Thursday, January 22, 2009

Stuck in a Rut

The biggest obstacle to education reform is preconceptions. As President Obama said in his inaugural address, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” Same goes for education. The adversarial frame of public versus everything else must also give way to what works. The shackles of preconceptions prevent creative thinking. We need people who have seen it all. We need people who are willing to be heretics, for whom the conventional wisdom may be foolishness. Maybe small classes are not that important. Neither “voucher” nor “lecture” are necessarily dirty seven-letter words. What is genuine self-esteem anyway? How about those unions? Certification does not guarantee quality. And maybe technology is not all it's cracked up to be.

We need people who have thirty years of experience, not one year thirty times. We need people who can ask the right questions. I read about an education initiative for underserved students. The organizers did not ask, ”How should we publicize the program?” as much as they asked, “Where are the people we want to reach?” Instead of sending out press releases and building a beautiful webpage, they put up flyers in laundromats.

We need people who understand the both the importance and the dilemma of opportunity. For example, I know of a middle schooler who caught the attention of a university tennis coach. For many months, the youngster along with other promising middle-schoolers gratefully received the benefits of coaching. But his budding tennis ambitions were cut off when his single mom could not afford the expenses of his first tournament. Maybe the coach thought she should sacrifice more, but the $300 tennis racket had already overstretched her means. An opportunity was lost.

The importance of social economic status (SES) is opportunity. Children who grow up in higher SES homes simply have greater exposure to opportunity and savvy parents who can help their children leverage that opportunity. Children who grow up in lower SES homes cannot afford to take advantage of what few opportunities come their way.

The keys to creating a world class education system begin with the umbrella concepts of relational trust and access to opportunity. During my first year of teaching, I was able to inspire high levels of relational trust among my students in an inner city school. They worked very hard for the hope of future opportunity that no one could anticipate. But some students were pessimistic. One boy said, “My father was a janitor all his life and that's all I'll ever get to be. So what do I need with school?” We came to an understanding. No one knows the future, and although I could understand his outlook, he agreed not to disrupt class. He cared deeply about his classmates, so he was willing to cooperate with my program on what he considered the slim chance it might pay off for him or any of his classmates.

I care nothing for ideological positions. I welcome the opportunity to confront my own preconceptions when I they break through to awareness. Clearly entrenched interests within education benefit from perpetuating the dysfunction. We need to identify those interests and overcome them. Is is possible to institutionalize relational trust as the Japanese have done? Maybe, but we need to know much more about Japan than we do. We need people with true international education experience.

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