Saturday, June 19, 2010

You Can't "Reform" a Broken Pillar

Mark Kleiman has some comments on the concept of reform among a few some high-profile industries, namely oil, finance, public schools, and universities.  The structure of his post is interesting and it's worth a look, but his point is essentially: these institutions are very important, as such they all need to be under scrutiny, and yet their size and complexity demands an equal care and deft flexibility in holding them accountable.  I was reminded of how tricky the word "reform" is, and how, in terms of education, we're still so far from understanding what it should really mean.  With the financial crisis still hanging over us and oil from a damaged well rushing into the gulf, there is no argument that those are two industries in which the word regulation should never be out of earshot.  But with some minor reform they might indeed be set back on a proper course.  Education however needs a complete rethinking.

I had a long talk with my father (career high school teacher, retiring in 2 years, bless his soul) this morning. He’s off tomorrow on a flight to a week-long training seminar in project-based learning. We talked about the various reform proposals floated over the years, and how in the end it never fails to come down to a sort of synchronicity at the local level: administrators, teachers, parents, etc. all clicking in just the right way. But switch out some of the pieces and the entire structure falls apart. He recalled talking to a friend of his who’s been teaching for 3 decades and who agreed that, as far as what goes on in the classroom, nothing’s really changed. In his area of Seattle, the kids are still all black. Still an incredible achievement gap.

I understand the point on complexity and bureaucracy.  Schools will never be simple to adjust.

But what occurred to me is that there’s one really big difference between education, at least at the earlier levels, and the rest. Well any other field, really. And we’ve kind of understood this as a society. We’re beginning to use language that hints at it. It was the driving acknowledgment behind NCLB.

Education has the power to end social stratification. The end of class. The end of poverty. The end of criminal justice. The end of a lot. In fact, so much we’re afraid to even really try and imagine it. It seems too big. It seems, well, unimaginable. But all the social research tells us it is absolutely possible. There are examples of it happening in schools around the country. The problem is scale, among plenty others. But if they can do it, there’s no reason to think it can’t be done for all children.

The constitution points us in the right direction. Many major court cases have been fought over this very issue. Proposition 13 in California was built on it. The question was never if it was right to do it, but whether we could. Well, we can.

But we need a paradigm shift in thinking. This is where education needs to be thought of apart from any other sector, business or public. Education needs to be thought of less like a resource, or a public good, and more like a pillar of civilization; as an essential for life akin to air, food or water. As such, we need to take a serious look at how we deliver it unto each soul that enters our nation. 

This is not how we currently view it. Not by a long shot. And it isn't too much of a surprise.  The audacity of this notion, that you can take any child from any circumstance and through education put him on equal footing with his citizen peers.  The social research behind this idea, beginning with the thought that it might even be a worthwhile endeavor to begin with, has only been around for less than a century - much of it half that.  In a way, it's a sort of marvelous thing to be alive at a point in history when we not only have the philosophical and economic means to offer a plan for socioeconomic equality through education, but the scientific theory and data to back it up.

Take any two kids in America, from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and look at what services get provided them by a public school. There is very little difference. Aside from some federal Title I money to pay for crappy lunches and a reading specialist, you get very little. Considering the vast differences in human and social capital that the two children have access to, the attempt at equity is almost absurd. You rectify this imbalance, you have social dividends that we can’t even begin to dream about.

I've been thinking a lot about what a policy prescription might look like.  At this point it revolves around the notion of Student Capital (human + social / age), and means-tested allocation of funds - likely eventually federal, as drawing from constitutional rights and recognition of natural law.  I'm not naive enough to think that it is anything that might be accomplished in even a decade; I think it might require a good 30 or 40 years to germinate and unfold as part of a larger awakening of social consciousness.  We are just beginning to grasp the significance of new understandings in human development and behavior.  As these begin to draw thin the old egocentric attitudes about human agency, hopefully more avenues for not just understanding but implementation of a theory of Student Capital may open up.

No comments:

Post a Comment