Withstanding the wave of the education reform movement
Throughout the U.S., the movement to privatize education is advancing, in state legislatures and local school districts, and it is a relentless force. Education reformers are on a mission to replace under-performing public schools with charter schools and other private alternatives. Most of the public schools reformers are targeting are located in urban and rural communities with populations that are as diverse economically as they are culturally. That public school educators have not taken the time to understand the true motivation of reformers places their futures and ours at risk.
This unrelenting pursuit of privatization on the part of education reformers, and the policy makers who support them, is driven by the poor performance of students. The zeal of these crusaders, however, is not just about the numbers rather it is guided by the intransigence of public school teachers and administrators who insist that public education is better than it has ever been.
The irony is that public education might, indeed, be better than ever but it is nowhere near good enough. This leaves public schools, their teachers and communities in a showdown, winner-take-all poker game in which they hold no cards.
The facts are indisputable. In states throughout the U.S., the percentage of children unable to pass their state’s competency exams in math and English language arts is unacceptable. If you have doubts that what I say is true, go to the website of a nearby public school district that serves a significant percentage of poor and minority students and examin the data. Better yet, go to the website of your state’s department of education and look at statewide data. Although children who fail are often poor and include a disproportionate percentage of children of color or for whom English is a second language, they come from all segments of U.S. population. The data is alarming.
It is my assertion that most of the problems facing 21st Century American society are rooted in the separation between the haves and have nots and between white Americans and people of color. The chasm that divides us exists because disadvantaged children enter public school at age five or six and then exit, 13 years later, without the knowledge and skills necessary to accept the responsibilities of citizenship in a participatory democracy and without the ability to participate in the American dream. Instead, they return to their communities and join the previous generations of men and women who have always failed in school and have always been poor and who live under a canopy of hopelessness and powerlessness.
As these men and women clog up our justice system, fill our prisons to overflowing, raise their children on welfare, and become hardcore unemployable they elicit the bitterness and resentment of mainstream Americans who are asked to bear the economic burden. Many of these “mainstream Americans” have been reared in a society that has long been permeated by racism and discrimination and the events of our time validate, in their minds, the long-held traditions in which blacks and other people of color were viewed as inferior. Is it any wonder that, in the anger and frustration of so many, the American people have elected an authoritarian outsider as President of the United States on the basis of his promise to make American great again? Sadly, what is great for some is misery for others.
The biggest cause of this separation is that the needs of disadvantaged students are not being met by public schools and by the educational process at work in those schools. Public education was intended to be the great equalizer that would give every American child a ticket to the American dream. Instead, public education has become a brittle shell of its former self. While American society has changed exponentially, public education has plodded along with a seemingly endless series of incremental improvements none of which help our public schools serve the mission for which they were created. Public school educators have forgotten whom they exist to serve.
Would we be content, for example, to let physicians practice early 20th century medicine in response to the health challenges facing 21st people? Of course not, and we cannot afford to let our public schools prepare children for the challenges of the 21st century using outdated early 20th century methodologies.
Public schools, their teachers and administrators must recognize and acknowledge that they are viewed as obsolete by the education reform movement in America. Reformers are committed to putting public schools out of business. Unfortunately, the leaders of the reform movement, who are enormously successful business people, have forgotten the very principles upon which their own success has been built. They think that just by taking over the responsibility for educating our nation’s children, their success and the success of their students will be guaranteed. Unfortunately, they have not taken the time to understand the needs of their customer. It is ironic that this is not a mistake they would make when making an acquisition of another business entity.
This flaw in the internal logic of the reform movement, with its focus on high stakes testing and privatization, creates a real opportunity for public education. It is an opportunity, however, that cannot be seized and realized until educators are willing to go back to the drawing board and re-examine the needs of their customers. We need our public school educators to understand that not only are they responsible for the outcomes public schools produce they are also responsible for finding a solution that produces the outcomes our society so desperately needs. Blaming external forces is unacceptable. As I said in a recent post, what public school educators need is a paradigm shift.
In her book, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, (Teachers College Press, 2010) Linda Darling-Hammond writes:
“A business world maxim holds that ‘every organization is perfectly structured to get the results that it gets.’ A corollary is that substantially different results require organizational redesign, not just incentives for staff to try harder with traditional constraints.”
Now, seven years after these words were published, very little has changed in the way the American education process is structured and we are still getting the same outcomes we were getting then.
I utilized an axiom from operations management with a similar theme when developing my education model. It is a model that I believe will transform public education in America and seize the initiative from the reform movement. It says:
“If a system, process, or operation continues to produce unacceptable outcomes no matter how hard people work or how qualified they might be, then the system is flawed and must be replaced or reinvented.”
What my model does is:
Change the objectives and expectations of teachers;
Identify and address the unique needs of each and every student;
Alter the structure of the education process to support teachers in meeting our new objectives and expectations;
Rewrite the rules by which the game is played; and,
Change the manner in which we keep score.
What we will soon discover after implementing such changes is that anything is possible. Reinventing the education process is a simple human engineering exercise. We have the ability to create a process to do whatever we need it to do, if only we are willing to use our ingenuity and open our hearts and minds to the possibilities that exist outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom.
If public school teachers and administrators continue to bury their heads in the sand and refuse to accept responsibility for fixing what is broken, the outcome for public schools and teachers is inevitable. The ref