Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Battle for the Soul of Rural School Reform: Can the Annenberg Rural Challenge Turn the Tide?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Battle for the Soul of Rural School Reform: Can the Annenberg Rural Challenge Turn the Tide?

Article excerpt

While there are deep divisions within the ranks of those pushing for public school reform, there is one area of common agreement. Virtually all reformers - from the religious right to the secular progressives - loathe the industrial/factory model of schooling that has come to dominate American K-12 education. Some hate its underlying assumptions about children, teachers, the learning process, are the purposes of education. Others despise it either for promoting socio-economic and racial stratification and mindless bureaucratization or for undermining character development, academic performance, and student preparedness for a post-industrial world.

Whatever the reason, it is now open season on the industrial model of schooling. In fact, finding public advocates of this model among reformers, academics, and education policy makers is nearly as hard as finding public defenders of overt that some ways of thinking and acting can be sustained without public advocacy or public approval. Similarly, the factory model of schooling is still alive and well, continues to have powerful support, and is expanding its influence in one segment of American society - even as it is being buried (unmourned) elsewhere.

In certain parts of metropolitan America such innovations as small "schools-within-schools," decentralization, school/community partnerships, and more personalized teaching and learning strategies are being enthusiastically embraced. By contrast, much of rural America (where, ironically, many of these metropolitan "innovations" were first developed) is still being coerced into accepting school consolidations and school district mergers as the cornerstone of rural school reform. This brand of "restructuring" is seen (correctly) as the necessary precondition for the proper implementation of the factory model of education.

In this model of schooling, as in the Industrial Age factories on which it is based, everything hinges on having enough raw materials (i.e., students) to be uniformly processed by a range of specialized workers (i.e., staff members) who, in turn, justify the need for highly paid bosses who keep the workers in line and maintain control over the product (i.e., graduates). Without the "mass," there can be no standardized mass production.

While the current educational leaders have expressly disavowed the industrial model as their ideal, the legacy of its past champions lives on. This model lies buried deep - but far from dead - within state and federal policies, standards of school accreditation and college admission, professional training programs, and the hearts and minds of administrators and decision makers whose professional socialization revolved around this model.

Rhetorically, at least, American education is in the midst of an age of new paradigms, new research, new standards, new policies and practices, and new models. Unfortunately, in many rural schools and communities - lying well beyond the media spotlight and largely "out of sight, out of mind" to most big-time school reformers and policy makers - school reform in the Nineties turns out to be more of the "same old same old." This can be seen if we divert our attention from the relatively few examples of rural schools that are riding the new wave of school improvement and examine the routine examples of factory-oriented rural school reform found from coast to coast.

Getting Down to Cases

The Christopher County Courthouse,* located in a small southern town, is an attractive old building. However, what happened inside an aging courtroom there one early August day was downright ugly.

The benches were packed with parents, high school students, and other residents of the low-income, predominantly white farming community of Kanina. They had come before a superior court judge to plead for an injunction to prevent the closing of "their" school. For years, they had been fighting the forced deportation of Kanina's young people from their own community to the distant halls of the recently built South Christopher Consolidated High School. …

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