What’s the problem?
Reforming public education: the continuing unanswered call
About fifty years ago as “Sputnik” circled the earth, the cry went up that America’s schools were not doing their job. Students were not being prepared —particularly in science and math—to keep pace with, or move ahead of, the Soviets in the emerging space frontier and struggle against expanding communism. It was a national and security emergency and schools were at the root.
A quarter century later came “A Nation at Risk!” Again schools were targeted as the problem in America’s ability to maintain leadership in a global economy and in the struggle between democracy and communism.
The call for K12 public school reform continues into the 21st century. Leading the charge, Bill Gates bluntly told the assembled U.S. governors in May 2005:
In Education Week, September 2004, “Is the Comprehensive High School Doomed?” Grub and Lazerson, observe that,
In Personal Learning, “Getting off the Hamster Wheel,” November 2005, Sammon expresses the frustration over failure of well-funded and thoughtful education reform efforts to bring about substantive improvement, concluding that,
Regarding “The gap in the good life” the StarTribune, December 18, 2005, in editorial comment challenged policy makers to,
Bosrock, Global Institute director looking forward in an article, “Hope for progress at this time next year,” StarTribune, December 26, 2005, observes,
We know from organizational management science that organizations function around a central paradigm – that is, a conceptual structure that shapes and governs its operations. Supporting a core paradigm are systems that mobilize human and economic resources.
The common thread among critiques and calls for reform is a challenge to the public education’s core paradigm. The bottom line: the paradigm is outdated and no longer relevant to the needs of society. Until the paradigm changes, attempts to update and improve the system and its outcomes will fail despite the best efforts of the dedicated men and women who teach and administer the system.
Given this, the tough questions for real and substantive reform of public K12 education become:
Barker (Barker 1993) describes a paradigm as a framework of thought, a scheme for understanding and explaining reality. A paradigm is a set of rules that establish or define boundaries and describe how to behave within those boundaries to be successful.
The paradigm is everything. The paradigm is the picture or image we have in our mind of the organization. It is a picture of what the organization is and how it operates. The rules and boundaries of the paradigm are organized into an operating system that defines and describes how people in the organization will use their skills and the organization’s resources to deliver what the paradigm envisions.
Senge (Senge 1990) includes “mental models” describing a concept equivalent to paradigm, as deeply ingrained assumptions, pictures or images that influence how we see the world and how we take action.
An interesting and parallel phenomenon to the paradigm is that the operating system defines how people in the system will behave. It is not the organization’s members who shape the system. That is why a new school principal or district superintendent is not able to improve the school or district’s performance unless they change the basic paradigm and the system that is defined by the school or district paradigm.
Time- and place-driven paradigm, assembly line system
The current K12 public education paradigm is rooted in pre-industrial, indeed colonial, frontier America. The core public school paradigm is the same as existed at the time what is purported to be the first school in America, the Boston Latin Grammar School, opened its doors in 1635!
The paradigm then and now is a time and place driven, group instruction delivery paradigm. Students go to a place for specified time to receive group instruction. Adults, for the convenience of delivery by adults, design instruction and the system to deliver instruction. Learners are expected and required to comply and learn. Implicit in adult design is the “curriculum” with its knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary for effective participation and independent life in American democracy.
Furthermore, the organizing principle is economic; the efficient use of economic resources; the maximum instruction for the least economic resources expended. The operational model is the assembly line. Students enter the “system” at about age five and are moved through the system in a continuous “assembly line” process. In thirteen years students are at the end of the assembly line and are pronounced, “graduated.” Of course, some students fall off the assembly line as “dropouts” or are rejected as “failures.”
Graduation is equated with completing the assembly line process. Graduation is operationally conferred on those who comply with the system’s expectations and rules. Those who don’t comply drop out or are cast out as failures. What is defensible knowledge regarding development and learning among children and youth is brought into the system by educators. Educators apply their knowledge and skill as best they can within the current system. However, their knowledge is subordinated to the requirements of group instruction, and economic efficiencies of the assembly line paradigm and operating system.
What’s best for all kids…and what isn’t
Every educator has likely uttered the phrase, “what’s best for all kids” while describing an instructional plan or school rule. Similarly, administrators, school board members, legislators, professors, concerned citizens, and a general array of pundits and journalists regularly assert their views and strategies as “what’s best for all kids.”
Curious, that in spite of such admonitions by all education players and observers, what we are doing in the K12 education enterprise is clearly not “what’s best for all kids!” We have an “achievement gap” that seems to grow more gapping year by year. Typically, kids of Euro-Anglo heritage, from a stable, healthy and affluent home environment, in well-funded public or private schools, in largely white suburbs, do very well. Children from such environments generally graduate, on time from high school, fully prepared to enter a career track or, as the majority of these graduates do, enter some post-secondary education or training track. Some kids of Asian heritage often do as well or better than their Euro-Anglo age mates!
Other children do not fare as well. These children we sort and label as “minorities,” African-American, Hispanic, Russian, Somali, to name a few. These are children from rural or inner-city urban areas, often-recent immigrants, generally in less affluent or poverty situations, and in schools that are inadequately funded, with poorly maintained facilities, often unsafe for students and teachers, and often experiencing a significant staff turnover each year. As one teacher, dedicated to needful children in an urban setting, stated, “I’ve been at ‘my school’ for eight years and have worked with different teachers on my team every year.” (Education graduate student, 2004) Most of these students are behind, in what current education parlance calls “grade level.” Somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of these students drop out and do not graduate from high school. These students emerge unprepared to enter post-secondary education or a career track. Clearly, we are not doing “what’s best for all kids!”
If we are not doing “what’s best for all kids,” what is a thoughtful and concerned educator to do? Strategies to substantively address that question can only come from different paradigms that generate different systems for student learning. These are not “cook-book” devices to be lifted and applied in every school. These strategies require concepts, organizational configurations and connections, interpersonal relationship ideas, systems concepts and thinking, ideas on organizational leadership and vision, from different paradigms and systems for student/learner-based teaching and learning. These new paradigms and systems must come from the educators on the scene, not from distant administrators or policy makers.
We invite you to share your efforts to engage the talent, expertise, and commitment in your school toward different paradigms and systems that genuinely move toward and achieve not only, “what’s best for all kids,” but “what’s best for all people” in your school and community.