Education Reform and School Culture

Education Reform and School Culture

Professor Michael Gregory
Spring 2018 course
M 1:00pm - 3:00pm in WCC Room 3016
2 classroom credits


Exam Type: No Exam

Why doesn’t the current education reform movement seem to reflect all we have learned about the fundamental importance of context and environment to children’s learning? What role can a focus on “school culture” play in reinvigorating the democratic purposes of public education? What is “school culture” and how is it different from “school climate”? What practical strategies can lawyers and educators use to remedy this research-policy gap? Does law and policy even have a role to play in supporting educators to create safe and supportive whole-school cultures where all students (and all staff!) are included, welcomed, and treated with dignity and respect? Why do we find ourselves “waiting for Superman” instead of (re)designing an education system that harnesses the power of relationships and communities?

In seeking to answer these and other questions, this course will explore and interrogate the rise of the so-called Global Education Reform Movement (or GERM), which to a large extent has dominated the education policy agenda in the United States and several other industrialized nations in recent decades. A product of globalization, many view GERM as preoccupied with neo-liberal, market-based solutions to education-related problems. It highlights competition, choice, data, standardization, accountability, and top-down management as appropriate and effective levers for generating improved outcomes for students. Though these can be powerful tools for improvement, they also seem to come with tradeoffs. Nations where GERM has taken hold have seen increases in the privatization of education, transformations in the training and evaluation of educators in ways that arguably de-professionalize (and de-humanize) their work, and a disempowering of local communities in education decision-making processes. The benefits of GERM-inspired reforms for improved student learning outcomes are far from clear.

What does all of this mean for democracy? After understanding the rise of GERM and learning to recognize its fingerprints on various education law and policy reforms, we will turn to examine it from the standpoint of American democratic norms and ideals. In light of its legal, political, and empirical pros and cons (and those of related choice and market-based initiatives), do we feel that GERM is likely to deliver an education system worthy of the visions painted by Horace Mann, John Dewey, Paulo Freire and other luminaries of democratic education? If not, what paradigm should we replace it with? One possibility is the paradigm of the “learning organization” – a professional community where new ideas, expansive thinking, and active reflection are nurtured and where synergy and teamwork make it possible for complex issues to be explored. When educators are supported to form such professional cultures at the local level, they are able to generate workable and sustainable solutions to many of contemporary education’s intractable problems – punitive discipline; bullying; student disengagement, truancy and drop-out; engagement of hard-to-reach families; racial- and income-based achievement gaps; the educational impacts of childhood trauma; and more. Sounds nice enough, but how do we get there? We will look at examples of individual schools and districts that have embraced the idea of whole-school culture reform. And we will ask the hard questions: assuming we like this paradigm, how would we spread it throughout the system? What legal and policy mechanisms could help? What role for lawyers who wish to complement the efforts of progressive educators? And, most importantly, are whole-school culture-based reforms capable of taming some of the (unintended?) consequences of GERM and educating democratic citizens prepared for the challenges of the 21st century?

Class participation will be part of the grade for this discussion-based course. There is no exam in this course; the major assignment will be a research project related to the course themes.

Note: This course is jointly listed with HGSE as EDU A111E.

Subject Areas: Family, Gender & Children's Law