Column: Pitfalls bedevil education reform efforts

Farm Forum

One of the keys to good teaching is to provide students with developmentally appropriate challenges: tasks that are neither frustratingly difficult nor boringly easy. One reason educational reforms rarely work as advertised is that the reformers so seldom get this right. Reformers mandate the wrong skills at the wrong time for the wrong students.

At the university level, “reform” has meant dumbed-down general education programs across the country, programs that focus on remediating students with basic-skill weaknesses rather than providing the wide exposure to the arts, sciences, humanities and social sciences essential to a well-rounded university education.

And it’s not just general education that’s dumbed-down. We evaluate the content-area preparation of our graduates (including especially our teacher education candidates) with multiple choice tests that require only basic fact-recognition skills rather than the more advanced skills appropriate to anyone with real expertise in an academic discipline.

Meanwhile, reformers insist that elementary school students (students who typically delight in learning new things) focus less on content and more on so-called critical thinking skills. All in the name of better preparation for college!

The irony is that the reforms themselves so often emerge as part of a group-think process, a process that discourages the kind of questioning approach that should be second nature to the university-trained mind. The “everybody-does-it” excuse your parents would never put up with works perfectly well in education reform.

All the other states are reducing the number of credits required for a college degree. We should do it, too. All the other states are requiring a year-long student teaching experience for their teacher education candidates. We should do it, too. All the other states (well, 46 of them) are adopting Common Core standards. We should do it, too.

Meanwhile, fundamental questions go unanswered. Both the ACT and SAT college entrance exams are about to change radically. Is there any evidence at all that the new exams will predict college success better than the old exams?

And why is there so much haste to implement Common Core standards? Have the new standards produced a dramatic turn-around in a troubled school district or even a marginal improvement anywhere at all? Wouldn’t it make more sense to adopt the proven-effective standards of a state like Massachusetts rather than standards that haven’t been tried anywhere?

And what’s with these new achievement tests? We’ve got new standards, new curriculum and new textbooks. Isn’t this exactly the wrong time for a new test? How are we going to see whether or not the new innovations are working well if we can’t compare current test scores to the scores of past students? College entrance exam scores? Whoops. See above.

The ghosts of failed education reforms haunt every school in the country, and it’s no wonder that the latest set of changes, more radical than anything we’ve seen before, has concerned parents waving the caution flag. But the reformers speed on, fired by an enthusiasm that borders on the fanatical. Figuring out why … well, it’s certainly not boringly easy.

Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at Northern State University. He can be reached at The views are his and do not represent NSU.