During my reading and writing about education (not to mention my living of it as a teacher), I have developed a hypothesis about the progression of a person or community’s interest in improving education. The hypothesis revolves around what I’ve called, very creatively, the Three Stages of Education Reform.
Stage 1 – The System is Fine
This is the default stage for many communities. It’s one that’s very comfortable, especially in places like Minnesota where we can be proud of our schools’ historical record of achievement. Someone with a pure Stage 1 mindset attributes reports of failing students to poverty, culture, family, or other areas, but they don’t look to public policy to address the problem.
The danger of a Stage 1 mindset is that systemic social problems like the achievement gap or declining global competitiveness are ignored or denied. This is not acceptable. In a context where education is closely correlated to income, it is wrong to allow educational gaps to persist. Those educational gaps become income gaps that perpetuate the inequality that continues to damage and weaken our society. To write off these problems as the fault of other people is a distinctly ungenerous attitude, and it is not worthy of progressives.
We have an income-based achievement gap in Minnesota. The children of the poor tend not to do as well as the children of the middle class, and the children of the middle class tend not to do as well as the children of the rich. This is injustice, plain and simple, and if progressives care about one thing, it is justice.
Stage 2 – Blow the System Up
Once the magnitude of the educational injustice in a community becomes clear, a common instinct is to want to do something. This drive to do something is almost instinctual, rooted at a deep emotional and moral level. As such, it is very powerful, but also easily misdirected.
On the one hand, it makes a sort of sense to say, “Well, we have this school system, and we have a bunch of inequality in school outcomes. What we’ve been doing isn’t working, so we should stop what we’re doing and try something, anything else.”
All of a sudden, everything about the way we educate our kids is a potential target: districts, administrators, teachers, etc. The rational approach of picking through how the many, many variables of schooling interact with the many, many variables of students’ non-school lives in an effort to determine the best way forward can get swamped in anti-establishment fervor.
This drives a lot of the energy for alternative systems in the form of charter schools and voucher programs. It also leads to full-bore attacks on the people currently trying to make the education system work; Exhibit A being Scott Walker’s frontal assault on the teachers’ unions in Wisconsin.
The problem with this is that the current system isn’t failing simply because the people in it don’t care or they’re trapped by byzantine rules and regulations. The system is failing because it was never designed to produce universal student achievement and because we haven’t figured out the best way to target the real origins of the achievement gap.
Stage 3 – Change the System Together
Want to know the biggest problem with Stage 2? It doesn’t work. Charter schools and voucher programs produce schools with results that are the same as their public counterparts. Merit pay doesn’t carrot-and-stick teachers into producing higher test scores. States with strong unions do better than states with weak unions. We have two decades’ worth of experimentation on this front, conducted in communities across the country.
Why doesn’t Stage 2 work? Well, in part it doesn’t work because it misunderstands the problem, as laid out above. Another reason for its failure is that it pits those currently providing education—all of whom are identified as part of “the System”—against those who want to blow the system up. It turns out you can’t force better test results by bludgeoning teachers and administrators into submission.
Instead, something very pernicious happens. People inside “the System,” who are still critical to the success of any efforts to produce change, come to associate any and all “reform” proposals with an attack. Those who should be allies of a change movement are denigrated and isolated from a spirit of improvement.
Stage 3, then, is about trying to repair those bridges. It’s about recognizing teachers’ interest in improving their performance and about grappling with what schools can do to address poverty outside the usual K-12 classroom setting. It’s about navigating the different (not necessarily competing!) interests of education’s stakeholders and getting on-the-ground support for real change. That’s what progressives need to be building, starting now.