Politics, Language, and Culture: A Critical Look at Urban School Reform

By Joseph W. Check | Go to book overview

Chapter 4

Imaginary Gardens and Exemplary Contexts: Language Arts Reform in the Urban Elementary School

INTRODUCTION

As America enters the twenty-first century, elementary schools across the country are striving for reform. Improvement of reading and writing skills is central to reform everywhere, but in urban schools it takes on special urgency. Large numbers of English Language Learners, high percentages of students with language-related Individual Education Plans, and the widely publicized “achievement gap” in reading scores between white students and students of color create intense pressure on principals and teachers to achieve measurable gains quickly.

Increasingly, schools and school systems engaged in reform turn to universities and outside networks for assistance. Given the intense pressure for rapid, dramatic improvement and the embattled state of many urban classrooms, there is a ready market for prepackaged “exemplary programs” and other forms of assistance that implicitly or explicitly deny teachers' autonomy and efficacy. In contrast, a track record of attempted reforms of curriculum and instruction stretching back to the 1970s suggests a single lesson: changes implemented from the top down or the outside in are almost bound to fail unless they gain not just the nominal assent but the active support of teachers and principals who must be their key implementers. This historical lesson suggests a strategy for collaboration that is the opposite of the prepackaged, exemplary, one-size-fits-all gospel that many reformers currently preach. Milbrey McLaughlin has pointed out that,

if teachers lie at the heart of successful efforts to enhance classroom practices, then the professional networks that engage teachers comprise promising vehicles for change . . . change strategies rooted in the natural networks of teachers—in their

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