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Principles of School Reform

Publication Date: 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
environment.

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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