When you hear the words “education reform” what do you think of? Ensuring that there is equity in schooling? That kids are becoming proficient in foundational subjects like reading, math, and science? That they are being prepared for 21st century challenges? That they learn to be critical and creative thinkers ready for a rapidly changing world? That they have excellent, inspiring teachers whom they respect and admire? That they graduate as compassionate, honest, knowledgeable, thoughtful global citizens ready and able to be solutionaries no matter what careers they pursue?
I think most of us would say yes to all of these goals.
Yet education reform in the U.S. has become so polarized, with many camps pitted against one another, as if our purposes were terribly divergent. What feeds this divergence and conflict among so many fair-minded, caring people? I believe it’s a too narrow focus on one or two of the above goals, which prevents crafting better solutions that help to achieve the whole.
Imagine someone coming to an emergency room having been in a car accident. Her bones are broken; she’s bleeding internally; she’s gone into shock; her wounds are in danger of infection. Imagine that instead of being treated comprehensively, the doctor addresses just one of the problems. The trauma specialist stabilizes her with fluids and transfusions and stops there. The orthopedist decides only to set her broken bones. The infectious disease doctor simply prescribes antibiotics. The surgeon tackles solely the internal bleeding. None of these actions on its own would be good enough.
Addressing the myriad problems we face in education without a comprehensive approach isn’t good enough either. A focus on one area may inadvertently delay progress in another. There are numerous impediments to achieving the educational goals mentioned above and they must be addressed simultaneously. Here are a few:
What are the Impediments?
- Without good teachers, we will not have good schooling. Unfortunately, in the U.S. the teaching profession comes with little status and a modest salary, but requires tremendous work – work that has become less autonomous and creative as educators have been required to teach to standardized bubble tests. So it should not be surprising that the profession does not generally attract America’s best and brightest (though, thankfully, it sometimes does). Without giving too much weight to standardized tests, only 23% of new teachers in the U.S. scored in the top third of SAT and ACT tests. Until we attract only smart, creative, committed people to the teaching profession and give them the autonomy, respect, and flexibility to meet the needs of their students, we should not expect to achieve our educational goals.
- Standardized No Child Left Behind (NCLB) tests, meant to ensure that students receive foundational knowledge and skills, primarily in math and reading, have not actually produced the hoped-for advances. In fact, they have unwittingly resulted in more demoralized teachers (with the most creative ones too often leaving the profession); students who are ever more bored and frustrated; lack of innovation for 21st century skill-building, because there simply isn’t time for it; and reduced time for students to learn and employ critical and creative thinking for today’s real world issues. Until we devise flexible and meaningful assessment tools that evaluate the array of skills and knowledge we hope to impart, we should not expect to achieve our educational goals.
- We’ve created straw men and turned a terribly complex array of educational issues into a battle between “sides.” Whether the straw man is teachers’ unions, NCLB and Race to the Top, vouchers, privatization, Teach for America, charter schools, or iconic figures like Michelle Rhee or Arne Duncan, side-taking is preventing thoughtful problem-solving. Until we stop our either/or thinking and commit to listening to the best ideas from all stakeholders in every quarter, we should not expect to find comprehensive solutions that meet all of our educational goals.
- We lack equity in school funding. Because property taxes provide much of local school resources, wealthier communities have more money to spend per pupil than poor communities. Until we address inequity and consider new and creative approaches to funding our schools, we should not expect to develop truly equitable education.
Next page: solutions!