Is There a New Angle on School Reform?

Geometry Equation on Chalkboard

Many eons ago, I taught plane geometry. I took special pleasure in its leitmotif which was both simple and elegant.

The subject matter started with a few simple axioms which students could then use to prove a series of theorems.

The neat thing about the process was that after you had proven a particular theorem, there was no need to reprove it. You could simply cite it in proving subsequent theorems with which you were confronted.

And so the subject matter built, brick by brick, theorem by theorem — a glorious superstructure of thought unfolding before your very eyes.

There is no such historical consciousness in American education.

We go through a variety of experiences, bad and good, yet learn nothing from them. We invent terrific programs but go on to forget we had ever done so. Can you detect a trace of not only bitterness but also sadness in my voice, as one who led such efforts?

There is no reason that any profession should ignore its past and spend its current energy reinventing everything it knows.

Imagine if medical research, seeking to create new and effective vaccines, ignored past failures and successes to do so. That would be totally unacceptable.

Yet in education such insanity is an ingrained and acceptable pattern.

Meanwhile, articles appear regularly in our press, celebrating new approaches, often billed as “revolutionary.” In reality, however, they are only shadow replicas of what has been done before.

They are characterized by a remarkable failure of attribution; and by promoting their novelty and exaggerating their potential impact, lull readers into a false sense of complacency and a congratulatory attitude that we are at last on the right track, perpetuating the myth that society really cares about such matters while fostering the illusion that the culture is truly thinking outside the box.

Does anyone out there remember Title III?

Title I, yes: additional funding for schools serving poor kids; Title IX, yes: gender equity in schools, and its impact on women’s athletics. But Title III? “Doh!”

Decades before charter schools became our anointed savior, groups of eager parents and inspired teachers nationwide, started their own schools, serving public school students using public funds, both federal and local. How soon they forget.

There has never been a dearth of good ideas, good people, and good programs. There has only been a failure of will — to act on what is already known. “Been there, seen it, done it.”

What were those lessons? Stay tuned. Is anyone there?


Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

In So Many Words: The Core Curriculum

Sometimes I like to step back from blogs about educational reform and schooling for democracy to indulge in my other love: word origins. Words have always been special to me, even as a child. Early on, I attributed magical qualities to them, believing that locked within were mysterious insights which could help guide me through life.

What you are about to read is a work of etymology from a comic series I wrote in a previous life called, In So Many Words.

Call it just so much bunk, gibberish, babble, and hokum — but do enjoy!

THe Core Curriculum, A Comic by Larry Paros
from the comic series In So Many Words by Larry Paros

Text only version

The Core Curriculum

Our schools are populated by students who are eager to learn. They have a voracious appetite for ideas and bring passion and energy to the learning process. The ideal student mindset is captured perfectly in the Latin studere, “to be zealous or eager.”

Students are also passive beings — sitting quietly, absorbing what is passed on to them, and conveying it back verbatim, never once flagging under the demands made of them. The ability to see eye to eye on this with their teacher is what makes them “good” pupils.

Pupus derives from the Latin for “boy,” pupa, for a “girl” Adding the diminutive ending illus(a), resulted in a “little boy” or “little girl.” When it came to naming the black circular aperture in the center of the eye, the Romans called it pupillam, because the tiny image reflected in it made you look like — you guessed it — a young child.

In Old English, the pupil of the eye was called the “apple” because it was thought to be a solid spherical body. The teacher’s wish to see himself and his values reflected in his students transformed the most zealous or eager into the apple of their teacher’s eye. You see, this also made for bad apples and those at the bottom of the barrel….How do you like them apples?

You can find more comics by following this link to In So Many Words.

Published by Kvetch Press, a Division of Neurobics, Inc.

Author Larry Paros

Illustrations by Sam Zaninovich

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced — mechanically, electronically, or by any other means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system — without written permission from the publisher.

All violators will be towed or forced to repeat sixth grade.


Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Gone Fishin’: Creating Relevant Educational Curriculum

Photo of Sculpture: Teacher and Student

Going rummaging through my old papers, I found my notes on comments made during the last presidential primary by the noted academic, Stanley Fish in a tongue-in-cheek endorsement of Carly Fiorina for Secretary of Education. OMG! Strange bedfellows indeed — a philosopher, detached from the real world and an entrepreneurial opportunist thoroughly immersed in it. As silly as it was, it sparked a variety of thoughts.

