4 Things That Educators Should Know About Education Reform

The United States educational system has undergone several reforms in response to the ever-changing needs of society. As high school graduates are expected to become a part of the national workforce, the output of schools needs to be in line with the expectations conferred on the national workforce as a whole. In this article, you will be guided through the major reforms that have taken place in the United States.

Reform refers to rectifying something that is unfit for its purpose. It is an ongoing process. Your educational experience was likely influenced by reform, and no doubt you too will be required to make certain adjustments or changes in your style of teaching on the basis of new reforms. Reform initiatives are also powerful sociopolitical agendas, which may determine the education you receive to become a teacher, the structure of the school in which you will teach, or the perception of what constitutes “effective teaching” as you begin your work as a new teacher.

To understand actions to change today’s education environment, you must have an understanding of reforms of the past. This will not only help you to become a better teacher; it will also allow you to use this knowledge when you become involved in the making and shaping of educational policy. Developments in technology, growing concerns around sustainability and increasing globalization, and the diverse multicultural society that has developed all put pressure on the educational system to change and undergo reforms. You never know what challenges the future will hold in this regard, or when you will be called upon to comment on or participate in reform initiatives.

Of fundamental importance to any discussion of educational reform is the role played by major stakeholders in the U.S. educational enterprise. As result, throughout this article we address the roles played by school districts, the states, and the federal government, and the impact of each on education reform. We also look at your calling to be a teacher, and the role you will play in enacting and participating in educational reform.

What education reforms in the United States have influenced how education is viewed and practiced today? The Commission of the Reorganization of Secondary Education’s 1918 report recommended that high schools offer a more diverse array of material than purely academic subjects. Subsequent reforms bolstered the provision of electives, and introduced guidance counselors and vocational training. The 1983 A Nation at Risk report suggested that the United States was failing to provide an adequate education. This report led to reforms in standardizing academic content and to a focus on standardized testing. In the 1980s and 1990s, teachers reacted against the confines of the standardized testing model. Growing awareness of poverty led to “full-service” schools, which provided health care, parent instruction, and more. In the 2000s, more diverse opportunities were on offer, including a rise in homeschooling, charter schools, and virtual schools. With the school voucher system, magnet schools, and open enrollment, strictures on attending public schools loosened somewhat.

What role (current and historical) has the school district, state, and federal government played in educational reform in the United States? District involvement in educational reform has traditionally been heavy, but recently districts are becoming more decentralized, giving more power to school boards and principals. States were initially interested in results-based reforms, focusing on grades and test scores. In the late 1980s, states moved toward more deregulation, which lasted about a decade. In the 1990s, states restructured schools in ways that fostered student development and empowered teachers. The No Child Left Behind Act in the early 2000s returned to a focus on standards-based education, though it has been heavily criticized and is viewed as being in need of reform. In the early 2010s, the federal government created the Common Core Standards, which provide teachers with insights into the skills and knowledge students require to excel.

At the end of December 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law, effectively sweeping away NCLB (Nelson 2015). The new bill made major changes to federal education policy. One thing that changed with the ESSA was how teacher performance is evaluated. States now have the ability to individually appraise how well its teachers are doing performance wise. Another alteration under the new law will allow states “to come up with their own way to determine the quality of their local schools.” This means that test scores are no longer the sole deciding factor for school performance.

ESSA lists music as a component of a well-rounded education and gives it more support than previous policies when it comes to access and funding. The law also means federal grant funding is opened for states and local school districts to support music education programs and further train music teachers. ESSA has been a long time coming. Considering that NCLB had needed an update since 2007, it is shocking how long it took to sign this new law.

What are the most significant trends and developments in educational reform in the United States today? Alternative teacher education programs are growing, though there have been criticisms that they focus on quantity rather than quality. The Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC) and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) are in the process of merging into a single body called the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). NCLB has expanded parental rights by giving them more public school options. More collaboration between educational bodies at the state and district levels are helping to improve policy coordination. The idea of year-round schools is gaining ground among some reformers. Value-added assessment, which focuses on individual improvement rather than comparative scores, is another idea on the rise.

What factors promote successful reform? The creation of a “road map” is key to sustaining reform. Schools need commitment; ongoing improvement and development; adequate time to accomplish reform; effective, sustained leadership; and adequate funding. Accurate and effective evaluation of the reforms is also crucial.

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