Opinion
Federal Opinion

Obama’s School Choice

By David Marshak — August 03, 2009 5 min read

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants to intensify the industrial, modernist character of American public schools. He wants a longer school day, a longer school week, and a longer school year. He wants national subject standards, which will inevitably lead to one national test. And he wants to institute merit pay, which is a euphemism for paying teachers to produce higher test scores. And this sort of merit pay, combined with national academic standards and one national test, will inevitably result in even more public schools becoming test-prep factories. Thus, more and more of the same.

Every one of these putative remedies grows from a belief that intensification of the command-and-control, modernist, factory model of production is what schools need to improve their performance.

Arne Duncan seems to have no understanding that the most effective organizations in our society, both for-profit corporations and nonprofits, have evolved beyond command-and-control cultures. The author and business professor Peter M. Senge describes these new entities as “learning organizations,” which are built on the foundation of systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning.

Senge explains why Duncan’s desire to intensify the factory model of schooling is destined for failure. “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s ‘solutions,’ ” he says. Factory-model schools, though always flawed by racism and classism, worked reasonably well when America was primarily an industrial society. But given our evolution into a more postindustrial culture, the industrial elements of schooling—mass production, rigid time and curricular structures, simplistic age-grading, and depersonalization and alienation—have become the problem, not the solution.

A postindustrial society requires postindustrial, post-modern schools. We could find a good example of this kind of education by following President Barack Obama’s two daughters to school one morning.

Since their move to Washington, Malia and Sasha Obama have attended the Sidwell Friends School. It is both private and expensive, but these are not its essential characteristics. Sidwell Friends is more profoundly defined both by the values that it rejects—and by those that it embodies.

Sidwell rejects the modernist, industrial paradigm of schooling that makes school like an assembly line engaged in mass production, that claims all children should learn the same stuff at the same time. It also rejects the modernist claim that children’s individuality and inner knowing are irrelevant to education.

Sidwell embraces a post-modernist paradigm of schooling defined by the following elements:

• Sidwell is a prekindergarten through 12th grade school, with 1,097 students. This is about 84 children in each grade, a small enough number so that no child is lost in the crowd. If Sidwell had a free-standing high school, it would have all of 336 students.

• Sidwell offers “a rich and rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum designed to stimulate creative inquiry, intellectual achievement, and independent thinking in a world increasingly without borders.” It does not limit its curriculum to the antiquated 19th-century subjects, as does every set of state curriculum standards—or the new national standards that Arne Duncan is pitching.

• Sidwell encourages its students “to give expression to their artistic abilities.” It does not cut the arts out of the curriculum to focus only on math and reading, as so many schools have done in our testing-obsessed era, but understands that the arts need to be an integral element in every child’s education.

• Sidwell Friends School is a community that values “the power of individual and collective reflection.” It values not only knowledge that is outside the child or teenager, but also what children and adolescents know within themselves. Sidwell encourages reflection and inner knowing, neither of which are acknowledged in any state’s academic standards.

• Sidwell promotes “an understanding of how diversity enriches us,” recruits a diverse student body (39 percent of its students are persons of color), and offers a global and multicultural curriculum.

• In its curriculum and communal life, Sidwell emphasizes “stewardship of the natural world” and engages its students both in learning the science of ecology and in developing the ethics that are at the core of the concept of stewardship: that every individual has a personal responsibility for ecological health and sustainability.

• Sidwell also promotes service, and its curriculum and communal life engage its students in understanding “why service to others enhances life.”

• Sidwell explicitly acknowledges multiple forms of accessing knowledge and truth: “through scientific investigation, through creative expression, through conversation, … through service within the school community and beyond.” All state standards are far more simple-minded.

• Sidwell recognizes that schooling is about both individual learning and learning how to work together well with others. “Work on individual skills and knowledge is balanced with group learning, in which each person’s unique insights contribute to a collective understanding.”

• Sidwell is a school that focuses on personalization of learning and on educating the whole person. “Above all,” its literature declares, “we seek to be a school that nurtures a genuine love of learning and teaches students ‘to let their lives speak.’ ” Sidwell’s central ambition is “to recognize and nurture each person’s unique gifts.”

Yes, Sidwell Friends is an expensive private school; the tuition is about $29,000 a year. And it has one teacher on staff for every seven students—plus small classes and expensive facilities.

But Sidwell’s commitment to implementing a post-modern paradigm of schooling based on the personalization of learning, a global and multicultural curriculum, an emphasis on ecology and environmental stewardship, service to others, multiple forms of knowledge, and personal responsibility and excellence has little to do with money. It’s driven primarily by the value of educating the whole person, and any school in America could enact a program founded on that same value.

If Barack and Michelle Obama have abandoned industrial-paradigm, modernist schooling and have chosen to send Malia and Sasha to a post-modern school focused on the personalization of learning in the context of a caring, responsible school community, isn’t it time for every family in the nation to have the same opportunity?

And if President Obama sends his own kids to such a school, why are he and Arne Duncan advocating policies that would intensify the most defective features of industrial schooling, rather than trying to transform schools to make them more like Sidwell Friends?

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A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Obama’s School Choice

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