I know I mentioned this book in yesterday’s post about a potential reading list for new Chicago Public Schools chief Ron Huberman, and I wanted to spend some time today talking about Charles Payne’s book, So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools.
I want to do so for several reasons.
To begin, it gives me a chance to mention one of Payne’s previous books, I’ve Got The Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. This is an absolute gem of a book that should be very high up on any list of books about the civil rights era. I’ll give a lengthier discussion of that work next month, when I’ll focus on books related to black history.
Second, and perhaps more relevant, So Much Reform deserves more space because of the richness of its contents, its balance of guarded optimism and bracing honesty, and its honesty in the final chapter.
Payne’s concern for, and commitment to, the children in urban schools anchors the work. While he does acknowledge some positive movement during the past 30 years, he also talks about the stubborn persistence of low-performing schools that thus far have eluded reform efforts and are populated disproportionately by people of color.
Unfortunately, this is hardly earth-shattering news. Still, Payne deserves credit for showing how even well-intended reforms have often had little effect because they have not been a smooth fit with students’ and teachers’ lived realities.
While unquestionably a child-centered and progessively-oriented educator, Payne does not shy away from taking on both liberals and conversatives for their misguided suppositions.
Indeed, one of my favorite parts of the book comes toward the end, in a section called, The Dance of Ideology. In this part, Payne lists the “Holy Postulates” of the left-items like “Thou Shalt Never Criticize The Poor,” “The Only Pedagogy is Progressive Pedagogy and Thou Shalt Have No Other Pedagogy Before It,” and “Test Scores Don’t Mean Thing” are all there.
This is followed by a parallel list for the right, on which statements like, “Money Doesn’t Matter,” “It Only Counts If It Can Be Counted,” and “The Path of Business Is The True Path” all make an appearance.
As someone who spent 15 years as a full time educator, during which time I occasionally espoused items from the first list while railing against the thinking behind the second, I had to smile ruefully at seeing my youthful convictions articulated so clearly and with such biblical overtones to boot.
Payne’s analysis of the impact of school climate on the interrelated teacher expectations and student peformance is insightful, as is the section when he talks about different types of bureaucratic structure.
Here he makes the point how urban schools headed by harried and overworked principals often pervert Max Weber’s definition of bureaucracy as a rational organization, instead creating irrational and arbitrary work places that ultimately do not serve their charges well.
In typical fairminded fashion, Payne does not demonize school leaders, but rather spends time showing the pressures they experience while still emphasizing the negative consequences for children.
A third noteworthy aspect of the book is the range of its contents. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘If’,about the trials of manhood, makes an appearance (Payne learned this poem from his father, who would gather with other black men who were childhood friends.). But so does a quote by the late Guayanese historian Walter Rodney, who wrote about the ills of imperialism embodied in Kipling’s injunction, “Take up the White Man’s Burden.”
Readers are as likely to encounter a statement by teachers’ union leader Reg Weaver as a quote by British novelist G.K. Chesterton, as likely to read a school reformer’s code of school conduct as a nugget expressed by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
Not only are these quotes engaging in their own right, but, taken in concert, these at times seeming disparate thoughts also suggest a model of education in which meaningful connections are drawn and in which no subject is beyond comprehension or off limits.
This sense of education as a process whereby an organic, unpredictable yet expanding and forward-moving body of knowledge develops seems to be at the heart of what Payne wishes for all children.
That they do not have access to this type of education is immoral; to explain these barriers and pose someideas about how to change them is the focus of Payne’s work.
As with many social ills, diagnosing the problem can be far more straightforward than proposing workable and enduring solutions.
If So Much Reform can be faulted on any account, it would be on this one.
Payne’s descriptions of different types of bureaucracy and the characteristics of schools where effective implementation of reform occur are helpful, for example, but, as always with the issues, the question of how to bring about and sustain these changes is much less clearly explained.
In addition, Payne’s near wholesale endorsements throughout the book of work generated by the Consortium on Chicago School Research seem to suggest that he has cast his generally critical eye less closely on that organization’s work than others.
To be fair, Payne himself directly addresses about the absence of clear solutions to the at times seemingly intractable problems of school reform.
After recounting briefly his family’s educational history and writing about legendary black educator William Moore, Payne offers the following concluding thoughts:
“At first glance, the issues of contemporary urban education seem far removed from the world of William Moore and his children. I’m not sure that’s really true, though. The search for prescriptions can be dangerous if we let it, but I don’t know that all our work has given us a better model for educating children from the social margins than William Moore seems to have had in 1895. Give them teaching that is determined, energetic, and engaging. Hold them to high standards. Expose them to as much as you can, especially the arts …
“Recognize the reality of race, poverty, and other social barriers, but make children understand that barriers don’t have to limit their lives; help them see themselves as contributing citizens of both a racial community and a larger one. Above all, no matter where in the social structure children are coming from, act as if their possibilities are boundless.”
Based in his considerable humility, Payne’s words appear to encapsulate several of his core beliefs: the honoring of traditions of educational excellence within the community; an acknowledgment of the reality of race and other barriers that impact, but need not determine, children’s futures; and an intertwined belief in a broader social community and commitment to a common humanity expressed through the arts.
These stirring thoughts conclude an intriguing book.
Ron Huberman would do well to study them and Payne’s work as he moves forward in his new job-the top position in an area of staggering need with vital consequences, and in which he has no previous experience.