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!)