There is no escaping the fact that the schools we have today will not be the schools we need tomorrow.

In fact, our schools haven’t been sufficient for their task for decades. That point is arguable, of course, and there are warriors willing to battle for a nostalgic vision of the good old perfect schools that existed more in memory than in reality.

But, even those supporters of the schools we have (or had) must admit that the back and forth arguments about Common Core standards, teacher evaluation, charter schools, alternative teacher preparation programs, the quality of college of education schools, school discipline, racialized testing outcomes, and so on, are not battles about those isolated, compartmentalized issues.

In total they are battles about the real or perceived insufficiency of public schooling.

The sobering truth is that none of the proposals, or the unlikely resolution of arguments about them, will solve much. After decades of top-down debate it now sounds like drunken gibberish that keeps the system destabilized, misfiring at all levels, and constantly working at cross purposes. The best ideas are disputed, sabotaged, and made meaningless during implementation. The worst ideas are often adopted and then heralded as victories. Vast amounts of money and ink and intellectual labor time are devoted to proving the most mundane points in defense of minor prescriptions, illustrating just how stable and stubborn a government monopoly can be.

This is where I feel like the bah-humbug brother. The naysayer. I never had hope for yesterday’s schools and I’ve learned through experience the perils of believing too much in the technocratic vision of  school “reform.” This thing was never good. The “system” for educating children was never about educating all children as much as efficiently processing them into social classes. So, “reforming” the system is a cruel fantasy that sounds somewhat like reforming slavery rather than abolishing it.

This isn’t to say we ought not engage in the details of how the education of children should happen. The fine details of who teaches, where they teach, how they teach, how they are funded, paid, evaluated, and supported are important questions worthy of addressing if the goal is student learning. My caution is one begging for humility in the face of mostly failed attempts to change public education as a system, over many years, through many political battles, none of which seem near completion.

Reducing class size is important, as is having teachers capable of producing a desired effect (student learning), and so is having a fair and honest way for the public to hold the institution to account for the $600 billion investment that Americans make into student development. However, decisive “wins” in any of these battles by themselves will not address the source of eternal dysfunction in “the system.”

The bureaucratized, professionalized, industrialized factory model of education is the problem. We can’t sidestep that in hopes that we can put the proverbial lipstick on the dystopian pig. The model many cling to is a fetish, and an artifact that we cannot co-locate with a modern vision for educating all of America. God help us if we can’t admit that. The traditional education model itself will not prepare today’s students for productive lives in a modern, and ruthless economy.

In a previous post I raised Ivan Ilich as a voice to hear on this issue of the purpose of education and how the design of schooling was wrong from the beginning. His forceful argument that universal compulsory education as delivered through a professionalized bureaucracy raises the possibility of other ways to “educate” people. It’s radical work that could help us define an alternative future. It’s challenging, as any vision should be. And, like many high-minded ideas, most people aren’t ready to go as far as Illich in reconceiving the premise and practices of education.

But Afie Kohn gets partially there from the left when he calls for a departure from standardization, homework, grades, age-bound cohorts, and other traditional establishment premises.

Andy Smarick gets partially there from the right when he questions the high-handed, prescriptive Federal role in local education, and when he suggests that school districts as a delivery model are superannuated.

I’m going there, slowly.

As a conservative the thought of radical redevelopment of the education system troubles me because I like order and structure. Squishy relativism and foggy intellectualizing spook my digestive system like a laxative. Still, as an autodidact, the liberating and humane treatment of the learner found in Illich’s “deschooling” thesis, and in Alfie Kohn’s activism, appeals to my sense of freedom, independence, and justice.

And, Smarick’s pitch for less government prescription appeals to my fear that the State gets things colossally wrong when it becomes bossy in the most intimate spaces of our lives. Nothing could be more intimate than how we develop our children to be their best selves, the beings God intended them to be.

Sure, Illich’s critique of state schooling as a downright oppressive enterprise could be too fringe for many people. So marginal as to be discounted as unrealistic.

