What's Needed, What's Right, and What's Fair

Now that there's some distance between me and my first term of graduate school, it's an appropriate time for me to take a look back on Professor David Labaree's class, History of School Reform. I want to explain why I feel lucky that his was the very first class I took at Stanford and share some of his closing thoughts on what the class might mean for his students and our future careers.

I came to Stanford to learn about education policy so I could come back and make a difference in Oregon. That was my argument in my application and statement of purpose, it's the premise of capstone POLS project, and it informs which classes I'm taking and what I choose to spend my time writing, talking, and thinking about. I still believe that public policy and the political process is an effective way to change systems and improve people's lives. The biggest difference in my thinking pre-History of School Reform and post-History of School Reform is a recognition that good, well-written policy on its own, without an inclusive process and implementation plan, is essentially useless. 

The class, as I've written before, has a reputation for being "depressing," in addition to its reputation for being difficult and time-consuming with thousands of pages of reading. The reputation is somewhat earned; a core lesson of the lass it that not only do most reforms fail, but, as Labaree wrote, "most of the consequences of reform are unintended." And unintended consequences rarely have positive implications. We also learned through case studies and stories and data, that many of the challenges in the public school system, particularly challenges related to equity and the achievement and opportunity gaps, are either deeply entrenched or rooted outside of the classroom. These problems, as should be apparent but sometimes isn't, are really, really hard to solve. The class, as he told us, was in large part about all the things teachers and schools can't do. 

On the last day of class, though, Professor Labaree encouraged us to reframe our thinking. His take, as he admitted, might be outside the mainstream conception of what schools do and should do. "So where does this leave you as a teacher, administrator, policymaker?" he asked. "Don’t let anyone convince you that schooling is all about producing human capital, improving test scores, or pursuing any other technical and instrumentalist goal. Its origins are political and moral:  to form a nation state, build character, and provide social opportunity."

Put simply, schools should be about teaching kids and advancing the public good. The growing emphasis on using school to prepare a future workforce, Labaree argues, isn't what schools are supposed to be about. He also said it's not about making society more efficient, or any form of social engineering, and it's not about solving social problems. Instead, he argues, it's about "shaping the kind of people we want to be." If he's right, test scores might not be the best measure of success.

So where does that leave us? What should we do? "Do what you can where you are," he said. "Focus on what's needed, what's right, and what's fair -- rather than what's useful." 

What's needed, what's right, and what's fair. That sounds about right to me.