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.


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?


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.