A Guide to Pursuing Meaningful Education Reform

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!

Some of the Solutions:

So here are some overarching thoughts about how to approach solving these interconnected challenges wisely, holistically, and collaboratively:

1. Look to successful educational approaches in other countries and then emulate them. The best model is Finland, which has been ranked number 1 or 2 in global educational achievement for years, having turned around its previously mediocre educational system. While we will need to develop our own approaches that fit U.S. diversity, state systems, and political challenges, Finland provides a model worth considering carefully. Here are some facts about Finnish education that should make us pause and rethink our own strategies:

Teachers: Teaching in Finland is extremely prestigious. All Finnish teachers receive a master’s degree that is content-based (rather than theory-based), and the acceptance rate into teacher training programs is less than 10%. Finnish teachers work collaboratively as well as autonomously. They choose their own teaching methods and materials and assess their students accordingly.

Contrary to the popular belief that Finland pays its teachers more than we do, teachers’ salaries in Finland are actually comparable to the U.S. (though because Finnish teachers work on average about half as many hours as U.S. teachers, they are actually paid twice as much for their time).

Testing, homework, and instruction time: There are no standardized tests in Finland until a single matriculation exam at 15 years old (to determine the higher education options available to students). Education is not competitive. There are no valedictorians, rankings, or tracking. Most schools do not grade students until 6th grade. There are fewer school days in Finland than in the U.S., with shorter school days and more outdoor/recess time.

While all pre-schools (nursery and kindergarten) are fully funded and most children attend, academic education does not begin until children are 7 years old. Students are required to complete very little homework, averaging 30 minutes per day.

Equity: The variation in Finnish schools’ successes is minimal. Whether rural or urban, in wealthy or poor regions, in schools with 50% of the student body learning Finnish as a second language or those with only native Finnish speakers, Finnish children do well no matter what school they attend.

Cost: Less money is spent per pupil in Finland than in the U.S.

It certainly seems we have much to learn from Finland’s successes.

2. Avoid side-taking. We can be supportive of teachers’ unions while constructively critiquing outdated and unsuccessful approaches these unions have taken and abetted. We can believe in traditional public education and also support charter schools, where some of the most innovative educational initiatives and approaches occur, providing ideas and models for traditional public schools.

Instead of falling on one side or the other of the concept of vouchers (which generally provide a small stipend for a student to attend another school, rather than a full ride), we can have meaningful conversations about equity in school resources and consider what it would mean if vouchers were synonymous with the full cost of education for every child from age 3 through high school (and perhaps beyond), “redeemable” anywhere.

There are many more issues that have polarized good people who all want children to have a good education, but I think the point is made: Until we stop our knee-jerk side-taking and focus on creative problem-solving, our kids will be the losers.

3. Embrace the 21st Century. While the world has changed dramatically, schooling has changed little in the past century. A couple of years ago, a rising high school senior I knew was furiously memorizing the names and dates of American presidents the week before school began. When I asked why, she told me this was a summer requirement in preparation for her AP American History class. I was stunned. In her pocket was a tiny computer (her phone) that could provide this information in seconds, whenever she might need it. Was this rote memorization really worthy of what is supposed to be a college level course? Ironically, her teacher was considered the best in the school.

Meanwhile, that same year the kindergartners (kindergartners!) in the Auburn, Maine, schools were being provided with iPads, at a cost of $200,000, for 285 5-year-olds. Embracing the 21st century is going to mean thinking wisely, creatively, and intelligently about the skills and resources our kids will need for a rapidly changing world. Certainly, there is a better use of an AP American History student’s time than memorizing names and dates of presidents and a better use of a 5-year-old’s time (and taxpayer’s money) than spending school hours on a government subsidized tablet.

Online learning is a powerful and important way for our older kids to gain knowledge and skills. When I first learned about Khan Academy I was thrilled by it. People of all ages, anywhere in the world, could now easily learn math, science, and other subjects at their own pace and level, free of charge. But when I wrote an enthusiastic blog for a teachers’ website about Khan Academy, and it happened to be published on April 1, a reader thought it was an April Fool’s joke because Khan Academy had been summarily dismissed by some educators who rejected the idea of such online learning. In the 21st century, we can and must utilize technologies wisely to augment classroom learning and critical thinking, and we must bring in educators who are equipped to lead this effort.

4. Equipping our students to be solutionaries

As our children graduate from high school, they will face profoundly complex global challenges and potentially catastrophic problems. Our planet is warming faster than most climate scientists’ best predictions; we may lose half of all species on Earth by the end of this century; there are over 7 billion people on our planet, each of whom needs adequate food, clean water, a home, and economic opportunity (and 1 billion of whom don’t even have access to clean water and adequate food).

