Which school do you want to support?
Reform advocates (especially rookies) periodically call for the education system to be “blown up.” The old hands smile, or grimace.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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