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Friday, June 18, 2010

How Narratives Impede Education Reform

Patrick McGuinn is right. There are two narratives, and that is part of the problem. It sets up yet another dangerous either-or dichotomy where every fact and opinion must be squeezed through one sieve or another.

Meanwhile, all over the country, in individual local schools, effective education reform takes place apart from public awareness. Typically, the these local reformers are responding to the internal culture and politics of their school, making scalability a challenge, if not impossible.

Perhaps it is time to put aside partisan politics and narratives, and think hard about what we as a society want for the future of American education, because, as Deborah Meier points out, we are deciding on our shared future. The key word is “shared.” As it stands, we are divided, playing an evenly matched tug-of-war. No wonder nothing moves. Many education stakeholders are ambivalent about involvement. They want to be deeply involved, but distrust the process because important stakeholders, like teachers and parents, are shut out. Stakeholders do not esteem and trust each other.

So while stakeholders say they want to be empowered, normally the empowerment is worthless, consisting of false choices, like whether to have chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Early charter schools showed us what empowerment could look like. Early studies of charter schools found many local instances of excellence. These days there are too many operators with, shall we say, impure motives. The charter school movement has experienced serious regression toward the mean. Trust has been lost.

In-the-trenches educators have a lot to offer, but policy makers do not listen. We need to avoid over-simplified narratives that can be summed up in a couple a phrases, and begin to wrestle with the complexity of the issue. We got where we are today through a series of smaller actions taken beyond their usefulness. For example, I remember when education defined as the ability to locate information took hold. At the time, I was all for it. No body can know everything, but knowing how to find what you do not know is essential. It was not long though before I started getting students in my classes who did not have enough basic memorized knowledge to use as a foundation for an information search.

We do this all the time---create dichotomies and then swing from one to the other. Education decisions have been made locally for a very long time. I believe education reform must start with local initiative and relational trust. Supposedly, the purpose of the Race to the Top was to give local schools the ability to design their own reform and win funding to implement it. I was part of a local successful reform that did not have a technology piece, a merit pay piece or a community buy-in piece. We teachers just did it. I think the dynamic of how our efforts succeeded in the absence of left-right divisiveness is worth considering and perhaps applying to other local, yet different circumstances.

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