The DeHavilland Blog

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Getting "unstuck" in education

Came across a great paper by Paul Hill, research professor at the University of Washington and director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. The paper, published by the Progressive Policy Institute, is titled "Put Learning First: A Portfolio Approach to Public Schools" (free pdf download here) and provides a clear look a the fundamental problem facing public education, along with his proposed solution.

The core problem, according to Mr. Hill, is that there is a need for dramatic change in education, but our current education system is designed for stability, not innovation, and as such inherently resists real change. From his paper:
Today's public school system tolerates new ideas only on a small scale and it does so largely to reduce pressures for broader change. The current system is intended to advance individual, community, and national goals, but is, in fact, engineered for stability. That is normally a good thing. We want schools to open on time, teachers to count on having jobs from one day to the next, and parents to feel secure knowing that their children will have a place to go to school.

Stability alone, however, is the wrong goal in a complex, fast-changing, modern economy. Students - disadvantaged students, in particular - need schools that are focused on providing them with the skills they will need to succeed in today's society, schools that are flexible enough to try a variety of teaching methods until they succeed in reaching these goals. The existing structure of public education, and most of today's schools, were not built to serve students with special needs and it does not work for them.

More on this resistance to change later in the paper:

The problem for reformers is that our current public school system is a lot like a building designed to withstand an earthquake. It has multiple, independent structural supports that flex and bend, dissipating outside jolts of energy. While this makes for a very stable educational system, it also diffuses pressures for positive change—most notably, efforts to reform schools to meet the shifting needs of students and society.

Nobody deliberately engineered this system. The complex set of laws, regulations, contracts, and established practices that now control almost everything in public education is an accidental result of many small decisions, each intended to accomplish a particular purpose. The process began 40 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education. That ruling ordered the end of school segregation, but also inadvertently began the process of turning publicly supported community institutions into government agencies. Since then, local, state, and federal governments have imposed more and more constraints on schools. Each of these requirements, on its own, has been fairly minor and most were in pursuit of desirable goals. But the cumulative effect has been to strip educators of the power to adapt instruction to the needs of students.

The solution, according to Mr. Hill, is a portfolio approach to public education, wherein school boards strip away constraints and actively manage a variety of school models, constantly evaluating progress and success and changing the schools in its portfolio according to demonstrated success. By giving real authority and budgetary discretion to school managers (both public and private), school boards will create an environment where people are encouraged to experiment in order to create and validate new models of success.

Could we ever make the great leap from the status quo to this new approach? Hill thinks so, and points to a partial shift to this approach in Chicago. He also notes that community and business leadership, supported with newly-available data thanks to NCLB, have the power to put outside pressure on school boards to change and pursue this model.

Is he right? I don't know - I certainly think his analysis of education today is dead-on, and I hope he's right about communities being able to apply enough pressure to force change. But that kind of community-building and degree of focus are extremely hard to achieve, and the current system is very strongly entrenched thanks to decades of regulations, contracts, and institutional habit.

Regardless, it's a fascinating paper - it will certainly add perspective as people consider the range of issues and possible solutions for education reform.


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