Fish takes on the people he calls “Solutionists” who decry that despite hundreds of years of innovation and technological progress, the 21st century classroom is basically just like the classroom in Plato’s dialogues: eager students sitting at the feet of a master teacher — a condition he fully endorses: “As far as I am concerned, that’s the good news and it is news Carly Fiorina was broadcasting last week.”

Alas, the good old days that Fish yearns for existed only as a Platonic ideal.

They were anything but good — a two-tiered authoritarian structure based on business-like management models which emphasized testing and grades, were cluttered with irrelevant curricula, emphasized rote learning and grill and drill, and had as its central mission, the sorting and classification of children by class for a future dead-end role in society.

Forina, who knows firsthand about jobs, having played a major role in destroying large numbers of them, nobly states that education’s great task is not to prepare people for jobs, but to “fill children’s souls,” to make of them the kinds of citizens who can contribute to a participatory democracy.

Agreed, the purpose of education in a Democracy is not to elevate the quality of Boeing or Microsoft personnel, enhance our GNP, or better allow us to compete in the world.

Its true purpose is to help the individual person act more effectively as an autonomous center of power and responsibility; to help her to be more creatively engaged, and to assist her in learning how to best use the gifts with which she has been blessed. It teaches her how to act not only better towards herself but towards others, helping her in her spiritual development so she night better act in accord with moral purpose.

That is the tripartite purpose of education — hopefully resulting in a free, autonomous, responsible, and moral being. Knowledge is understood for what it is, a means towards those ends, not an end unto itself.

But one does not “fill children’s souls.” That speaks of “pouring it on or in,” or what noted educator Paolo Freire called “jug to mug education,” whereby the teacher pours from his jug to the student’s mug. Come examination time, the student returns the favor.

Might they better follow Freire, rejecting the traditional banking approach — the staple of traditional education whereby inert material is simply deposited into the student’s account, replacing it with a process that is mutual and dialogical, one in which students continually question and take meaning from everything they learn.

In the process, students learn how to think democratically and to take control over their own education and their own life, developing an elevated personal, political and social consciousness, whereby they became the subjects, rather than objects, of the world.

It’s easy enough to single out standardized testing as a villain in the piece. Everyone knows the excesses of same and the preoccupation, if not obsession, with quantifiably verifiable indices of success. And the havoc such obsession is wracking on contemporary education.

But cool your jets on the issue of technology.

Agreed, there is a misplaced faith in technology that it can somehow deliver us to the promised land of enlightenment. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water or become a Luddite on the subject.

Ironically, the very technology generally regarded as cold and impersonal, also offers the best opportunity for re-humanization of the culture.

It has the potential to return learning to the learner. By recognizing his unique identity and personal interests, it can assist him in addressing his primary concern: liberation, affirmation, and acceptance of self, helping him to regain the right to determine his own experience.

This does not mean a diminished role for the teacher, but a new one.

No longer will the teacher be relied on as the source and primary transmitter of data. Employing the new technology, the student instead will have the ability to access information faster and more accurately through his own efforts.

This, in turn, allows the teacher to redefine himself — to embrace a new role as mentor and catalyst, guiding the student in an intelligent application of his knowledge and helping him explore new connective principles.

Technology also puts up for grabs the very concept of school as a building. Transcending time and space, technology frees educational thinking from the impersonality of constrictive brick and mortar structures. Technology does all of this… and more.

What technology does not do, however, is provide the conceptual framework for its employment and the values which inform its use.

Technology can be put to whatever use we want. Rather than being employed to insure greater compliance with mandates from Madison and Pennsylvania Avenues; its services can be employed on behalf of a higher calling.

Why not enlist it on behalf of the regeneration of intimacy and redefinition of community we so sorely miss?

This very same technology which puts us each into our own individual orbit, dividing and setting us apart, which personalizes our buying habits and identifies us as good consumers — also offers the best hope for bringing us together.

We first need, however, to affirm those values loudly and clearly, lest that same technology become yet another set of tools for our enslavement, rather than our liberation.

