THE BLOG
07/03/2012 10:22 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2012

Two Cheers for the GERM Theory of School "Reform"

Finnish scholar Pasi Sahlberg, a guest columnist for Valerie Strauss' "The Answer Sheet" in the Washington Post, described the contemporary school reform movement as "an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems through a virus. It travels with pundits, media and politicians. ... As a consequence, schools get ill, teachers don't feel well, and kids learn less." Sahlberg named this epidemic "GERM," or Global Educational Reform Movement.

Sahlberg identified various symptoms, such as competition within education systems which drives out the cooperation that successful schools require. The second symptom of GERM is increased school choice, that "positions parents as consumers." Third, GERM promotes standardized test-driven accountability. He explains, "Teacher effectiveness that is measured using standardized tests is a related symptom of GERM. According to the Center for Public Education, standardized testing has increased teaching to the test, narrowed curricula to prioritize reading and mathematics, and distanced teaching from the art of pedagogy to mechanistic instruction."

Sahlberg deserves two cheers for his indictment of bubble-in accountability. His proposed treatments for GERM merit three hearty cheers. "Healthy school systems are resistant to GERM," he writes. Healthy schools make teaching an attractive career. Their teachers help students build on their strengths, as opposed to just remediating their weaknesses in order to jack up test scores. Healthy systems promote teaching as a way to "creating personal relations" that are "based on care and love."

To address America's "pandemic disinterest in the teaching profession" we must "restore the fundamental meaning and values of school education." We must commit to schools that "value humanity, equality and democracy."

It is at this point where I must challenge Sahlberg for contradicting his own principles. Yes, as he asserts, "Diversity is richness in humanity and a condition for innovation." So, let's respect the diversity of opinion within the school reform movement. Like Sahlberg, I disagree with the policy opinions of many or most Teach for America candidates. I do not think charter schools have a chance of being scaled up to the point where they can address the legacy of generational poverty. I share his condemnation of standardized testing, and I mourn the recent suicides of two 14-year-old Kenyan schoolgirls, who Sahlberg labels as "victims of GERM." Frankly, I can't see our obsession with "accountability" as anything other than a manifestation of the virus.

But, what motivates most educators in charter schools? I submit that they are driven by the same love, humanity, and commitment. If we want to persuade those dedicated advocates that competition and consumerism is driving cooperation and personal relationships out of schools, we must live up to Sahlberg's own prescription. Just as healthy schools that value diversity are the antidote to GERM, a healthy, cooperative reform movement that respects the diversity of policy positions is the antidote for the destructive virus known as teach-to-the-test.

I love Sahlberg's wit when he condemns pundits, media and politicians, but the educators who believe in competition and choice do not deserve such ridicule. As much as I despise high-stakes standardized testing and the "reformers" who use it to destroy the "status quo," (which is their name for my profession and my due process rights) teachers who sincerely believe that standardized testing is a valuable tool deserve our respect.

So, Sahlberg's solutions deserve three rousing cheers. Healthy schools and a diverse school reform movement are the antidotes. As we protest the toxic policies that the accountability hawks have dumped on our neighborhood schools, we should take care to not spread the virus of scorched earth politics to our brethren in charters. Instead, we should ask "No Excuses!" educators if they feel like they will have the strength to continue the battle much longer. As they see their vigor waning as competition drives out cooperation, we stand to gain new allies in the battle for healthy schools. Who knows, maybe the genetic cure will come from those educators who selflessly and voluntarily exposed themselves to the worse of GERM, and who survived to search for better ways of improving schools.