Why Education Reform Fails

For years now, we’ve been hearing of a growing consensus on the way forward for education reform. The consensus usually rests on whatever’s on Bill Gates’ mind at the moment, but the very notion of widespread agreement on education has proven to be false on a number of occasions. From Parents Across America, a new organization pushing back on this “consensus,” to education scholars and writers like Diane Ravitch (and many others) who have an alternate view of how to improve American education, there is a multiplicity of viewpoints on this controversial issue.

This rich diversity of views is to be expected; no major changes in America ever happen without divergent opinions and the proper voicing of those opinions. As time passes and more stories appear like this one, indicating that the majority of Americans support unions’ collective bargaining rights, it becomes clearer and clearer that the current landscape in public education reform is far from a consensus. (exhibit b: PEP hearings in NYC)

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. There are distinct competing views of the way forward for education in America because there are competing views of America itself. There are two or maybe more visions of the country, disparate sets of values, hopes, dreams and expectations. Too often, these values divide the country along racial, socioeconomic, or religious lines. This is why there are complex racial and ethnic components to any discussion of education reform (don’t believe me? Teach For America is a great example).

This is where we are. It’s America, for better or worse, and it’s nothing new, but there are serious implications for education. Until the country comes together around central tenets of excellent classrooms, nothing will come out of the furor for reform except one-off strategies that are discarded as quickly as they are initiated. Look at the Gates Foundation, which has certainly done excellent work in education; they have also promoted suspect solutions which were later tossed aside in favor of the latest trend.

In fact, there is a pretty strong consensus around what works and what doesn’t in education. You wouldn’t be able to figure this out by listening to the outrageous debates populating the minimal media coverage of education; you’d also miss it if you talked to many of the most brilliant education scholars, including many of those profiled in Waiting For Superman and other public forums where education is discussed. It’s likely that many of the folks who discuss schooling and education reform know it, but they just don’t talk about it.

You’d be crazy not to be skeptical at this point. How can this no-name blogger have it all figured out when the brightest minds in society can’t come together on this huge question? I haven’t made a discovery at all, really.

It comes down to a question of what America is really about. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” or something to that effect. Put that into an educational context, and it seems clear what public purpose schooling should serve: the promotion of these key values. Safety and the protection of life is a given, but liberty and the pursuit of happiness? What does that mean for schools?

The central aim of public schools ought to be the promotion of these values through student-centered teaching and learning. That means that kids, not adults, drive learning–to an extent not seen often in public schools. Adults are in schools to support students’ exploration of ideas, concepts, themes and eventually career pathways. When asked for one thing I want students to learn in a class I might teach, the answer is always how to learn. I don’t care if students’ remember the full text of the Treaty of Versailles or how to calculate the cosine of a function (or something…I don’t remember much of my math classes, as you can probably tell). I want students to learn how to learn and continue learning for the rest of their lives. Keeping an open mind, analyzing evidence and making informed, intelligent decisions is what life is all about, and it should be what school is about, too.

Where do we find schools like this? Schools that allow students to drive their own learning, with the support of adults who care about more than students’ test scores and conduct. Teachers who are able to give students individual attention and do so regularly. More importantly, why should you believe that this vision of education is worth more than what others’ say and write?

Both of these questions have the same answer. This type of education is found at the rare public school, particularly those founded and/or led by inspirational leaders like Debbie Meier, Ann Cook and Linda Nathan. The other place you can find education like this is at the elite private schools attended by scions of the wealthy and well-connected. Sidwell Friends, Phillips Exeter and the like. These are schools with tiny student-teacher ratios, a high degree of personalization and the flexibility to allow students time and space for exploration. It’s no coincidence.

In fact, it’s quite ironic that these schools, which promote the very values that seem so central to the idea of America, are attended almost exclusively by the privileged few. These being the same few who, either through money or political power (or the poisonous intersection of the two), happen to run America’s schools. New York City is a great example: Chancellor Cathie Black sent her kids to the prestigious (and expensive) Kent School. Wonder if we’ll see some ideas from there making their way into NYC public schools…

President Obama is another example, and as a former campaign volunteer I hate to say it. His daughters went to Uni Lab in Chicago, and now they’re at Sidwell. These are exceptional, innovative schools, and there’s no shame in getting the best education for your kids. The problem (and the accompanying shame) comes in when you don’t hold that standard up for the rest of the country’s children. The standard for leaders and educators must always be “is it good enough for my kids?”

For my hypothetical kids, I believe in maximizing liberty and freedom. In the classroom and the country.

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