What is missing most from the Fiorina-Fish vision is an examination of the larger questions which go to the heart of the educational process and the most basic assumptions on which the entire superstructure rests.

  • What social and moral imperatives should guide the learning process? Education for whom; for what; towards what end; for what purpose?
  • How might our own educational history and past efforts at reform inform our current efforts?
  • What role do the larger social, political, economic, and technological forces play in shaping our schools? How do they help or inhibit our efforts to create a more just and humane educational system?
  • What are the alternatives to what presently exists? What are its essential components?

Neither Fiorina nor Fish makes mention of social justice, the meritocratic ethos which dominates to the exclusion of children of color and those who are less advantaged or the failure of our schools to meet their needs.

We’re all for greater exposure to music, literature, art and philosophy — the very subjects identified as victims of the current infatuation with computer learning and the STEM subjects. As for ideas, indeed — but not simply ideas for ideas sake.

This has led to an intellectual bias in the educational process which falls most heavily and discriminates most greatly against children of color and of disadvantaged.

Why don’t they mention how our schools might instead consider identifying and nurturing skills, talents, and mindsets that have more influence on adult success than does IQ? What of creativity and independent thinking? What of emotional and social intelligence? — enhanced self-awareness and self-control, how intellect and emotion might work in tandem, political and social consciousness/conscience, the capacity for working with others and helping them work more effectively?

We believe that the classics, including Plato, can play an important part in the educational process. But not as ends unto themselves, not as interesting relics of sorts, received by students as antiquated pieces of history, divorced from their most basic concerns.

Our job as educators is to make the classics, and the questions they pose, relevant to the times and to the lives of our students.

Creating a relevant curriculum means developing a coherent framework of study which might aid our students in their struggle for identity. It is one that speaks to them directly and to the times in which they live.

Education would then be not apart from the world but a part of it. At its most effective, it would be transformative for both the learner and the society.

I’m not sure that’s what either Carly Fiorina or Stanley Fish had in mind.

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Why I Wrote a Book on Alternative Education and titled it: Dancing on the Contradictions

The stories contained within my book, Dancing on the Contradictions, detail the realities—the struggles and the resilience—of students in alternative educational settings grappling with assuming responsibility for their lives, forging identities, and carving out their autonomy, all within settings founded on democratic principles of free expression and community.

Yet, no matter how elaborate or comprehensive our machinery of governance, it never operated quite as we had hoped. Does this mean we failed or that democracy failed?

Certainly not. It means that there is where the dance begins.

Democracy is itself a contradiction, messy and difficult, beautiful and freeing. As Winston Churchill said, “It is the worst form of government, except for all the others…”  

And so, it is vital that progressive educators of today merge the “why” with the “how”, that they ground alternative education theory with real practice. That was the focus of my life’s work and that is what’s now contained within the pages of my book.

It’s about a dance that early school reformers took up many decades ago, and which I have no doubt modern educators will continue even better than before. If, that is, they understand the history of educational reform in this country and build upon it rather than exhausting their energy by reinventing everything the profession already knows–but has a tendency to forget.

And so we confront not only the contradictions within democracy, but within the educational system, and most importantly–within ourselves. Instead of railing against the system, we rise. We bring our talents and passions to bear in constructive ways to boldly articulate the values that inform the alternatives.

As the great social theorist Paul Goodman once said: “The notion that nothing can be done is completely unsatisfactory to me. Something must be done.”

His words have always hung on a wall in my study and been an ongoing personal challenge.

Even at the age of 85, I haven’t relinquished the call that captured me so many years ago when I stepped into a classroom for the first time as a new teacher.

For me, there is no joy like the joy of teaching. Being an educator is the spirit that animates me and so, for as long as I can take on Paul Goodman’s challenge, I will.

For I must.

And so must you.

But my time in the classroom has come and gone. Your time is now. My hope is that this book helps you along your own journey as you devise alternatives and build new models to help young people realize their potential.


Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Stop the Conversation: How to Have Real Discussions about Education

Charlie Brown his pitcher's mound.

