#EdReform is NOT that Difficult
Sometimes we just make things too complicated.
How do we this? How do we that? How can we overhaul our public education system without changing anything about it? How do we reach diverse students from inequitable backgrounds and make them all the same person by 3rd grade? How do we recruit and retain higher quality teachers without increasing fiscal incentives, but while stomping out every last vestige of the things that used to make it a fulfilling career?
How do we patch up old wineskins to endure new wine without bursting?
Simple - we don’t.
But that’s OK, because the old wineskins have outlived their usefulness. And just between you and me, new wineskins needn’t be all that complex or much more expensive than the old – and they might just lead to much better varieties of wine.
My Five New Wineskins of Public Education - none of which are all that crazy or even particularly expensive compared to what we spend on, say, testing vendors.
New Wineskin #1: A few key districts simply refuse to administer any state standardized tests. It would be better if there was PTSA buy-in, and the younger the age group, the better. It would be more effective if there were 3 or 4 districts of some size, at least one of which is generally very successful at such things and another of which is not. Unite, refuse, then see what happens – it’s on the state to make the next move.
Upside: Everything’s better with numbers, and a little diversity refutes any suggestion this is about who’s ‘winning’ or ‘losing’, or who has ‘high standards’ and who doesn’t. The state could, of course, refuse to issue diplomas to hundreds or thousands of children. They could defund entire districts, maybe even seek legal action. But that’s some pretty harsh PR, going up against educators and parents ‘standing up for the children’.
Downside: Requires a lot of people to agree to take a huge risk all at once, trust one another to hold the line, and possibly all lose our jobs. So, that would suck. Then again, we all talk a good game about standing up for what we believe. I've read your motivational posters and sig files, so… will you?
New Wineskin #2: Districts start offering different types of diplomas. Students planning on going full legit university take full legit academic classes. They AP, they IB, they read and write and inquire and think - they can even Common Core if you wish. Those thinking they'd prefer something more practical or vocational will still be exposed to basic science and math and such, but we don’t need to drag them kicking and screaming through a complex thesis sentence or Algebra II before cosmetology school. Our cultish obsession with ‘core subjects’ can be replaced with something useful – not coldly utilitarian, but based on where students are going and what they want to do.
Upside: Dialing back our obsession with the full Enlightenment Era / factory model “core curriculum” would allow us to teach useful math through shop or repair classes, practical reading alongside a touch of 'real' literature, or otherwise manifest our idealism in more balanced fashion. We could offer curriculums students might not hate and find absolutely pointless all day every day. Students strong in traditional subjects could do more than endure hours of mediocre instruction as their teachers struggle to manage and cajole the kids who simply do NOT want or need to be there.
Downside: Tracking has a poor history, rife with unintended negative consequences. Schools would have to figure out logistics of such variety, and perhaps cooperate with neighboring districts. We’ll all be accused of giving up on kids and not caring about high standards because we’re no longer requiring our kids to do a bunch of stuff none of the people making the laws can do either.
New Wineskin #3: Universities should stop requiring high school diplomas and businesses should stop requiring degrees. Let’s be honest – that stuff is mostly a convenience for the institutions rather than real requirements for what students or employees will be doing. We're always hearing universities complain the freshmen all require remediation anyway, and it seems few companies hire based on WHICH degrees you have - they're just happy you have... something. Institutions and industries can come up with more appropriate entrance expectations or preparatory training.
Upside: Doesn’t require legal changes or universal buy-in. A generation ago, many organizations had their own competency tests based on the actual job. Problem was, there were racial disparities in the results, leading to civil rights issues. So... new system - require college degrees! It was overkill in most cases, but also shifted the ‘qualifications’ burden to the universities (without actually resolving the disparities). It’s a new age in terms of how companies deal with diversity – let’s ditch this unnecessary complication.
Downside: Might threaten current socio-economic caste system.
New Wineskin #4: Allow teachers to teach the subjects they want and students to choose what they want from those offerings. Like colleges do when trying to garner all that scholarship money by wooing new students with those colorful course descriptions, let high schools offer shorter, more interesting options from which to choose. Some should be close enough to ‘core subjects’ to expose students to the fundamental tenets of each, but generally the framework should be flexible enough that everyone involved doesn’t hate themselves for being there. You take 3 or 4 weeks, then you sign up for new selections. Some may build on one another; most could stand alone.
Traditional cores would still be offered for those so inclined, or for students unwilling or unable to flourish either academically or behaviorally in more interesting classes. Don’t get your panties in a wad about this creating a ‘caste system’ or ‘tracking’ – that's pretty much what 'on-level' classes are now. We’d just be allowing anyone who wishes to escape that limitation and actually learn stuff without requiring the rigor of AP or IB to do so.
Sorry if it chafes to let 'normal' kids have an enriching classroom environment also.
Upside: Much higher interest and engagement, by both teachers and students. Core ideas and skills can still be taught, but as they arise naturally and in context. Stronger students can discover the ‘fulfilling’ aspect of more challenging classes when actual choices are involved, and weaker students who gravitate towards something less rigorous will still be exposed to ideas and skills they’d not be encountering otherwise.
The focus would be on learning, and on moving forward from where you are rather than dying in the ditch of ‘where we wish you were’.
Downside: Unless other factors are addressed to improve teacher motivation and retention, there’s potential for ‘blow-off’ classes for both the teacher and the students - you know, unlike currently. The freedom to have excellent classes also means the potential to increase inequity. One advantage to forcing every student in a given state to endure the same outdated, tedious, pointless curriculum is that no one school or any one teacher can be all THAT interesting or successful; there’s a certain ‘unity of mediocrity’. Removing the rusty anchor of ‘standardization’ allows some classrooms to be amazing, meaning others are less so by comparison.
New Wineskin #5: Put me in charge. Unlimited legislative and judicial authority, and extensive resources. Perhaps a concubine or three.
Upside: T-shirts for everyone.
Downside: Oh, please.