School Reform: What will it take?

by Steve Wyckoff on January 16, 2010

For the last 20+ years I’ve constantly considered what it would take to make systemic change in the public education system. I’ve looked at it from every angle and I’ve changed my mind many times. Apparently, this is another one of those times, because I have change my mind again. In the past I’ve looked at policies, regulations, and practices, from the perspective  of what should we require schools to do. I’ve considered universal vouchers, and while I think they are still a good idea, they aren’t going to happen, and even if they did under the current conditions it wouldn’t change much.  I admit that up until now I’ve got universal vouchers were the answer.

Let me explain. I think vouchers, at least in a state like Kansas, would be very much like the charter schools. The charter school law while well-crafted, and well-meaning, has had little or no impact on the educational system. This is true in Kansas because control of charter schools has been left in the hands of local school districts and the state Board of Education. To become a charter school in Kansas, in spite of what the law says, you must look exactly like traditional public schools, in order to be granted a charter. This clearly violates the intent of the law, but I think lawmakers were more concerned with having a charter school law that having charter schools.

I realize that in some states charter schools have had a tremendous impact in terms of systemic change. States where this has occurred have had the benefit of a charter school law that is strong, and a legislature that intended to really have innovation in their schools. Neither of these is true in a state like Kansas.

So why do I think vouchers would fail in a state like Kansas? They would fail because there are so many regulations and policies that force every school to operate within the very narrow parameters of what we’ve always done in school. On top of that overcoming the inertia of more than 100 years in the current system is a daunting task.

What’s become clear to me is that if we really hope to implement real systemic change in public schools the solution lies in eliminating or dramatically reducing the ability of the state Department of Education and the state Board of Education to regulate and control schools. In an age of customization and individualization in all aspects of our life, it makes no sense for 10  laypeople to make decisions that require every single school in the state to behave in exactly the same way. Nor does it make sense to have bureaucrats make decisions that each and every school must follow in spite of the fact that in almost all cases there are many possible solutions that might work well.

Again I refer to Dan Pink’s book, Drive, or perspective. Pink outlines the factors that lead  heuristic behavior. Exactly the kind of behavior we need in our schools if we hope to meet the needs of our students in the 21st century. One of the key elements that Pink talks about his autonomy. He identifies four components that must be present to satisfy the need for autonomy.  He called them the four “T’s”: the task, the time, the technique, and the team,

The task is what you actually have people working on, they must have some control over the task. Currently the KSDE, and KSBE, are continually narrowing down exactly what the task is that schools must accomplish in spite of the fact that neither students nor society are served well by the defined tasks. They define the core curriculum, most of which is out of date, and the metrics for measurement, define standardized tests, that turn our kids into test taking machines and our schools into test preparation academies. If regulations didn’t exist mandating exactly what every student will receive in school, schools would immediately start to redefine what it is they want every student should know, do, and be like. And in turn to a much better job of meeting the needs of individual students and society.

The second “T” time is also mandated by the state. In fact every school must account for 1118 hours (I think that’s the right number, but it’s so irrelevant who would bother to remember it). In addition there are hosts of regulations and guidelines surrounding the “how’s” and “when’s” those hours must be counted. Another side effect of standardized testing mandated by the state and federal government, is that schools are controlling the timing of instruction and learning more rigidly than ever before. Which flies in the face of the fact that all kids learn at a different pace and are ready to learn things in a different time.

The third “T” is technique, the how you go about your business. Through certification requirements and collaboration with colleges, every teacher must be certified in the subject area that they teach. This ensures that how we teach and what we teach will never very from a traditional classroom model. This model is several centuries old now. I do concede that we are doing the best job of traditional instruction that we’ve ever done. The research surrounding this method is extensive. But it leaves no latitude other than direct instruction as the dominant instructional mode.

The fourth “T” is team, or who you work with. Once again through certification and departmentalization, mostly as a result of college entrance requirements, teachers work in isolation, teaching their subject in isolation. Not only do they not have the choice of who they team with, they don’t team. We do have anecdotal evidence of schools that are promoting teaming among their teachers, but they certainly are not the rule, nor do they seem to have much shelflife.

My contention, that if we would eliminate most of the rules and regulations forced upon us by state and federal regulations and policies we would see the kind of innovation that occurs in other industries, and a real focus on preparing students for their future,  rather than forcing them to “fit” into a system that is over 100 years old.

Leave me a comment, I’d love to hear from you.

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