Tuesday, March 06, 2007

School Reform: Place Your Bets

One reason I can still happily read blogs by principals, while just about any other blogs about education make me grind my teeth, is that principals, by their nature, have to have a concrete vision of what a school, or learning in general, should look like. They cannot simply criticize the status quo, belittle or ignore existing reforms and wonder about some still undefined perfect solution just over the horizon.

Similarly, one reason I think Will is "stuck," is because he has never been willing to place his bets on any existing model of school or education reform. Just like metal bands have pretty much maxed out the possibilities of "louder" and "faster," the territory on the "free" and "unschooling" side of education is well mapped out. Homeschooling is well-established in the US and growing. Same for virtual charter schools and elearning in general. Deschooling Society was written over 25 years ago; Summerhill was started in 1921; a "network of learning" is part of Christopher Alexander's original Pattern Language; etc., etc., ad nauseum. You've got The Big Picture Company, High Tech High, the good old Coalition of Essential Schools, KIPP, and charter schools and alternative programs of all sorts, some radical, some re-imaginings of more "traditional" approaches, scattered all over the country. Reading and writing workshop is old as I am, the Writing Project has branches everywhere.

My point here is not to point out yet again that there is nothing new under the sun. None of the aforementioned is the perfect school for 2050 or 2100, but certainly we should be able to at least have a conversation in terms of current reform models. We don't have to conjour images out of thin air, we can say things like, "we need schools like the Big Picture model, but including internships distributed out all over the world, not just locally" (I'd guess they've started doing this already, but I don't know).

And beyond that, at a certain point you just have to take your chips and push them onto a number. You have to be willing to say, "it may not be perfect yet, but I support the Big Picture model" or KIPP, or homeschooling, or whatever. Otherwise, this is just stemwinding.

OTOH, I simplify my consideration of the present and future of learning by disregarding the needs of the privileged. School reform for the wealthy is both vastly easier and harder than for the poor. It is easy because it is very difficult to genuinely screw up, i.e., end up with illiterate kids. It is difficult because the privileged are complacent, but you've got the resources to do just about anything (homeschooling is an option, for example). Here in the 'hood, in contrast, we've got all kinds of obstacles to overcome to get kids learning, but a greater willingness to take risks to do it, at least in the community, but at the same time, lots of more radical speculative options are clearly off the table, e.g., whatever happens in the school, there has to be a school building. The kids have to have somewhere to go. They can't be expected to stay home alone in their possibly unheated, lunch-less tenement, sitting in front of a computer monitor, or to be homeschooled by their parent who is illiterate in their native language and doesn't speak English very well.

I think if I was trying to figure out school reform for the wealthy, I'd feel like Will (which is not, btw, meant as an insult to Will).


Chris Lehmann said...

Well said...

One of the things I always try to do when talking about SLA is talk about the streams of American education that we're a part of. There'd be no SLA with CES, without Dewey, without IMSA... we stand on the shoulders of giants, and while we may be doing something new, it's within several known strands of American educational thought.

Also, your comments about reform in different SES communities is spot on. In the places where there is despair, it's a lot easier to communicate a radical notion.

Scott Hughes said...

I simply dropped out of high-school and never looked back. It may have been the smartest thing I ever did.

Anyway, you might like to put your ideas on the Education, Homeschooling, & Unschooling Forums.

Steve Burt said...

As usual, Tom, your writing on education reform and the interplay with so much of the edtech yodeling that goes on surrounding School 2.0 (ad nauseum) is some of the best reading in the blogosphere (I hesitate to say 'edu-blogosphere'). In reading your post, I couldn't help but think of an old prof I had in college for a course titled History of American Thought and Culture where I was first introduced to the works and reforms of early 20th century advocates like Jane Addams, Charles Peirce, and a handful of others. I can't help but think that give the past hundred years of "reform" we need to spend as much or more time on implementation of a variety of models and much less on listening to our own echoes.

pd said...

Thank you, thank you, as usual. Somehow this all reminds me of Frank Smith's Kappan article from back in the '90's: "Let's declare education a disaster and get on with our lives..." Substitute "school 2.0" for "education" and I think there's an echo. Anyway, your posts are like a mouth guard for my own grinding.

tellio said...

I think the reason Will Richardson feels stuck is not because he is unwilling to place a bet. His foray outside of the cozy confines of the secondary environs is evidence of that. I think that as an intelligent betting man he thinks maybe the game is rigged for the house. The betting metaphor really doesn't extend very well since it assumes that one bet is as good as another. Are you willing to argue that? I most certainly am not.

I don't really think any of the models you speak of will work under the current "story". I don't know any principals who are telling new "stories". And I am no "stemwinder" I began homeschooling my children over twenty years ago. I was looking for practical solutions to the very bad status quo and found Illich and Holt and free schooling and Alexander and Postman and Weingartner and all the other "failed" models. And I pieced together a new story for my children the put us on the margins of the traditional approaches. I absolutely guarantee you that I had to have a pretty concrete vision of what my kids education would look like.

I think that what Will is stuck on is the fact that the all of the current reform models are tied in with the work of principals whose concrete vision (an paradox if I ever saw one) is blinkered by its own institutional imperatives. In other words they can only tell the old story.

What is needed and what is so appalling is that we need a clean break with most of the existing models, maybe all of them. Theory always precedes change, practice proceeds from vision. Our problem is that we are looking at the world of learning with old, habitual, tired eyes. I am sorry not to have a solution except to say that we have always had new stories to help us get by, new metaphors, new symbols. Those new stories are disruptive, revolutionary, and rarely arise from the usual sources. I expect cognitive biologists and poets to come up with answers and I know for certain that principals will only patch the old boat.

kellywchris said...

Tom, I enjoyed the reading and the challenge you put forth. Of course, as a principal, I often wonder if I am seeing things with a clear focus. I really don't see that we are going to change schooling until we are ready to change schools. Right now, instead of "patch(ing) the old boat" I am trying to change ships. The old one will not carry us where we want to go. I see that we need to change schools because we have a new world to explore. Much as a new child explores and sees a new world, we are, with the use of the web2.0 tools, able to explore and see the world anew. So, how do babies explore the world. Well, with my 7 children, we showed them, helped them but, in the end, they had to eat, crawl, walk, run and all the rest on their own. We have an opportunity to do that right now. Now, as a principal, I'd love to make changes and begin to bring more of this about. You know what really puts up the roadblocks? Society. They want school to "stay the same" for the most part. Something they can recognize and will feel comfortable within. As for tellio, I'm really sorry there was a bad experience with a principal but we are not all like that. Some of us, young and with enough experience to see that things need to change. But we cannot move society, no matter how much we may want. So, we look for ways that are less intrusive and a bit slower so that people feel comfortable. My children are very comfortable with many of the web2.0 tools - they've been doing movies and such for years. But, as you say, they are among the wealthy. Those that don't have, need a place to go for school. Unfortunately, I have no vision for that situation until we, as society, truly say that all children are equal and deserve the same. I think Will is stuck because he's not seeing society wanting to change in education as it has in other arenas. For many areas, we want the change - we want someone at the peak of their game with the best training and newest equipment. For schools, we want them to be "familiar" and "comfortable", for the most part. You're right, we don't know what to do but I agree that we need to do something radically different and break the system. If I had people who would back me as a principal as vocally as I have people who are willing to punish me, change might be possible. As it is, push to hard and it's won't be a Thank You note you get in the mail.