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Why All Ed Reform Fails

As long as we remain focused on "school" as the center of all learning, our efforts to improve education are bound to fail.

Photo Credit: iQoncept |


The complexity, scale, and importance of school reform is mesmerizing. In fact, this scale often ends up obscuring solutions; as a single idea, “school reform” offers such immensity—and so many distracting particulars–that the whole is missed for the part.

Traditionally speaking, school improvement has focused on, well, schools. (I suppose that makes sense.)

Its stepfather, education reform, unfortunately stands a bit taller, and so gets tangled into all sorts of additional mess—bureaucracy, funding, political rhetoric, and even corporate influence.

For all of their collective gnashing of teeth and wailing, each is missing the point entirely. The gremlin bounds within a much larger ecology.

Imagine a world without school. Not simply our current world where schools have disappeared, but rather a world that somehow has evolved separately from our own, and “school” never existed. How might it be different? Start at the beginning. Why should we learn?

Citizenship might be a good first response.

Citizenship requires awareness, and awareness starts with learning of some kind. The need for a literate society extends beyond concepts of industry and workforce: the human spirit has prevailed for millennia in societies absent our sprawling Capitalism. So in this kind of society, where does the “learning” happen?

History’s greatest learners and thinkers thrived in alongside formal learning institutions, not because of them. That’s not to say they don’t offer value. Certainly, offering physical areas where people gather share resources, and cognitively mingle is a noble endeavor. The problem is, culture has turned their backs on schools, trusting the “industry” of education to shape them minds of their young. For generations families have sent out children to these “learning places,” and hoped for the best. Provided learners seem to be learning, and are “getting good grades,” the machine whirred on.

Now, that idea has calcified. You go to school to learn. That’s where learning “happens.”

And you learn not for self-knowledge or hippie notions of citizenship, but to “get a job.”

These ideas are difficult to change.

As a society, we’ve lost context. To us, learning happens “at school”–at best, it’s supported at home with equally-broken methods of tutoring. And if learning is mediocre or worse, harmful, we think first to fix the school. Improve the teachers. Improve the curriculum. Study harder. Send them to a “private” school.

Flip the classroom.

This focus on the “school” is a normal first reaction. However, after uncountable failures to “fix school,” it’s curious we haven’t learned better.

Part of it may be due to sentimentality. We’re so attached to the notion of school—it’s a cultural icon after all—that we cannot see other possibilities. Lunchboxes, recess, pigtails, and letter grades are powerful symbols. Ultimately, while formal locusts of learning are entirely appropriate, entrenched and highly artificial constructs of academia are not. Prevailing definitions of intelligence, creativity, and even collaboration are not simply overly-narrow, they’re lies that have been told through a stained-glass mosaic of report cards, standardized testing, and the illusion of “higher education.”

And all were made possible due to a distracted society drunk on sentimentality and old ways.

Take for example, the icon of education, the letter grade.

In the best of cases (where they aren’t simply thinly-veiled measures of learner compliance), letter grades are standards-based and objective, but entirely incomplete as a measure of a child’s understanding, progress, or value, depending as much on emotional support at home and general reading level as they do on higher-level content knowledge. Spirited creativity, collaboration, and higher-order thinking (ideas learners are instinctively drawn to) is less accessible and expensive, so schools do what any most businesses would do: measure what is accessible in as cost-effective a manner as possible. The problem is, schools aren’t businesses, and there is more at risk than profit.

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