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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.

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Out of this tangle stems corporate-sourced notions of “plans,” “policy,” and “standards,” each domains of the inattentive and impersonal.

Letter grades simply offer an opinion on how well the student understands academic standards created by people who they’ve never met in states they’ve never seen. (And let’s not even approach the fact that many of the grade-assigners—the teachers—can’t even agree what the standards demand that a learner actually understands, nor the best way to measure that understanding.)

Even “whole child” initiatives fail because they are woefully insufficient, akin to throwing a towel to a person waist-deep in a pool.

It is hard to call our current results anything else other than outright failure. What are the terms of “failure” in education? It depends on who you’re asking. Failure can be defined by a range of results from the obvious to the tempting comfort of mediocre progress on norm and criterion-based standardized assessments. But this is all failure.

And every time—every single time—school reform is going to fail.

Education reform will fail each time as well.

Why? Because by design each shifts the opportunity of learning–and the burden of “accountability”–away from the individual, the family, and community.

And it doesn’t matter where. It’s gone. Learners are now “components” in a “system” and dangerously anonymous.

It almost doesn’t matter that this shift is towards industrialized buildings full of over-worked teachers delivering non-authentic curriculum whose success is measured by myopic standardized testing. Even the best school and education reform possible still de-centralizes learning, intellectual authority, and the opportunity for cultural and spiritual guidance that can only occur in local circumstances. In either case, self-knowledge, self-pace, and self-actuation are gone.

Learning starts with self-awareness, affectionate knowledge of “other,” and practice reaching for that which is just out of reach. This can be supported in schools, but not birthed.

Learning necessitates a kind of “intellectual life” that is grown in an intimacy available only at home, in neighborhoods and other communities where “self” and “other” are carefully known.

Here, even digital environments are available. A ”community” is any place where the learner is intimately known, and seeks to know “other” with similar intimacy–whether that “other” is a person, an issue, or both. This includes difficult thinking about difficult issues, and honoring all the uncertainty any “solution” might bring.

The enormous effort of learning reform is Sisyphean in both repetition and scale because the challenge itself overwhelms through repetition and scale. Repeatedly we train our sights on the wrong targets, looking to improve  curriculum, assessment, and schools through plans, policy, and standards.

Plans, policy, and standards have no knowledge of the intimate—or the learner. They are lifeless conjurings from well-intended institutions applying corporate spirit to that which is decidedly non-corporate.

And so when they lead, they will always lead to failure.

Terry Heick is the director of curriculum at

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