School Climate & Safety Opinion

Education: Too Big to Fail and Too Big to Succeed?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 20, 2016 5 min read
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With all the reflection on quality teaching and leadership, methods, changing population, poverty, school organization, and funding, we wonder whether the reason the school experience for students has barely changed is because education is too big.

Why Are Schools Languishing?
Some succeed and others do not. But how many can say they are meeting the mark for this century? How many schools can match the world students live in outside of their walls inside of the learning environment? How many schools have successfully engaged all of their students as enthusiastic learners? Devoted to meeting the learning needs of all students, how many can say, when they are in the private space of their own heart, they are? And how many schools can compare their standard of excellence to the ones on the other side of the country? Can we even agree on what today’s graduates should be able to walk across the graduation stage knowing and being able to do? Have we truly de-segregated schools when the neighborhood controls the school’s success rates? Have we moved from a black/white segregation and allowed a poor/rich one to remain?

Schools Are a Business and Business Producing
Schools are local entities, basically funded by mostly local taxes and are subsidized by state and national government funds. Lobbies exist, even if shrouded in sheep’s clothing. There has been no time in recent memory when discussion of school improvement was not in the news, or on the minds of leaders, boards, parents, communities, and politicians. Each has a vested interest in the quality of education. There are the plethora of businesses that offer advice through professional development, lawyers that advise schools on policies, organizations that offer conferences and support, accountants who assure fiscal compliance, and there are tech companies who supply all types of technology, electricians who wire the buildings to support those technologies, and a myriad of others whose livelihoods are education dependent. There are the smaller, hidden lobbies. Summer camps for the wealthy might resist a national change in school schedules diminishing their two-month business window. Unions might rally against a twelve-month school year. The coalitions of vested interests begin to form and the status quo is defended. And, with all the local control we do enjoy, how on earth could sweeping changes to schools across the country be made, really?

Is It Possible That Education Is Too Big to Fail and Too Big to Succeed?
Some think it is money that will solve a problem. Laurene Powell Jobs has pledged $100* million dollars to re-think high schools. A laudable project but will $100* million dollars change all high schools in our country? And truly, who can think changing high schools without changing the teaching and learning experience that precedes it is the answer? There is a belief that if there is a pilot, a small experiment that succeeds, it can be leveraged up to size. It is a bit like trickle down or, in this case, trickle out. But is the size of public education prohibitive? Are we too big and too locally controlled for big scale change to work?

The education of our children is everybody’s business and everybody has to be on the change train, or else we will be creating new and improved places for some children to learn while the same old environments and challenges remain for others. We have seen this happening as we completed our STEM research. The answer is not to leave it up to localities. We know the disparity of resources and results that system produces. But, history says the answer is not to leave it up to a national authority either. Enter the states. Is that the level at which change happens?

At the root of this may be a morality question. Can we, as the nation’s educators, agree on changes that will benefit children if it means some of us, and the money dedicated to our schools, will be repurposed or sent elsewhere? Can one whose income and security are dependent on the current system make purposeful changes separating one’s own security from what is best for today’s children? That’s what leaders are called to do.

And a deeper moral question may lie in the question of whether we are willing to risk shedding an old system held accountable through standardized measures and recognize how that very system contributes to our being held back. Are we serving the children or are we serving ourselves or do we even know who is being served by perpetuating the old way?

Can we openly consider the value, for example, of charter schools without triggering a bias, one that protects us? Can we expect the businesses, organizations, individuals, and government agencies to step back from their service and question whether the whole idea of public education needs to be redesigned?

Perhaps schools don’t fail. But worse, what if they no longer serve? What if they stay the same? Are educators willing to spend their careers being held accountable for test scores and graduation rates when it is the whole system, not the teachers alone, who ought to be accountable? Educators are part of one of the biggest businesses in this country. Not only are students educated but education supports those who work within it as well as the other industries such as publishing, Internet companies, lawyers, accountants, newspapers, consultants, supply companies, and communication companies.

Expand the question about school quality and the responsibility for its improvement. Is education too big to fail? Is it too big and disparate to succeed? Recognize that there are far more factions that support the current system than there are forces to change it. Recognize fears of losing jobs and purpose. Place the children and their future at the center. Educators’ work is fueled by a passion for our youth and the future they will create. And we can learn from business. Schools, as an industry, may not fail but we might get replaced if we are failing the children. What do our children need? What does it take to meet those needs? Can we, as a nation, agree that educating our students in this century and moving forward takes something different than what we have? Can we be brave enough to begin these conversations?

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

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*Correction: The original 9/22 post read $50 million based upon the NY Times article being quoted. We were advised by the XQ: The Super School Project that the amount is $100 million.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.