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.