Monday, February 16, 2009

Thinking About Education Reform

My response to another good post from Andy Carvin's PBS blog, which gave me the chance to think out loud a little:
I think you took away from EduCon 2.1 the same thing that I did. Any "system," no matter how well-meaning, that is implemented from the top down potentially removes the local freedom that seems so evidently important to good education. I think that's a big part of why the great examples have this thread of independent passion that you can't "bottle." So much of what I hear about about education reform is really just wanting a different agenda to be mandated, but still mandated, from the top down. That's not "system reform"--in fact, I wonder if you can even have "system reform?" If a system is the perpetuation of practices that you think have led to good outcome, 1) you must believe first that you know or agree on what good outcome is and the steps to get there, and 2) the act of systematizing often defeats the creative independence that allows the creation and flourishing of good practices.

It occurs to me that our current education system is a set of "laws" when what we really need is a "constitution." I don't think it helps to structure the practices, but somehow we need to demonstrate out cultural commitment to education in a way that supports and strengthens the methods for generating local initiative and success.

As I've played with this idea out loud over the last few weeks since EduCon 2.1, the response I often get back is that such a system wouldn't be equitable or fair. As the parents of four children, my wife and I long ago lost our confidence in believing that we know what "fair" is. Each of our four children is different, and superficial fairness, in fact, is often not really fair at all, since their needs and talents are very different. I would ask: is our current "system" fair? Is it successful (macro level)? If attempts to mandate fair and equitable from the top down don't actually work, might we not consider re-framing the debate?

In some ways, I see this as very similar to the arguments for democracy versus communism. Democracy emanates from an believe in the inherent rights and value of the individual, and a belief that imperfect as we are, we have a right to define our own destiny. That in the messy (and sometimes unfair) process of democracy, there is a greater potential for good that is achieved by belief and support of the individual than when the individual is seen as serving the state, and when fairness and equity are mandated from above.

I know we're diving deep with this discussion, but I think it's a national discussion that I'd like to see us have--and not the discussion of whose particular agenda we are going to see mandated from above. It's also the kind of discussion I am hoping we'll be able to have at if I can make a plug for my interview series there. :)

Thanks for another good post, Andy.
(Another benefit of re-posting my response is the chance to run through spell-checking and being able to re-read words dashed off quickly in a small html reply box.  I hate seeing my mistakes after hitting the submit button!)


  1. Equity and excellence can come from local voice and control, but it was that same local independence that kept (& still keeps)schools separated by race & class.
    The federal top-down dicta do have limitations but the interplay between the local and the national will ultimately bring a just democracy into existence. Without the Voting Rights Act, I think we would have a different president in the White House...Without federal intervention, there would be millions of children without health coverage...Without federal intervention, top down, we wouldn't have the millions of children that have benefitted from early childhood education as in Head Start...
    So, you may say that you don't know what fair is for a spectrum of widely divergent children, but you do want an individualized, appropriate education for each.
    Federal intervention can push & move local schools in that direction.
    NCLB has many flaws, but it does require that schools disaggregate information to see how each sub-group is doing. A clear look at good data is very useful for making local decisions about how to serve all children well.

  2. From the earliest days of our republic there has been difficulty with balancing federal and local authorities. The early Constitution and early Supreme Court decisions were decidedly aimed toward limiting federal control. Over the past 240 years that locus of control has shifted almost completely.

    As aurelio points out, the same local control that might work to achieve equity and innovation is often the largest force against those same ideas. It is unlikely that any major 'reform' of education will come from the localities even though examples of educational excellence can be found in many of them.

    Nor is it likely that education reform will be delivered from the top down. Our system of schooling serves to reinforce and maintain the current systems and powers, not reform them.

    Of course, the whole idea of what is meant by education 'reform' is unclear and varies depending on your starting position and to which group of 'reformers' you belong. The emphasis on standardized measurement and accountability was a reform, at least in the minds of those who subscribe to it. Another 'reform' is the adoption of project-based constructivist education not particularly open to standardized bubble-in testing. Full disclosure: this is the reform to which I subscribe.

    We could continue to play the college freshman game of "define your terms," or we can have a revolution, but whatever course, don't expect things to change much without a lot of angst, psychic (I hope) bloodshed, anger, recrimination and casualties. Change is not always a pretty process.

  3. The educational system in my country, Greece, is quite centralized, and this is the case in most countries, in Europe and not only. The impact of this is that any change comes from the top, and each government wants to change the educational system, but different interests and lobbies as for instance, teacher unions, or private lessons teachers manage not to change anything at the end. Only some details, just the cover changes, for decades of years, and most of our educational system is focused on Upper Studies entrance system, and to be noticed that all Universities are public. My experience as a teacher is shows that teachers are the key point for all reforms to succeed. If the teachers have been convinced that a change is necessary, than the change can be feasible. So, the matter is to make a "critical mass" of teacher, who reinforce any power of change and to do this, they have to be well educated to use the ITC in Education, and know how to use it efficiently. Scolars more or less say the same. That the system has to change to a more learners-oriented, more de-centralized but this statement arrives to the ears of the decision-makers very slowly, it seems that there is no connection between them. In any case economy changes and this forces changes to come. But experiments like Kunskapsskolan in Sweden are worthy to be studied and be imitated by other countries. I had visited once a school like this and I was really impressed.


I hate having to moderate comments, but have to do so because of spam... :(