Educational Reform: Are We Wasting A Good Crisis

by Steve Wyckoff on January 29, 2010

I had the opportunity earlier this week to interview almost 20 educational leaders. I asked each of these individuals what the biggest issue is that they were facing has an educator in their role. Almost without exception they identified the financial crisis as the single most important issue. No surprise there.

But the follow-up question that I asked each of these individuals was, “What are you doing to address this issue?” Again, almost without exception, they described the cuts they were making. With a few of the individuals, because of their role in education, I asked them about innovative and creative solutions. I was very disappointed that almost all of the responses were the same, find ways to do what we always done with less money. It’s almost as if, as educators, we can’t see any solutions for educating children other than what we’ve done for more than 100 years.

But I did have three conversations that were very interesting to me. First of all I interviewed the interim commissioner, Dr. Diane DeBacker. Diane is an individual that I have the utmost respect for. In fact, I’m very perturbed that she isn’t a candidate for the commissioner’s position. She would be outstanding. But in our discussion I asked her if she was seeing creative and innovative solutions emerging as a result of the financial crisis. Her response was that she thinks schools are reverting back and becoming more traditional and more entrenched in traditional solutions.

The second conversation was with former Erie school district superintendent Mike Carson. Mike retired last year partially due to health considerations that were at least exacerbated by, if not caused by, the stress associated with making systemic change in the school system. For my money Erie high school is the best school in the state of Kansas. I have no idea what their standardized test scores are but what I did see when I visited Erie was every student authentically engaged in their work. Csikszentmihalyi would’ve said that they were hand “flow.”

If you’ve read my blog posts you know that I think standardized tests are the curse on education. Erie he doesn’t seem to focus on standardized test scores but rather on preparing students for their lives. What Erie high school has done is create a curriculum that is project based in problem-based. Where every student is engaged in learning centered on what is important to them and what they are interested in.

So when I asked Mike what the biggest issue in education was, he responded that our kids not being engaged in what they’re doing is the single biggest problem. And when I asked him about solutions he didn’t automatically say, “we need more money”, but he described a curriculum that met the needs of the students and was more relevant to their lives. What a breath of fresh air.

The third interview of interest was not with an educator, but rather with an architect, Allan Milbradt. Allan designed the new high school for the Erie school district. Allan told me that it was the best project he ever worked on because the school design was based on the curriculum that would be taught within the school, not simply modeled after every other school. Allan probably has more expertise in learning then many educational leaders.

So to answer my opening question, are we wasting a good crisis? I think the answer is yes. We have an opportunity to make lasting systemic change in the educational system. Changes that are sorely needed. Yet very few educational leaders are seeking really innovative and creative solutions.

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