A Glimmer of Hope in the Dark Age of School Reform

By Elaine Cilley

In an American Scholar article titled “School Reform Fails the Test,” Mike Rose, a research professor at UCLA and the author of The Mind at Work, criticizes the current American reform system which relies almost solely on the accumulation of hours and not the accumulation of skills which leaves a grievous gap between which should be learnt and what might be learnt. “Organizing schools and creating curricula based on an assumption of wholesale failure make going to school a regimented and punitive experience. If we determine success primarily by a test score, we miss those considerable intellectual achievements that aren’t easily quantifiable,” Rose writes. But there is hope on the horizon. 

A new movement of school reform that centers on competency and not semester hours has begun to edge out the standardized testing point of view. Already implemented in sixteen schools and districts across the country, the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) “provides a competency-based environment…[to] help shift the paradigm of education from a time-driven system of students earning seat credits to a fundamentally different, proven performance-based system.” A competency-based system allows for gradual change in the curriculum, and the use of the years of materials teachers have accumulated. Systems like the RISC center on more forgiving personalized mastery instead of rigid and demanding requirements tied to deadlines. While these systems do incorporate a Common Core, everything beyond that is decided by the student. For assessments, placement, pacing, and instruction students are in the driver’s seat. If a student excels in one area but struggles in another, they are encouraged to move forward in their strength and take their time to master the areas where they may be weaker. This style of teaching opens up communication and community between the student and their teacher and requires a greater level of investment above and beyond what is typically required. They must take ownership for how far they want to go, but no child is left behind. If something is not understood, under systems like RISC, they have the ability to continue in that subject and master it. Without strict regulations for competencies attached to timelines, the child not only learns, but masters every piece of the core required for graduation.

In his Scholar article Rose explains: “If we determine success primarily by a test score, we miss those considerable intellectual achievements that aren’t easily quantifiable. You will be hard pressed to find in federal education policy discussions of achievement that include curiosity, reflection, creativity, aesthetics, pleasure, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder.” And he’s right. As students, we are forced to fill out so many round ovals or click on so many different boxes, but what is really being quantified? By looking at schools differently, by reinventing them you might say, we can look at other pieces of what makes a great student great. No two children are exactly the same, so why bottleneck America’s teachers into acting like they are? Rose examines the faults of America’s previous reform movement, but fails to acknowledge the hope for a new kind of reform. The Re-Inventing Schools Coalition provided that hope, and is merely a harbinger to a potentially great age of education where the student’s voice comes first and they are treated as they should be – as individuals. 

Elaine Cilley is a senior at Loyola University Maryland studying biology, psychology, and English. Loyola Maryland is home to the Epsilon of Maryland Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

Photo-illustration by David Herbick/Getty/istockphoto. Courtesy of The American Scholar.