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The School Reform Game

In a September 06, 2010 Newsweek article, “Why School ‘Reform’ Fails: Student motivation is the problem” Robert J. Samuelson brings his readers to the edge of understanding the problem, but then leaves them hopeless about its solution.
In the tradition of this site, I’ll fall back on another metaphor to suggest why it’s not hopeless… and use the MCPS experience to illustrate how “the problem” of “student motivation” can actually be the solution.
The School Reform game

In the article, (which I hope you’ve linked to and read by now) Samuelson accurately describes the playing field on which the ”school reform” game is being played.
On it he has all the players involved  – adults and children – but seems to assume we know what “game” is.
He’s a good observer though, and correctly notes that it’s a game no one is winning.
“Since the 1960s, waves of “reform” have failed to produce meaningful achievement gains”

…and we don’t know why …
“Standard explanations of this meager progress fail.”

… but thinks there are two explanations…
“Reforms” have disappointed for two reasons. First, no one has yet discovered transformative changes in curriculum or pedagogy, especially for inner-city schools, that are (in business lingo) “scalable”—that is, easily transferable to other schools, where they would predictably produce achievement gains.
The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If the students aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail…. The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers…. Motivation has weakened because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard, and don’t do well
And therefore he concludes that once more no one will “win” the game…
“Against these realities, school-“reform” rhetoric is blissfully evasive. Duncan urges “a great teacher” in every classroom—akin to having every football team composed of All-Americans”
But his game analysis is based on an assumption most people “know” what the game is.  If Duncan wants “a great teacher” in every classroom,” then the game that brings everyone to the playing field must be “Teaching.”
But what if it’s “Learning?” And not learning as a “product,” but learning as a “process” — an individual capacity the school system is accountable for aligning all its resources to develop?   What do those exact same players on that playing field do, if the game they’ve gathered to play is one in which “winning” is based on continual positive changes in each child’s capacity to learn?
How do “changes in curriculum or pedagogy” become “transformative” when “students, (who) after all, have to do the work” want to because the teaching process has engaged them as co-managers of their own learning?
If that’s the “game plan,” then the story this site documents of what’s been happening on the MCPS playing field over the past 12 years becomes more understandable.  Connecting the dots among the various players can make more sense when each can be seen as playing important roles in the same game.  And the work of the players on the  field comes together as part of a coherent integrated learning management system.

At least that’s the way it’s looked to me in the observers box from which were developed many of the 20,000 ft Memos included in this site’s Resource section. If you’d like more information about what it looks and feels like from the playing field, let me know and I’ll connect you to some of the players.

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