Charlie Brown stands astride the pitcher’s mound—alone—having concluded yet another engrossing conversation with his teammates, ranging from the meaning of life to the motivation of our Puritan forefathers. Forlorn and bereft, he muses: “We don’t win very many ballgames, but we sure have great discussions.”

Like Charlie Brown, I sit alone in my study, caught up in a cycle of groundhog days.  After a lifetime in education, now age 85, I also find myself forced to endure the same issues again and again, like so many mock-frightful creatures popping out of the darkness while riding through the house of horrors at a county fair.

The Problem with Educational Reform Conversations

The conversation about reform drones on. It is relentless and unending: the racial gap, equality of educational opportunity, charter schools (aka alternative education), preparation of teachers, disciplinary policy, standardized testing.

Stop the conversation please. I want to get off. Does anyone else? Might we call a halt for a moment to this crossfire of oratorical madness and examine for a moment why the same issues continue to bedevil us over and over again, and why it is that we have won so few ballgames over the past 100 years.

Could we perhaps be having the wrong conversation?

…Good Grief! 

Consider the nature of conversation in our culture—how we tend to talk about things.

It’s most always problematic.

We have problems with our health, problems in raising our children, establishing relationships, problems in how to live… and how to die. A good part of traffic on social media is focused on problems…and encapsulated solutions: three steps to sleeping better, five steps to a healthier, sexier you.

On the larger media stage, we have the drug problem, the racial problem, the problem of crime in our streets, and violence in our schools. We move from crisis to crisis, the crisis of our cities to the crises in our classrooms. The problem orientation then segues nicely to that of war., the prevailing metaphor of our culture. We mobilize against racism, sexism, poverty, drugs, and ISIS (That’s ISIS with an “L”).

Take Education…Please…take it!

Education is among the most critical factors influencing the quality of human life and to which the survival of the species is most closely linked.

The primary form which education takes in the industrial world is schooling. Schooling is the largest single corporate enterprise in the world. Its power and influence exceed that of even the military-industrial complex. On any given weekday in the United States, one of every three persons can be found in school.

As befits its magnitude, its problems are super-size.

Its focus, however, is limited to reinforcing and putting a better face on that same superstructure. Its challenge—to do so without ever having to address the bedrock axioms upon which it all rests—long standing assumptions and premises which underlie the existing system and support current educational practices.

As hand-maidens of the larger culture, our schools exist solely to reflect the dominant values of the culture and advance its goals.

Behind the façade of advanced placement courses; student government, and probing literature courses lie its true purposes—a hidden curriculum which dominates and dictates the one it publicly projects: Perpetuation of  the system’s mythology (tales of upward mobility and the like); reinforcement of  the “right” values; i.e. those  which create good and obedient workers (see tardy passes, rules of conduct, suspensions and the like); the sorting  out and cataloguing of  talent, determining who makes it and who doesn’t  (push-outs vs. valedictorians); and putting young people on ice, holding them back from prematurely entering the labor market.

Educational “change” thus can only go so far. Talk about reform is just that – talk.  In truth—at its best—the kind of change being bandied about describes but a vestigial effort—a simple mopping up operation; a matter of a few alterations here and a few there; some fine-tuning and incremental adjustments, not a drastic overhaul or restructuring.

This pseudo change is, in fact, worse than no change at all, because it projects and reinforces the image that the system is truly open and progressive, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

In reality, such efforts serve only to reinforce traditional educational structures and practices. Vested interests and mindsets preclude otherwise. 

Whether undertaken by the Federal government, State Departments of Education, individual school systems, university schools of education, the Gates foundation, or charter schools, these efforts are nothing more than shallow reflections of past failures.

In the words of McLuhan, they are “looking at the future through the rearview mirror of the past.” Girding for the war on ignorance, they employ the same Maginot line mentality which insists on fighting the next war as if it were the one previous—with the same consequences.

What is seldom addressed is the moral content of the educational process.

Rather than start with a series of sub-issues, qua problems, might we instead focus upon the foundation on which everything rests, on the values which inform and shape the entire enterprise?

We are suggesting a different sensibility—a future consciousness—one which entails a vision, drastically different than anything which presently exists—embodying our highest and noblest aspirations, hopes, and ideals.

What better task than to articulate a framework of values based on the view of the future we imagine and which we might help to create? 

