Education Opinion

Four Paths For the Future

By Jal Mehta — June 06, 2011 6 min read
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By Jal Mehta

What would it take to generate significant improvement in American schooling?

The current path forward is not going to get us there. Despite the ideological heterogeneity of our group, there was a lot of agreement about what was broken. Expectations far outstrip performance. Teachers (on the whole) can’t do what is asked of them, especially as expectations increase. Bureaucratic structures erected in the Progressive Era seek to address the problem but only compound it. Policymakers distrust teachers and schools; teachers and schools distrust policymakers. Efforts to rationalize schools through NCLB style accountability just double down on the existing structure, and are largely impotent to create the kind of significant improvement we say we seek. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re not going to get there.

Broadly speaking, four pathways have emerged that would depart significantly from our present path, and offer some reason to think that they might yield large-scale improvement. (This draws on the work of the group, but represents my view only.)

1) The International path -- One possibility would be to follow the international leaders by making teaching a more selective and higher status profession, which would put the quality control upfront, and thus decrease the need for such extensive external testing and accountability. In terms of existing teachers, we’d seek to decrease the acrimony between teachers and their representatives and policymakers, and follow Ontario’s lead in finding ways to combine internal expertise with external expertise and support to generate improved practice. We would also seek greater equalization of funding. This would require a radical shift in at least three ways: a) we’d move from taking teachers from the bottom 40 percent of the distribution to the top third; b) we’d move away from our world-leading emphasis on testing and external accountability in favor of support and capacity building; c) teachers unions would need to take on a professionalized role in addition to a strictly bread and butter one.

2) Reform from the outside in -- A second possibility is that the “one best system” which has governed the U.S. since the beginning of the 20th century is gradually replaced by a group of outsiders. Challengers now exist to virtually every aspect of the traditional educational “establishment": Charter schools and regular public schools. Alternatively certified teachers and traditionally certified teachers. Newly created teacher training institutions and longstanding education schools. New foundations as opposed to older ones. Portfolio districts, like New York and New Orleans, as opposed to traditional ones. Rather than trying yet again to reform a broken system, we would simply replace the system, piece by piece, with new entrants who can start from scratch as they design what they hope will be better ways to do the work. Right now, the total number of students served by the new entrants is still relatively small compared to the system as a whole, but the new actors have made substantial inroads in a number of major cities. It is not impossible to imagine that they could end up the majority power in the top 100 systems serving poor youth in America.

3) Marrying school and social reform -- This is an old idea, but the basic insights are no less true for not being new. What might be new would be to move from this as an aspirational ideal to a more concrete set of practices--inter-agency collaborations or teachers housed in schools explicitly responsible for helping students with problems that extend beyond schools. To a remarkable degree, we are in a “schools only” moment, despite mountains of evidence of the inefficacy of schools alone, and one might imagine a path that took these external factors seriously might be significantly more successful. The intense interest in the Harlem Children’s Zone is one indication of how potent this strand of thinking remains.

4) Technological reinvention -- And finally, a number of the essays suggested that we might be moving towards a world where all of the previous might become obsolete, or at least recast in light of a new set of realities. We could see this in the essay about “beyond brick and mortar schooling” as well as in some of the ideas about “unbundling” teaching and moving to a model with a mixture of adults in different roles and increasingly sophisticated technology filling some of the gap. To paraphrase Al Shanker’s view, “when you have 3 million of anything, you have a whole lot of average.” Technology has the potential to take the best of what we can figure out and give it to everyone, without finding 3 million above average teachers. This would also be a world with much more choice -- not just choice among schools as we know them, but choice among all the pieces that comprise an education.

In the short term, any of these paths face considerable obstacles. The institutional conservatism of the school system is legendary and has overcome generation after generation of would-be reformers. Some of the above approaches would also require more significant changes to the political economy that surrounds schools, which would likely arouse opposition from advantaged people who are perfectly happy with the schools their children attend. The most likely outcome is that we continue to muddle through -- higher standards through common core, possibly a little more choice here and there, but the ultimate shape of the system is unchanged.

But at the same time there are reasons to think that significant change is possible. The creation of the PISA has given a significant push to international comparative research; the Secretary of Education has hosted a summit and two other events on what the U.S. can learn from worldwide leaders. The birth and growth of TFA, the success of high performing charter schools, and the infusion of new money has enabled rapid expansion for those who want to move on the sector from the outside in. Harlem Children’s Zone, the movement for extended school time, and the broadly shared sense that extra-school factors matter could support a renewed push for shared responsibility. And “blended learning” or “unbundled schools” are not only coming, they have already arrived--if they can prove themselves superior, one has to imagine the market for these services will only increase.

Of course, none of these changes will come absent politics. Both the best and occasionally most frustrating aspects of our public schools is that they are publicly governed, which means that we all have a say in what happens to them. If any of the above pathways are to replace the one we are currently on, it will only happen by people organizing to support policy and practice that is consistent with their preferred vision of a better school system. As you do, I hope you listen to teachers and students--history is rife with people who have wanted to remake schools without listening to the people who are inside them. I firmly believe we can create a better future--one that is both respectful of the people doing the work and is consistent with our highest aspirations for our schools and for ourselves as a people.

Jal Mehta is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The opinions expressed in The Futures of School Reform are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.