Educational Reform, or Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before

New Way to Education Reform Sign

Those who know me know how often I fall back on Gore Vidal’s reference to the U.S.A. as “The United States of Amnesia,” and how no area of human endeavor is forgetfulness more the norm than it is in education.

I will often follow it with “Been there, seen it, done it,” followed by the old saw that insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results.

A function of old age, congenital contrariness, and just plain weariness, it’s what comes of former educational reformers. They don’t go quietly into the dark night but go down kvetching loudly right to the very end.

Bitterly complaining about the quality of American education is part of our history.

When I first became a teacher in the 1950s, it was James Conant, former President of Harvard, and Admiral Rickover, father of the atomic submarine.

In 1957, came the political outcry in reaction to fears of Russian global ascendancy with the launching of Sputnik — attributing America’s failure to be number one in space to lack of rigor in our schools.

Over a half century later, President Obama revived that specter, recalling how Sputnik provoked the United States to increase investment in math and science education and helped America win the space race.

He warned that with billions of people in India and China having been “suddenly plugged into the world economy,” only those nations with the most educated workers would prevail,” and how, “America is in danger of falling behind.” Here we go again — more fire-bells ringing in the mid of night.

Back to the 1960s and the Great Society — a time when federal efforts in education ramped up significantly in the form of assistance to schools and colleges seeking to eliminate racial segregation, developing new strategies for educating disadvantaged children and in broadening access to higher education for previously neglected youths.

Many programs failed; a few succeeded. Lessons from these efforts provide instructive experiences that can guide future efforts in educational reform. But for the most part they have been ignored.

The late ’60s and ’70s featured a blossoming of educational reform and a progressive vision.

Programs of compensatory education were joined with the free school and alternative education movements. Most of these efforts, however, were not taken seriously and were prematurely aborted — succeeded by a wave of counter-reaction.

They have also been banished from recent memory.

The 1980s were driven by A Nation at Risk, a report chronicling the latest “crisis,” citing abysmally low basic skill scores, low basic comprehension rates, and high drop-out rates, recommending more rigorous standards, the standardization of curricula, and a program of National testing… Sound familiar?

In keeping with its recommendations, by the mid-1980s, 45 states had gotten with the program, expanding their testing programs, instituting more strenuous graduation requirements, cutting frills, and returning to basics (as if they had ever left them in the first place).

In the end, however, it all proved so much sound and fury…signifying nothing.

Research revealed that this highly orchestrated and costly effort had not the slightest effect on student learning and comprehension. Even when legislated merit pay systems were added to the mix, little of this trickled down to the classroom. None of it ever enhanced the students’ ability to learn.

Shouldn’t this historical backdrop have been at least noted amid the current hue and cry for more rigorous standards and high-stake testing procedures?

If not, the current effort must be judged to be more about public relations and politics than serious educational thought, in which case, damn the torpedoes (and the history) and full speed ahead!

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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.

The Farce of Educational Reform: Getting Down to Basics!

When last heard from, we called for a new vision for Education. Vision, however, does not spring full blown like Athena from the head of Zeus. Though it originates in the interior of one’s being, it is grounded in past experience.

Fade back to the year 1932.

The great Depression is raging. The landscape is dotted with failed businesses; millions are forced into the ranks of the unemployed; and breadlines are everywhere. The very existence of our democracy hangs in the balance. Talk of revolution is everywhere.

Many believe that the dispossessed are about to overthrow the government and the economic system and take power into their own hands.

It is a watershed moment—a time of great truth when we as a nation are forced to come came face to face with our contradictions. Politicians thrash about, frantically searching for “practical” solutions; others look for a moral imperative to guide them through these times.

 In academia, George S. Counts, head of the Teachers College of Columbia University, pens his response. It takes the form of a series of lectures incorporated into a slim volume entitled, “Dare the Schools build a new Social Order?’  A forceful rebuke and a challenge to the members of the Progressive Education movement, it calls on them to expand their focus on the child by developing a realistic and challenging vision of human destiny and a broader theory of social welfare which might inform and guide the educational process.

School, he argued, had to become not merely the contemplator of our civilization but the leader in its reconstruction. Its task was not to simply reflect existing values, but to generate a vision of society’s potential and enlist students’ loyalties and enthusiasms in its realization. Once articulated, other social and political institutions could then be examined in the light of that vision. As we know, our schools and the educators who led them failed to answer the challenge. Captive of the prevailing political and economic interests, they not only lacked a sense of the moral imperative but also a blueprint on how to begin such a reconstruction as well as the resources to do so.

Fast forward to 1968 and to yet another defining moment in American history. 