Begin with ourselves. Schools “R us,” you see. They reflect on who we are and our values. That is the past. But our children are the future. How we educate them reflects the future we imagine for them—the world that lies ahead.  What kind of world is that?  What do they need to know to build that world? 

That is what we need to ask of our teachers and our schools.

A Vision for Radical Educational Reform

Horace Mann (1796-1859), “The Father of the Common School Movement,” argued that the common school, a free, universal, non-sectarian, and public institution, was the best means of achieving the moral and socioeconomic uplift of all Americans.

John Dewey later expanded on that vision:

“I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform. I believe it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment properly to perform his task….”

We have long charged our schools with several overwhelming mandates, including rectification of social and economic equality.

Critics argue that schools alone cannot address those issues—that these problems go far deeper—to the very heart of our culture. Look instead to prevailing patterns in housing, employment, and criminal justice, to political and economic forces  and underlying mindsets of racism and nativism. It is simply too much to expect of Education to solve these issues. Fair or not, whether by intent or default, is irrelevant. The fact is that the onus for solution of many of our social ills and the burden to help set society right has fallen on our schools.

That being the case, there is no separating how we educate our children from the reformulation of the larger culture.

This country finds itself once more at a watershed moment. We need to redefine ourselves in terms by what we are, not what we are not. For too long we have left that to our adversaries.

For decades we were comfortable defining ourselves to the world as Anti-Communist. After the demise of the evil empire, we discovered the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda, and ISIS. We now face one of the greatest threats ever to our democracy in the person of one, Donald Trump.

And have nowhere to turn, but within.

MLK hoped that the civil rights movement would be the headlights showing the way, not the footlights simply reflecting what lies behind.  Can Education do likewise?

An activist educational movement must also be propelled by a vision—an overarching framework of values, to guide us and inform our actions—to see what lies ahead, and where we are going individually and collectively.

Any future discussion of Education must be joined with a discussion of national purpose.

Only then can we ask which social and moral imperatives should guide the learning process — education for whom; for what; towards what end; for what purpose? 


Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Fudgsicles and Emergency Teaching Certificates: My Inauspicious Beginnings in Alternative Education

I wasn’t always a radical educator, very far from it actually. Creating atmospheres in education conducive to democratic community and choice have never come easy. Not during the Vietnam War and the race riots of the 1960s and 70s when I was an educator, and certainly not today.

I got my start in ice cream.

Popsicles, fudgesicles, and creamsicles to be specific. You name it, I dunked it.

“So for this, we sent you to college?” my mother would routinely ask at dinner time. 

Many of us have seemingly inauspicious beginnings.

And many of us also have “aha” moments, turning points in our lives or careers that marked the beginning of a grand new adventure. Call it fate, destiny, or plain dumb luck.

These are the moments when we saw a sign, in my case a literal sign—“Friendly Teaching Agency.”

Given that I’d just been fired from my aforementioned ice cream job (for a single act of defiance performed out of an unquenchable curiosity. . . a hint of things to come. Read more about it here.), and that I did not wish to hear my mother’s sighs again that evening, I thought, “Why the fuck not?”

I needed a job, and they needed a math teacher. I was a history major, and they weren’t picky.

Our path through life often looks like a series of steps and missteps as we move ever onward and also circle back around.

When did you first know that education was your calling? Do you remember the moment you knew that no matter what happened, you’d be a teacher first and foremost?

For myself, that moment happened my very first day in a classroom.

I fell in love with my students, with their innocence and openness. There was no going back. I wanted to do everything in my power to support their growth and autonomy. It was and always has been for them that I have continuously asked, “But what if?” and “Why not”

In my life I’ve pushed the bounds of traditional schooling methods and ways of thinking. Not because I meant to be a troublemaker by disrupting the status quo and challenging the system, but because there is no other way when you believe deeply in the potential, ability, and diversity of all students.

Alternative educators believe in the transformative power of education, of free expression and choice in a democratic community, of firing up the imagination to find ways to come together on behalf of a future we can all believe in.  

And maybe we believe in ice cream too, if not for its nutritional profile, at least for the joy it brings.

As Don Kardong said, “Without ice cream, there would be darkness and chaos.”  


About the Author:

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.