The DeHavilland Blog

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Building consensus on education reform

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it – Uptown Sinclair, from “I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked” (1935)

I saw this quote in the paper a few days ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s so obvious when you think about it – but something I, for one, have certainly overlooked when thinking and talking about education reform.

I’ve wondered how it is that some people don’t understand basic concepts of education improvement and /or reform, such as increasing pay for hard-to-find teachers (STEM subjects, special ed, etc.) or the value of competition among schools. These concepts are clear and proven. Supply and demand concepts work. Competition works. We see them every day in industries not controlled by the government; no doubt at all that they would work with schools.

But these aren’t just abstract concepts. Changes like these affect people’s lives – their job security, opportunities for advancement, benefits, and the money they take home to their families. If you institute a major change in a system with millions of employees, you introduce uncertainty and turmoil – and no one wants to be thrown into professional turmoil when they have a family to support.

I continue to believe that we must change the education system in substantive and systemic ways in order to reflect our current needs and market environment. And I also believe that, as a taxpayer-funded enterprise, public education exists to educate our kids for their benefit and for the benefit of society, not to guarantee lifelong employment and shelter public employees from the market forces to which the rest of us are subjected.

But I’m starting to see the debate through a broader lens. It’s so easy to advocate for change when you don’t have any skin in the game. It’s much harder to endorse change – almost heroic, really - if doing so threatens your paycheck, or at least creates an unknown future.

It seems as if the battle lines have been drawn in the war over education reform, and the fight is being waged through sheer force on the twin battlegrounds of politics and public opinion. But force isn’t the only way to win a battle. Sometimes you can avoid a fight entirely, provided you can persuade the other side to defect.

And how do you do that in the education reform war? I think you have to present the vision for Education 2.0. Show the people in the current system that there’s a place for them within the new vision, and that their lives will be better in the new order.

Every educator wants to make a difference. They want to see kids learn. They want to see kids care. They want to see kids working hard, striving to reach their potential. And they want to be a part of it, enabling kids to be all that they can be (to steal a phrase) and being recognized for their role in making that possible. That’s not happening very much in the current system. And that’s our opening.

If we think education reform can do this, let’s show them, and make it clear that we want them to be a part of it. How could any educator walk away from that?

We need to remember that education reform isn’t about abstract concepts and systems: it’s about people, not only the students but also about the people who make learning possible. As Upton Sinclair pointed out, we need to recognize their very real and personal concerns in order to bring them on board and make real change possible.

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