Enter Sir Ken Robinson. Millions of people circulated his affable TedTalk that unhinged public schooling. It was a huge viral success online, circulated by teachers, students, parents, and education activists who agreed from across the chasm of political perspective.

Why did we applaud his seemingly fresh perspective even as it theoretically disabled all the structures of public education that many of us hold dear? We circulated this video perhaps without realizing how subversive it actually is.

Unlike the many revisionist conceptions of public education’s history that tell us schooling was conceived as a noble way to prepare Americans for a high-minded life in a democratic society, Sir Robinson stridently points out the classist and industrial chassis that our public education system rides on.

Viewers could take his words as support for their pet issue and mistake his callout of the entire system. But, he wasn’t saying the system is wrong for reasons you might support politically. The system is not wrong because it fails to educate black and brown kids, as many (me included) education activists demand. Not wrong because it ignores gifted kids, as a growing number of education commentators are saying. Not wrong because it must fix the “ills” and Dickens-like conditions of the unwashed poor as Diane Ravitch might say. Not wrong because we are getting teacher preparation wrong (ala Linda Darling-Hammond) or mis-labeling the problem as a “gap” when it is actually a “debt” (ala Gloria Landson-Billings).

Not wrong on those accounts. Just wrong, from the beginning, by design. To use the most appropriate urban vernacular: tore up from the floor up.

That hidden conclusion in his happy talk video may be too frightening and uninspiring to generate civic action. It is a point of fact that is too big for easy answers.

Focused and thoughtful people, and the systems engineers in the dueling education camps, might prefer to collude for practical solutions that modulate the problem into corrigible chunks. That isn’t a new phenomena. History has many examples of the need to temper visionaries and embolden the pragmatic class, and vice-versa. If you believe the thinking and rhetoric of the current school wars has gone stale, you might want visionaries. If you believe the appropriate issues are on the table and the current debate is getting us closer to success, you might support the pragmatists.

My prediction is that some (not all) public education apologists will continue to suggest mild, and expensive enhancements to the existing system, coupled with a massive economic overhaul of the American economy. For them this will improve schools without an inexpedient redesign of the system that governs and operates them. The idea is to double down on funding, reduce accountability, ignore data, eliminate assessment, and extend recess by six hours, and expect that innumerate and illiterate children will be skilled enough to thrive in the free world.

On the other “side,” some (not all) “reformers” will continue to denounce incrementalism in school “reform.” They will proffer technocratic proposals to “fix” the system in increments that sound like leaps, and in the process they will squander plenty of creative territory by creating new schools that aren’t remarkably different in design than old schools. Their ideas will seek to moron-proof teaching, count every minute as a quantifiable unit of skill boosting opportunity, and militarize behavior to the point where individualism is just another word for underperformance. Their expectation is that this will produce thinking beings capable of leading in the real world of commerce.

My view of both camps is their activism will predictably lead to more negative counterpoise, and a lot of running in place that looks like movement.

At the same time, a movement of third-party contributors will unknowingly link together in a messy process to discovering the future of education. Thankfully they will come from the left and right. Voices that seem incongruent will arrive at a common vision for education, an even steven photo finish that does not require either to win or lose, but a vision that accommodates both. Few people would agree that it is possible given the nature of today’s debate, but many secretly desire for it to be true.

There are echoes of it already in these proposals: greater personalization, better use of technology, a move away from place-based brick-and-mortar instruction, cities as classrooms, blended learning, self-organized learning, flipped classrooms, gamified classrooms, teacher-led schools, and community-based education cooperatives that run like worker-owned food cooperatives.

These ideas, and the many others that take inventory of our assets and dream a better world rather than doing more of what hasn’t worked, represent a break from the left-right, corporate-public, management-labor dichotomies that have us stuck in lavish, unwinnable arguments.  They just might help us see through the angry red haze of the political school wars, and toward a green, creative, generous, and merciful future where education is not about political ideology or schooling, but about a nation’s commitment to loving its children.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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