Education Unbound*

Unfortunately, in his Limits of School Reform essay this morning, the newest op-ed columnist for the Times, Joe Nocera, shows the limits of logic in thinking about the subject – or writing about it.  After throwing up the standard straw men – “At its core, the reform movement believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that’s required to improve student performance, so that’s all the reformers focus on,” “reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant,” “Dodd [the teacher] does everything a school reformer could hope for”  – he rolls out the woefully tired and hopelessly unhelpful nostrum:  “What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that school reform won’t fix everything.”

Thanks, Joe. I didn’t know that.

In fact, Nocera, who wrote the Talking Business column for the Times before landing the plum assignment on the paper’s prestigious op-ed page, will one day see this essay as beginner’s jitters.  He does hit all the high notes – the ravages of poverty, the lessons of James Coleman, the further lessons of Richard Rothstein, even bringing in Joel Klein as the heartless reformer who thinks a student’s home life is “irrelevant” – but ends up being completely off-key,  forgetting that we now have dozens, if not hundreds, of schools that are succeeding in educating poor children. He also conveniently forgets that the Catholics have been doing it rather successfully for many decades, if not centuries. And, in fact, Nocera ignores most of the last 150 years of American history, during which time our public school system did rather well educating poor people.

No, no.  The modern school reform movement does not need “a dose of humility about what it can accomplish,” as Nocera suggests. It needs smart people like Nocera to give up on naïve, ahistoric, and ultimately fatalistic beliefs about the limits of such reform and the potential of schools to make a difference in childrens’ lives.

-Peter Meyer


*With thanks to Rick Hess, for his Education Unbound: The Promise and Practice of Greenfield Schooling

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College