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Lesson 10.1

Blow It Up?:
Big Ideas For Education Change

It’s easy to be bold, in theory

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Reform advocates (especially rookies) periodically call for the education system to be “blown up.” The old hands smile, or grimace.

Education is Big

Most calls to "blow up" the education system generally paint over the question of scale. Perhaps because classrooms are small, it is hard to internalize the reality that America’s education system is big. Really, really big. Giant, actually. In rough numbers, the census counts nearly 10 million students just in preschool and kindergarten. About 50 million more attend grades 1 through 12. Another 20 million or so are enrolled in college or graduate education. Just in the K-12 grades, America employs more than 3 million teachers, and spends well over half a trillion dollars per year. These are big numbers, certainly. But are they bigger than other big things in America? For example:

  • Q1: Which does America have more of: teachers or soldiers?
  • Q2: Does America have more schools or Starbucks?
Roughly a quarter of the population of America is currently enrolled in school.

The answers are not close. America has far more teachers than soldiers, even if you count teachers sparingly and soldiers generously. There are about ten schools for every Starbucks.

Big systems don't change quickly - at least not without destructive consequences.

Change Is Inevitable

Nevertheless, if there is consensus about anything in education, it is that change is both necessary and inevitable. Many classrooms still look and work about like they did fifty years ago. Is it really imaginable that 50 years hence students will still sit in rows, doing the same workbooks at the same time? In an age of ubiquitous computing and personalized learning, what is the future size of the market for #2 pencils? Today, the world’s best explanations of many subjects are only a click away. If some students are eager to take on long division, but others aren't ready, isn't it self-evident that change in the air? In places where over half of students enter school speaking a language other than English, how can the class keep up with the standards?

Public education has changed more over time than most people realize, or at least acknowledge. Lesson 1.7 discusses some of the major themes of the last 100 years of education change in America, particularly the developing ideal of "universal" education. The challenge, of course, is that major changes take time to unfold. Children usually progress through school faster than education systems change.

Systems Resist Change

There are many obstacles to change in education, including policy inertia, organizational inertia and "people" inertia.

Policy inertia. Many aspects of education are governed by detailed laws, for reasons good and bad. The workings of governments tend to be slow, and movements toward change in one area can be blocked by opposition in another. In 2009 a movement led by the Bay Area Council called for a California Constitutional Convention in an effort to provoke a bold rethinking of the basic policy apparatus of the state. A related suggestion "in the mix" at the time called for the entire California education code to be scheduled to “sunset” over a period of years. The idea earned a brief vogue with the support of the Governor's Committee on Education Excellence.

Organizational inertia. The "ecosystem" of education includes many participants with different perspectives, such as teachers, parents, businesses and taxpayers. Changes that require policy action must survive the policy process. Even at the nominal "end" of a policy decision process, changes only affect students to the extent that they are carried out.

"People" inertia. A new set of standards does not automatically change lesson plans, or the materials a teacher uses to explain an idea to students. Just because a teacher receives a new computer does not mean that he or she wants to use it, or knows how. In many schools, teachers feel that they are expected to work miracles with nothing but dry markers and charm; they are naturally disposed to proceed with caution when presented with the latest shiny idea.

The next two lessons examine two competing ideas about the role of resources in education change. Would efforts for change be better served by massive investment, or by a tightened belt?

Review

About 320 million people live in the United States of America. Roughly how many students are there in America, counting Preschool, K-12 and college?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Mary Perry June 25, 2014 at 10:59 am
While a bit of pragmatism about big changes is in order, creating some sense of urgency and a vision of what's possible are also important.
For the urgency part, I like this article, http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/06/employers-challenge-to-educators-make-school-relevant-to-students-lives/ that challenges educators to make school more relevant. It really puts students at the center of the question of education change -- right where they should be.
The article was posted on Mindshift (at http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift ) which provides a wealth of ideas -- from many different points of view -- about what's possible.
Here's how the Mindshift blog describes itself: "Launched in 2010 by KQED and NPR, MindShift explores the future of learning in all its dimensions, covering cultural and technology trends, innovations in education, groundbreaking research, education policy, and more." Credible source and challenging ideas. It's worth a look.
user avatar
Gisele Huff May 20, 2011 at 9:43 am
It is true that often, reform advocates, myself included, have called for blowing up the system and starting from scratch. However, for the first time in the second decade of the 21st century, it is possible to do just that.

As someone who has been in the trenches for more than 12 years, I am no longer talking about reforming education but about transforming it. As a matter of fact, I am no longer talking about education but about learning. That shift in vocabulary places focus squarely on the child and not on the adults or the system. In that space, personalized, differentiated learning rules and can only be delivered through technology.

In my view, learning should be bifurcated between content and pedagogy. Children learn content on the computer, adaptively, at their own pace. The software tracks their progress, evaluates their performance, intervenes when necessary, and creates a profile of their activities that is instantaneously available to the teacher through a dashboard. The teacher is Socrates, helps the students connect the dots and go deeper into the material they have learned on the computer.

In this scenario, as it is practiced at the Carpe Diem School in Yuma, AZ and at two 5th grade and two 7th grade classes in the Los Altos School District that use a Khan Academy math curriculum, the teacher has much more time to spend with each student individually. Not having the responsibility for imparting content to a group of children with varying abilities and particular learning problems, the teacher can now personalize the necessary intervention on the spot, as it were. No one falls through the cracks, no stitch is dropped.

That is the future of learning and the salvation of this country if we are to continue competing in the global economy.
user avatar
lb2vta April 12, 2015 at 2:25 pm
I wonder how many more schools are now doing what is mentioned in the post added May 20, 2011:
See below:
use a Khan Academy math curriculum, the teacher has much more time to spend with each student individually. Not having the responsibility for imparting content to a group of children with varying abilities and particular learning problems, the teacher can now personalize the necessary intervention on the spot, as it were. No one falls through the cracks, no stitch is dropped
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