A war is raging in South East Asia and the struggle for civil rights is taking place at home. Anti-war protests shake the college campuses. Student demonstrations are a commonplace, almost banal occurrence, from peaceful sit-ins to the seizure and occupation of buildings. Virtually every major campus experiences some disruption. A parallel front opens up in our cities — riots in Watts, Harlem, Detroit, and other urban centers, a warning to the Johnson administration that many Blacks had lost faith in the country’s intentions and were tired of waiting. Civil insurrection is becoming a fact of everyday life in America. America was in crisis.

On the campus of the Divinity School at Yale University a small program in compensatory education is taking shape. It is a small skirmish, part of the other war, the war on poverty, an articulated national commitment to address issues of social and economic injustice. The program, called the Yale Summer High School (YSHS), had been in operation for four years. But in 1968, a small group of educators assembled who redefined the enterprise and gave it a new direction.

This was the stuff of a real education, intellectually challenging and spiritually transforming. They took to heart the words of Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educator, that when we educate for personal liberation, we raise social and political consciousness. Though schools are primarily hand-maidens of the larger culture, perpetuating its values, traditions, and myths, they must also play the gadfly, holding the culture accountable, helping shape it in a more humane image.

YSHS was simply one small example of the painful, tedious, and complex task of creating a viable educational setting—one which made a conscious effort to seamlessly blend thought, feeling, and action together. A school that took Counts up on his “dare.”

Its story and that of similar efforts during the ‘60s, speaks to hope and possibility which might inspire young people to engage in similar efforts today, while providing insight and guidance to those now engaged in educational reform.

Our past is replete with such examples, as the community based alternative educational models of the 1970s.  How soon they forget. Most of these efforts have been relegated to the dust-bin of history. Many were initially touted as “exciting,” and “progressive,” and “heralding the future.” Some even had intimations of the 3rd wave. But the system always stopped them short of fruition. To have done so would have been simply too threatening, calling the host structure and the current educational practices seriously into question.

The history of educational reform is the story of efforts to tailor projects to the goals and values of an achievement consumer-oriented culture. It was a poor fit. Forcing projects into the existing framework only ended up robbing them of their essence, and operational center, leaving only a hollow shell, unrecognizable and contrary to the intent of its authors. Their creators fought hard and long for the integrity of their programs and their underlying principles, but most often, to little avail.

What if we revisited the hundreds of innovative and future-oriented research designs and pilot programs many of which were subsidized by government and private foundations over the past 50 years, beginning with the values which informed them. Examine their values and how they align with the values we most currently treasure? Let the values then serve as a roadmap on how to proceed. 

Next come working models. Let us roll up our sleeves and dream. What if?… What if we had the opportunity to start anew? To rethink the entire issue of education and schooling from the proverbial square one, drawing freely on that extraordinary repository of knowledge from projects past.

Begin a dialogue in which the most basic assumptions about schooling and education are freely questioned.  Begin with what we want, rather than what’s possible — rather than simply finding ways to accommodate them to what presently exists.  

Imagine that everything is up for grabs.  Question all the traditional givens. That includes even the concept of school itself. Perhaps its day has come and gone—a concrete building age segregated and organized by grade level; the working definition of a teacher, courses, and grades, the idea of a school year. Rather than accepting the existing framework and ethos and expending our energies tailoring our values and our technology to it, let us begin instead with a clear articulation of our values. And let the values then dictate the process and the structure.

What of that social-political reality?  Agreed, it is daunting. 

It has an inexorable logic that can easily produce despondency and despair or a detached and jaundiced cynicism. It, however, need not end there.

Ideal models may have little chance of realization, but so what? Others need to know of them—what we, as a people, at our very best, might achieve; what things might be like if things were right with us and the world. They need to be reminded of the importance of principles—a consistent set of values by which one can lead one’s life; and goals—having a centerpiece of one’s existence—something to actively strive for and towards.  They need to experience, even vicariously, the passion, and the bliss that comes of living one’s life in accord with one’s principles and one’s dreams.

We need to think outside the box. Those boxes are our schools.

In education, as in all areas of contemporary life, we need to not just recreate the past or amend the present but to actively shape the future, in ways that fire the imagination.

It might be argued that we are seeking heroic persons and exhorting them to a heroic task. So be it. We need to stretch ourselves and welcome that idea. Max Lerner, author and critic, once noted that one of the saddest things that has happened to American Education has been the squeezing out of the heroic.” Adding this necessary dimension is what it’s all about. 

You can read more about the Yale Summer High School and the heroic efforts of not only the educators but of the students in my book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming Our Schools, Our Students, and Ourselves.

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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.

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?

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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? 

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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.