To Strengthen Public Education, Democrats Should Advocate Transformation, Not Reformation

Our monthly meeting of the South of Dayton Democratic Club is this evening at 6:00 at the Wright Library in Oakwood. On the agenda is indicated time for a brief discussion of some of the ideas in my book, Public Education 2030.  I sent this e-mail to the club members.

Dear Friends, I see our agenda for this evening includes the opportunity to briefly discuss some of the ideas in my book, Public Education 2030.  (You can get a PDF here). 

One essay (p. 30) reports on Ted Strickland’s forums on the future of Ohio’s system of public education. In these forums, Strickland challenged his listeners to imagine what a new system might look like.  He challenged his listeners to imagine: “We are an artist looking at a blank slate and asking what is the best thing we can create here.”

In my career in teaching math at West Carrollton High School, I became convinced that public education is in need of starting again with a blank slate. I was charged with transmitting a curriculum that I knew was irrelevant to what many of my students needed. I saw how the potential of students and teachers was wasted and how even top students were unmotivated to accomplish much of quality. I became convinced that if public education should have a strong future, it needed big changes.

Strickland’s effort to get forum participants to brainstorm  a new system sounded like a great idea — but the discussion went nowhere. Participants wanted to defend their personal stake in the present system — a school nurse wanted to know how nurses would be impacted, an art teacher wanted to emphasize the importance of art in the curriculum, a math teacher suggested that there should be more math requirements, and on and on.

Strickland’s effort in these forums was doomed to fail because starting with a blank slate and thinking anew is not easy and most everyone in attendance at the forums had a stake in the present system.

In the essay, “In Education, Let’s Stop Trying To Improve A Horse and Buggy System,” (p. 24), I suggest that asking someone to imagine a new system of public education would be like asking someone in the 1800‘s to envision the automobile. Most buggy makers if given the chance would have opposed transforming the horse and buggy system, but, I write,

 “Eventually some buggy makers came to grips with the reality that their future was in the personal transportation business, not the buggy business. Similarly, school boards must begin to come to grips with the reality that the future must center on authentic educationnot on schoolingThere are many special interests dedicated to advancing the empire of schooling that now exists, but once the public sees a system of authentic education, the current system of schooling will become obsolete. The task for educational leadership is to envision a quality system of education that will inspire voters to move from the horse and buggy age and invest in the system of the future.”

In the last thirty years there have been many efforts to reform schools — but what is needed is an effort to transform them.

  • Reformation starts by focusing on the component parts of the system — curriculum, class size, teacher training, teacher evaluation, school evaluation, etc. — and seeks to make improvement in those component
  • Transformation starts by focusing on the purpose of the system—and taking a big picture view of looking at the system as a whole, seeks to create a system design where all the resources of the system work to accomplish the purpose of the system.

The mission statements of schools commonly state these aims:

  1. Each child will acquire the tools and experience needed to develop his or her potential, and,
  2. Each child will gain the knowledge, habits, temperament, and character that will empower him or her to be an effective citizen

The problem is, such mission statements have little impact on what actually happens in schools. Kettering is spending over $13,000 per child per year. Wouldn’t it be great if the resources of the system were focused on accomplishing these high sounding aims? As it is, the actual mission of every district and every school is to get a high score in the state system of school evaluation.

The way forward is via transformation, not reformation. The place where transformation could have the biggest chance for success is within communities where schools already are deemed “excellent” — the south of Dayton suburbs of our club members. Pumping more money and more effort into the present system can only be a short-term strategy. It cannot be a long term solution. In terms of public education policy, we are moving in the wrong direction and unless there is thoughtful intervention, the long term prospect for public education actually accomplishing its stated aims is not good.

One principle that most Democrats hold dear is the importance of sustaining and strengthening our system of public education. In terms of public education, we must be forward thinking, we must be the party of ideas.  We need to be much bolder in our advocacy, much bolder in our building of community consensus about this important topic.

There is much to talk about and I look forward to our discussion. Sincerely, Mike Bock

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