Yet along with these challenges come tremendous opportunities. We have a greater capacity to solve our problems than ever before in human history. We can communicate and collaborate with people across the globe instantaneously. Our children can be connected with their peers all over the world, learning and creating friendships that can lead to peace, partnerships, and ultimately global prosperity and sustainability.

It’s time to be like the emergency room doctor responding to the victim of a car crash. The doctor doesn’t just stabilize the patient, but rather calls in the range of specialists to ensure that she is treated comprehensively, successfully, and with her future health and well-being in mind.

The growing failure of our educational system to meet our broad spectrum of goals is one of the greatest emergencies of our time, and we need to treat it as such. If we do not graduate a generation of solutionaries who have the knowledge, tools, and motivation to think critically and creatively about the problems we face, we may not be able to avert massive global calamities.

Education is the greatest hope we have for achieving a just, healthy, and peaceful world. Let’s treat it as such.


Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.


Image courtesy of lusi/sxc


Deborah W.
Deborah W4 years ago

One side or the other, two conflicting views, good or bad ... all in the eyes of the beholder. Nothing ever changes and so on and one it goes, unresolved on any and all fronts. What's new?

Ralph Gardner
Ralph Gardner4 years ago

Marianne C, Mary B, Maureen H, Ad D... you all provided excellent comments and I would wholeheartedly support a return to the 'textbooks of the past' that truly challenged young minds to grow and expand. I agree that is an issue with regard to the exercise of the "political will" which has been greatly weakened with our current political model with particular emphasis upon the 'right-winged conservative' world. The attempt to 'dumb-down' and somewhat 'evangelize' has been a huge corruptive experience. Hopefully more folks will wake up...

Mike C...you have grossly misunderstood the reality of teaching. Besides being GREATLY undervalued in this country (we love our wars and sports), teachers don't work a 40-hour week as you implied with your work life. Typical workload for a teacher ranges from 50 to 75 hours per week as many are involved in other school activities (after school programs, arts, tutoring, athletics, etc). Do you work that much and what is your profession that you could make a direct comparison? Being a 'good' teacher is highly skilled process. The issues in education are systemic...

Miranda Lyon
Miranda Lyon4 years ago

Start with getting rid of NCLB altogether.

Mary B.
Mary B4 years ago

Oh yeah, 'taking sides' as in getting into conflict is not the same as haveing a preference for something like an on line course. Of course people have to see what's out there and choose what appeals to them. You don't have to defend your choice.

Mary B.
Mary B4 years ago

The only learning that sticks with people is what has meaning to them that they can apply to everyday situations. This is what makes the difference between on-the-ground type intelligence and memorized, academic ideas.Computers can be programed with exquisit mathimatical formulas that come together perfectly, and still be untranslatable 'on the ground' for anything usable.
You can't homeschool unless you can aford to stay home.
Unions can be used for good or ill depending on whether the leaders are in it for self profit or protecting of the teachers.
In my opinion, teachers are some of the best all around people I know. Who else would pick a job of baby sitting and trying to teach other peoples kids, many of whom are spoiled brats, endoctrinated dumbies, fearful, abused, often neglected, and sometimes no-it-all show offs who are bigger and stronger than the teacher. What fun.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra4 years ago

Thank you Zoe, for Sharing this!

Lynn D.
Lynn D4 years ago

Too many schools in America just plain waste the money they receive for education........

Robby R.
Robby R4 years ago

Home schooling is where its at.

Liliana Garcia
Liliana Garcia4 years ago

Grammar, oops: Finland's history and culture ARE quite distant from USA's in myriads of ways... Larry: You've said some interesting things but it looks as though you're claiming children will learn all things out of the classroom. Maybe so, but in what place, in what community, with what behavioral code? Could you provide us with info as to the Applied Scholastic ptogram?

Larry W.
Larry Weeks4 years ago

Applied Scholastics has been around for over 50 years, it can put a child through school in half the time, guarantee that they can apply the material they have learned and costs very little in comparison to the current system. The system was offered this solution and they refused it.

The current system of teaching will eventually collapse on itself as it cannot keep producing dumbed down kids without wrecking our society. Learning to think on one's own is the result of good education, that does not mean setting up the learning process so that the person learning is forced into becoming same as another. People are not the same, they require individual control over learning and life, and it is all possible with little cost.

Our society is afraid that if we give responsibility and responsible learning to our kids they will turn out bad. In fact it works the other way ...responsible kids turn out responsible, happy and literate. I cannot say that about the last 4 generations of people in America. Most learned more out of school.