A Skeptical View of Education Reform

I’m not endorsing this post from a theory-loving prof outside of law schools, but I think it provides some good warnings about exactly how far we want to go in standardizing educational experiences:

These days, one of the more frustrating and tedious aspects of working in an institutional setting such as a secondary school, a college, or a highschool has been the shift to constant mechanisms of “quality control” that are implemented from year to year, semester to semester. What I have in mind are the constant calls to codify things such as student learning outcomes, assessment criteria, and curriculum across the body of educators. These mechanisms, in turn, lead to endless meetings, professional development seminars, and piles of paperwork that often have little or no connection to teaching or what really takes place in the classroom.

What we have in United States educational philosophies today is a shift towards a sort of “pedagogical Taylorism”, where it is assumed that education can be codified, instrumentalized, and quantified, such that assignments necessarily take on a generic and simplified structure– for this is what can easily be replicated –and where gradually these reforms have a morphogenetic effect on the classroom that feeds back on the classroom, giving form to what is taught, how it is taught, and how assignments are structured. In short, these reforms are molarizing machines, designed to create regularities in the Brownian motion of students and faculty, insuring that there is little change or deviation from a pre-delineated form.

Beyond the technological shifts U.S. culture has undergone such that we now live in a mediatized, networked culture characterized by very different developmental cognitive processes, a large part of the problem is that the colleges and universities have, in many respects, become factories. In referring to the schools as factories, I do not simply mean that they are designed and structured to produce a homogenized product as in the case of an auto factory producing cars that are all the same model.

The author admits he’s produced a “pessimistic rant,” but I can take these reflections in an optimistic direction. First, many of the posts on this mobblog have focussed on experiential learning and specialization–attempts to break free of cookie-cutter classes that lead to student disengagement. I think that the emphases on clinical education and real-world engagement are another positive sign. All of these can tend not merely to give more substance to legal education, but to discharge our obligation to help those underserved by the legal system.

Admittedly, I imagine the author of the post wanted something more like Duncan Kennedy’s perspective:

[Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy: A Polemic against the System] . . . offers an analysis of how legal education participates in the production of what sucks about the system. It does this partly through a novelistic, subjective evocation of the social-psychological pressures that work to make entering students into lawyers and citizens who will participate willingly in the reproduction of the system, making it seem like something natural. The book proposes a radical egalitarian alternative vision of what legal education should become. . .

But I think Melissa Murray’s “I’d Like to Thank the Academy: Duncan Kennedy, CLS, and the Limits of Critique” (in the Journal of Legal Education) offers some reasons to take a skeptical view of that venture.

One thought on “A Skeptical View of Education Reform

  1. Frank —

    For me, the threat of educational Taylorism is seen today in reforms like the No Child Left Behind Act, where uniform and “rigorous” standardized assessment crowds out everything else that should take place in schools. There are certainly ways of structuring law schools that would resemble the worst of that trend.

    So I wonder, then, how much the vision you’re suggesting for an ideal law school corresponds with the progressive education movement of John Dewey and others?

    Personally, I would like to see more law schools that resonate with those principles. As a former high school teacher, I’m a big fan of Ted Sizer’s work. I had honestly never thought much about applying it to the law school setting.

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