Today's "School Reformers" vs Real Change for Education - I

Originally published at on 2009-07-15 07:26:00 UTC

I hear four things consistently in the American national media when people are speaking about education.

These are calls for "higher standards," "charter schools," "merit pay," and "alternative teacher certification." And all four, from PBS to The New York Times to the Secretary of Education, are promoted as panaceas for all which ails our schools.

"Higher standards" sounds so good. Who would want "lower standards"? Arne Duncan wants a "race to the top."

"Charter Schools," the "market solution," will bring competitive fervor to education. Hasn't the marketplace built America's greatness?

"Merit pay" has such a simple charm. We all know that there are great teachers, good teachers, all right teachers, and lousy teachers. How can we create incentives to be "great" if all are paid the same?

And teacher training? Well teacher training must be terrible. If our schools are bad, it must be the fault of those who work there, right? And if teachers are bad, it must be the fault of those training them and organizing them. Union bashing is a common sport these days from the top down. The bashing of teacher education programs reached its highest level of absurdist fever pitch in a New York Times editorial in May 2008 which suggested that Teach for America was the solution because "traditional teacher education programs... are often little more than diploma mills."

Let me agree as I disagree.

We surely do need national expectations for what schools do for their students. We desperately need experiments with new kinds of schools. We do need better ways to reward great teachers, and reward teachers for taking chances which will help their students. And we do need much better teacher training.


All of the "reforms" of the current high profile "reformer" crop are steps in the wrong direction. The toxic mix of "high standards" and "merit pay" will guarantee that many teachers become nothing but test prep machines in pursuit of bonuses for Lehman Brothers-style short term illusions in student achievement. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is possibly the only person in President Obama's cabinet who deeply admires the Wall Street notion that you get paid for today's score no matter what happens in the long run.

The very notion that schools (and teachers) should be "competing" for students suggests that we are in favor of a system where some get fabulous educations, some get terrible educations, and most get something mediocre. Look at the American marketplace in any field. The "competitive" US health care system is an instructive model: costs a fortune for everyone, gets worse than mediocre - and wildly varying - results.

Teacher training must be overhauled. But those who favor non-training - the Teach for America model - or industrial robot training - teaching teachers to read scripted instruction, are clueless as to the importance and power of teachers - and education. I'm different. I think of teachers as I think of doctors. I think that what they do is vitally important, as often a matter of something close to life and death for many impacted by their work, and as an incredibly difficult profession to be good at. I still celebrate the very best teacher I had in my primary/secondary career as a "lifesaver" in the most true sense of that term, and I still thank of him for what he gave me whenever a learning task gets really difficult.

Montessori World's Fair Glass Classroom 1915
Maria Montessori's "Glass Classroom" at the 1915 World's Fair in San Francisco - real experimentation, really visible
New Expectations, New Schools, New Training, New Rewards

I believe in high expectations, but I'm against standards. Standards are for industrial products. We measure a certain set of dimensions, and assess our tolerance for difference. Expectations are for humans. We want humans to reach their maximum potential along a wide range of difficult to measure paths. Not just can you remember a mathematical formula, but are you going to be a good parent. Not just have you read The Great Gatsby, but can you assess political argument. Not just do you understand what atomic particles do, but can you be creative enough in a career to succeed when things get complicated.

So I don't want any measurement which - as all proposed by the Obama Administration do - assumes that students learn all things at the same rate. Instead I want an education system ready to find a way to success for every student. And this can not be done without highly - and continuously - trained teachers who have the time and freedom to work effectively with their students. It can not be done without technology which allows individualization of student access and inquiry. It can not be done without a redefinition of student choice.

I know that we can not build that entirely new system overnight. But I also know that we can never build it if we do not start. Today, Arne Duncan and Barack Obama think the solution is taking our worst schools - 5% in their understanding - and changing the management structure. In part they think this because they believe that the other 95% are "good enough." In part they think this because they have never deeply thought about the system of American education. So, they think Charter Schools are "the" answer - the one thing they will threaten states on.

My 5% plan

I have a 5% plan too.
But my plan is to try something different. It is to take 5% of US public schools, spread across every congressional district, and eliminate age-based grades, subject-area divisions, expectations about "highly qualified [subject area]" teachers, absolute rules on days and hours of attendance, artificial divisions such as Special Education, Gifted and Talented, and Advanced Placement, and, of course, all "high-stakes" tests except for the NAEP.

In place of all that I want 1:1 wireless access. I want school buildings open many hours of the day (if not 24), with public libraries, computers, classrooms, and gymnasia in the evening. I want teachers committed to personal professional development, and teachers with time to gather and learn from each other. I want universally designed instruction and universally designed furniture and universally designed technology. I want continuous use of the community and the world in the classrooms.
In short, I want a counter-model to all we do now - on a scale large enough to begin to collect the kind of data we might learn from. The federal government should fund that. The federal government should pay teachers more for being part of this experiment, or for conducting smaller scale experiments with these principles on their own.

And then I want our teachers-in-training to intern in those schools as well as in traditional ones, so they can assess the differences themselves.

Lab Schools

Those are not the only new schools I want. Teacher educators often talk about how much of the in-college learning - differentiated instruction, technology, whole child learning - is undone by the culture of the schools where new teachers intern and begin teaching. And administrators claim that teacher educators are clueless when it comes to what schools are actually like.

So let us bring these together.

Right now only about 85 teacher training institutions have "laboratory schools," an idea begun almost 120 years ago by John Dewey at the University of Chicago. We need these schools at every institution which prepares teachers, administrators, or educational policy makers.

We need these "lab schools" as places for experimenting with theory, for research, for actual experience. We need education faculties who must struggle with implementing their own ideas, and we need working models of what the newest ideas look like. And we need these run, not by the kind of profit-making corporations "reformers" are often so enamored of, but by the academic institutions which have the ability to analyze, and to intelligently propose the scaling up of solutions.
Systemic Thinking

What I'm proposing is a systemic way of looking at fundamental change in how schools are designed, in how they function. A way of looking at these changes in a way which actually informs our decision making. Is that too much to ask?

- Ira Socol

Moen, B. Multiage Education: Time for a Change
MultiAge Institute at Northern Arizona University
Choosing Multiage
Southern University Lab Schools
Florida Atlantic University Lab School
Why did this lab school close in the Reagan era?

1 comment:

Peter D. Mare said...

Would you be willing to entertain another change: a linguistic one? As I have written before, the English spelling system has the worst phonemicity ratio of all Western languages making learning and teaching to read and spell excruciatingly hard and expensive! I prove my point in my website!