnesota have great accomplishments, but we know that they have

real problems as well.

We have developed these principles also because we believe that

the students and schools and teachers of Minnesota are threatened

by a series of very destructive reform proposals.

The "official" school reform plans proposed to this date--the

Business Partnership's Minnesota Plan, the Governor's Post-Secondary

Enrollment Option Plan, and various plans proposed at the national level,

ranging from vouchers to merit pay--all move in the direction of

lower expectations for most students, of greater inequality, of

more passive learners, of more intense competition among students

and teachers for scarcer resources, of fragmented communities.

We are determined that education reform in Minnesota move in the

opposite direction: toward higher expectations for all students,

toward greater equality in education, toward greater school and public

commitment to the future of our young people.

At the center of the debate over the direction for school reform

is the question, Should the schools prepare students to meet the

needs of the corporate structure, or should they prepare students

for democracy. This question is posed very sharply in this period

of economic and political contraction, with millions of jobs

being shipped overseas, with many others being deskilled through

computerization, with the collapse and consolidation of the farm

economy, with continuing high unemployment rates. To prepare

students to fit into this contracting structure would require

that their educational attainments be lowered to a "realistic"

level. In fact, the official reform proposals of the last few

years would have exactly the effect of lowering the aspirations

and attainments of students. The official reforms, in other

words, would prepare students to fit into a world of greater

inequalities and a diminished future.

Genuine reform of the public schools must be based on the values

of democracy. The capacity of people to learn, to develop, to

work and to act far exceeds the capacity of the contracting

economic and political structure to utilize their abilities and

to meet their aspirations. Rather than molding students to fit

passively into a society over which they will have little

control, public education should prepare students to understand

their world and to play an active role in shaping its direction.

The MEA believes that public education should prepare students to

understand their world and to help change it, so that American

society can fulfill the promise of democracy.

From the goal of "education for democracy" follow certain

principles of education reform:

1. Reform must mean raising the expectations of the schools for

all students, not just raising standards for the college bound.

There is a fundamental difference between raising standards and

raising expectations. Raising expectations means fundamentally

changing the schools' assumptions about the intelligence and

ability of students, and dramatically increasing the schools'

commitment to their success. Raising standards, in the face of

the enormous variations in program and preparation available to

most students, simply means erecting another hoop for students to

jump through. It has nothing to do with changing education, and

everything to do with making it less available. Higher standards

are the result of real reform, not the cause of it.

The Post-Secondary Enrollment Option plan and the Business

Partnership plan violate the principle of raising expectations

for all students. The Business Partnership plan, by moving to a

K-10 system with the option of two more years of high school,

would tend to reduce dramatically the percentage of students who

complete high school. According to the author of the Business

Partnership plan, the Post-Secondary Option plan is intended as a

lever to force the adoption of the Business Partnership plan. It

would draw an increasing proportion of unprepared young people

out of the eleventh and twelfth grades into college, leaving the

majority of students behind in a reduced high school program.

2. Reform must mean increasing the commitment of schools to the

success of students.

Reform must insure that the conditions are present in every

school for students and teachers to succeed in the tasks of

teaching and learning. This means, at a minimum, that the schools

must have the resources to have a full program suited to the

needs of the total child; that they must offer challenging

courses; that they must offer remedial help as needed; that

staffing patterns must be consistent with high expectations; that

staff must not live in constant fear of lay-off or transfer; that

classes and student loads must be of optimal size; that teachers

must have adequate preparation time; and that other conditions of

school success be present.

3. Reform must strengthen staff collaboration and teamwork.

Teaching is a collective act. A great deal of research and

experience make clear that cooperation among teachers is a

crucial element of effective schools. School staffs should be

actively engaged, under the leadership of their principals, in a

cooperative, problem-solving approach to strengthening the

schools. Teachers must play a leading role in the design of

curriculum and in other areas which affect the learning


4. Reform must strengthen staff development and teachers' role in

the design and delivery of staff development programs.

Inservice training and other means of staff development should

reflect the needs of staff, should utilize the insights and

experience of teachers as a primary source of program

development, and should be consistent with the goal of education

for democracy.

5. Reform should bring to light school policies and practices

which tend to retard students' development or teachers'

effectiveness, so that they may be changed. Reform should

identify successful programs and practices, so that they may be

strengthened and disseminated.

A serious reform effort must begin with positive assumptions

about the ability and commitment of teachers and students, and

acknowledge that there are negative aspects of the school climate,

which attack the development of students and which undermine the

effectiveness of teachers.

Examples of negative policies and practices are the use of

standardized norm-referenced tests for student placement, and the

increased use of standardized testing generally; the tracking of

students into a narrow course of study or into early career

choices; and other practices which tend to promote the idea that

only a relative few students are capable of academic success.

6. Reform should encourage a cooperative and interactive learning

environment for all students.

Learning is a social as well as an individual process. The

competition which is often encouraged among students, and which

would be intensified by many of the "official" reform proposals,

has the same effects on students as merit pay and other schemes

for competition have among teachers. That is, it undermines their

self-confidence, weakens their ties to other students, and makes

the goal of education to be simply to get ahead rather than to

learn about their world in order to change it. Competition

encourages students passively to accept the goals which the

schools set for them. Education for democracy cannot be a game of

winners and losers. Positive interaction among students is

critical to encouraging success for all students rather than for

a competitive few.

7. Reform must encourage students to become active learners and

agents of change rather than passive digesters of information.

Education and education reform are both processes in which

students must play an active role. Students must be encouraged to

be critical thinkers, and to develop the skills and

self-confidence to examine thoughtfully the full range of their

school experience. Curricula, teaching practices, and testing

methods should be reviewed on the basis of whether they encourage

active or passive learning. The best way for students to learn

how to understand and to change their world is to be encouraged

by their teachers to understand and to play an active role in

changing their schools.

8. Reform must prepare students to understand the major problems

which face the people of this society.

Students should be brought face to face through the curriculum

with major issues: unemployment in an age of high technology;

corporate power in US society; the goals of US foreign policy;

and other questions of importance to citizens in a democracy.

Important studies which have generally been denied people, such

as labor history, should become part of the curriculum. Curricula

and text books should be reviewed for their accuracy and their

adequacy in bringing to light the critical issues of democracy.

9. Reform should encourage parents to play an active role in

school reform and in education for democracy.

Parents, like students, should be involved in the reform process

in discussing the goals of education; in assessing the condition

of education; and in deciding what education should be like. They

should have a role with teachrs in deciding what courses and

programs, what skills and understanding, what encouragement and

self-confidence, constitute a full preparation for the world

their children will face. Parents should be encouraged to play an

important role in deciding these questions and in joining with

teachers to organize public support for education for democracy.

10. Reform must equalize school finance at a high level across

the state.

Education for democracy must mean that the quality of education

available to a student cannot be a function of the wealth of the

community where the student resides, or of the wealth of the

student's own family. The continued reliance of school funding on

the local property tax and its consequent effect of disequalizing

the education available to the students of Minnesota is

inconsistent with the goal of education for democracy.

Equalization must mean leveling up, not down.

These ten principles of school reform provide the framework

within which MEA members will assess the condition of public

education around the state. With data generated by these

assessments, and with testimony from teachers, parents, students,

and other interested members of the community, the teachers of

the MEA will create an education reform plan which will create

genuine reform for the students of the state.

The plan for Education for Democracy will build on the

accomplishments of public education in Minnesota and on the

aspirations and talents and experience of our students and

teachers. It will create reform which will enlarge their futures

rather than diminish them, which will expand their horizons

rather than narrow them, which will encourage greater true

learning for all the students of Minnesota.

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