Thursday, February 23, 2012

Are We Being Asked to Accomplish the Impossible?

Education reform, what it should look like, and whose fault it is that it's so necessary ( I think most of us agree that it's necessary) is a hotbutton issue for educators, politicians, and average citizens alike.  I've posted in the past about what I think education reform should look like -- to some extent -- and I surely will again, likely in the not-too-distant future.

As for whose fault it is that education needs reforming, consider the words of Clayton M. Christensen in his book Disrupting Class :

"Schools in the United States have in fact constantly improved.  Society just keeps moving the goalposts on schools by changing the definition of quality and asking schools to take on new jobs."

When I picked up this book to read, I was primarily interested in Christensen's take on how technology would, could, and does disrupt the educational process -- hopefully in positive ways.  When I got to the above quote (the idea of which is revisited throughout the book) I felt like I had been hit between the eyes with the obvious.  Christensen backs up his statement with a historical perspective of education in the US.  He points out the four jobs the American education system has been asked to do (each added on to the next, never swapped out) since it's inception:

1.  Preserve/inculcate democracy
2.  Provide something for every student
3.  Keep the US competitive
4.  Eliminate poverty

When stated as baldly as that, it's no wonder the existing system seems to some to be an abject failure.  From this perspective, education has clearly been successful at jobs 1 and 2.  Success at job 3 might be open to debate, depending on the criteria used to define "competitive".  Job 4, the newest responsibility" of the American education system has thus far eluded our grasp, and therefore it needs to be reformed, and someone needs to be held accountable...for not working the miracles being asked of educators.  To again quote Christensen:

"Asking the public schools to negotiate these disruptions from within their mainstream organizations is tantamount to giving them a demonstrably impossible task.  And yet, they've done remarkably well."

Most of us know (and often lament) that as educators we also must, at least in part, be parent, counselor, soup kitchen, Santa Claus, and hero to our students.  Pressure from all sides often makes us feel as though we are failing.

So here is my challenge to you:

Reread those quotes from Christensen.  Acknowledge to yourself honestly how successful you are at educating your students given escalating expectations and often diminishing resources.  Pat yourself on the back before you pull up those tights, tie on that cape, and try to teach your students to fly.

Let me know how it goes.

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