Can Schooling Be Reinvented?

What a privilege to work with my first year writers and graduate pre-service teachers this semester. Both groups embraced the course content and my discussion-based approach.

Some of my grad students were especially appreciative of the opportunity to think about competing purposes of schooling, educational inequities, and the challenges of education reform.

Consider an email message from one such student, S:

I got to thinking about your response during our discussion about alternatives to the current education system. You mentioned alternatives for individuals (un-schooling, for example), but what about for the entire public education system? How unrealistic is it to envision a transformation in the public education system itself? Do you think that it will ever be possible to overhaul the system and completely refashion some of what is most central to it? Things like students progressing through school year by year with their grade level, dividing education into various subject matters, having education happen primarily in designated schools? I love public education. I LOVE that it is accessible to everyone in our country. I do not want to work at a private school or home school my own children. But I’m a dreamer and an idealist and I am wondering if it is reasonable to dream of a new ideal for public education. In your professional opinion, is it worth it to dream the big dreams? I know I’m asking that question in a way that begs a “yes” response, but I’m actually hoping you’ll say “no” so I can focus on what’s in front of me now instead of spacing out whenever education reform is mentioned and getting lost in imaginary ideas.

S’s reference to age-based grade levels, traditional academic subjects, and existing school buildings are “regularities of schooling”, educational practices so engrained in our thinking that we no longer question their value or consider alternatives. We could add the nine-month school calendar, letter grades, and teachers working independently in separate classrooms.

Sometimes teachers-to-be say, “I’ll be content if I can’t just touch one student’s life.” Really? If you’re the least bit caring and conscientious you should be able to check that box off a month into your career. A second level of impact is becoming a teacher that improves some students’ life prospects every school year. S may be after even more than that though, a third level of impact, providing enlightened school or district leadership. Is a fourth level, contributing to a complete reinvention of K-12 public schooling as we know it, possible?

I would love S and some of her fellow graduate students to prove me wrong, but even if I live another forty years, I do not expect my great grandchildren’s schools to look significantly different than those of today. My descendants and their teachers will use new and improved technologies, but teachers will still do most of the talking and students will often wonder, “Why do we need to know this?” I base this prediction on the incredible stability of schooling over the last one hundred years; the fact that each generation of parents feels their school experience was perfectly adequate; and the fact that teachers are kept far too busy to seriously reconsider the regularities of schooling on a local, let alone, grand scale.

So what’s S to do? There are lots of possibilities for intelligent, inquisitive, progressive teachers like her. Being a teacher that improves students’ life prospects will prove immensely challenging and rewarding. Another option is to become a caring and conscientious school or district administrator that improves teachers’ work lives, and by extension, helps large numbers of students. A related option is to take the baton from me in five or ten years and become a teacher educator who helps beginning teachers flourish, and by extension, large numbers of students.

Another option is to team together with like-minded teachers to create innovative, alternative public schools. There have always been innovative, alternative public school schools that challenge the educational status quo. The problem has been replicating their practices on a large scale. “Scaling up” proven reforms is the illusive holy grail. Maybe S’s generation will be the first to solve that puzzle. If not, accomplished classroom teaching, enlightened administrative leadership, and/or excellent teacher education service are all socially redeeming, career worthy pursuits.

Postscript—daring to disagree, a preeminent ed reformer predicts the end of schooling

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