The story of modern school reform in Los Angeles, and in a lot of other places, stretches back more than eleven decades, but it’s easy to sum up. The schools are stuck between an old institutional form of learning, Learning 1.0, and a new institution, Learning 2.0, which is struggling to come into being. Let me explain.
Our predecessors in the Progressive Era, circa 1910, created the first full version of public education. If education were software it would be Learning 1.0. Learning 1.0 worked spectacularly, but over time society made demands on the system that it wasn’t designed to produce...virtually all students educated to a high standard, for example. Reformers tried and still try to tweak the system: Learning 1.1, 1.3, or 1.3.793. Virtually all current battles are being fought on this small spectrum of improvement.
For the most part, these reforms have been about rearranging adult power and privilege. Fire the superintendent. Get a new school board. Bring in people who call themselves reformers. Demonize United Teachers Los Angeles and the existing administrators. These efforts have led to political gridlock. Permanent crisis we call it in our book, Learning from L.A. (If you think you are a school reformer, please read this book; it will save you a lot of heartache.)
School reforms have produced interesting things in Los Angeles: What a wonderful education laboratory LAUSD became: More than a quarter of LAUSD students in non-traditional schools. 170 magnets, 160 charters, the mayor’s partnership, Locke, Green Dot, the Alliance. Vibrant community organizations. A new civic compact. There’s more stuff going on in the City of Angels than most people realize.
But the messy, retail politics of Los Angeles is maddening, and expensive. In one recent school board race, the candidates’ supporters spent $63 a vote on the campaign. Lots of human energy for slow results.
Some years ago, I started looking at new forms of learning. The harder I looked, the more I realized that the way out of permanent crisis was a new version of education, Learning 2.0: make investments in it and build political support around those ideas and investments.
The good news is that we have it within our reach to break down the batch processing system that the Progressive Reformers brought to us from industrial manufacturing a century ago. Public education is now in an unusual situation in which relatively small investments in learning infrastructure can have substantial impact in terms of capacity building and systems changing. Partly because of Internet technology, we have the capacity to create learning 2.0, the next full-scale version of public education, and it is possible to do so without the political costs of frontal attack on existing interests.
Learning 2.0 is partly about technology, but mostly about how humans do their work. It recognizes that students are the real workers in this system. A Los Angeles student told me, “I’m a sophomore; I should be a junior, but I messed up last year, didn’t get my work done. Now I know how to take responsibility for what I do.” Learning 2.0 is not permissive; it’s a bounded space, but with lots of freedom inside.
The contemporary politics of education cannot produce Learning 2.0. The problem is not—as many who call themselves “reformers” allege—with education interest groups. The problem is that the system is focused on the wrong things. For most of the last four decades, the interest groups in public education have battled over mandates and regulations. Those same interests need to focus on changing the design of the system and increasing its capacity.
(Next: How to build a winning political coalition: make an investment in Learning 2.0)
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