The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, September 30, 2011

Hopes dashed, again (Vision for Public Education)

I just caught wind of a new project in Georgia called A Vision for Public Education and got excited: According to the chair of the Georgia School Boards Association, they have spent a great deal of time, with a great deal of community input, to create “a vision that looks at the entire system of public education in our state and how to move it forward.” So I dove in to learn more about their vision.

At first it seemed that they were hitting all the right marks. Community-based? Yes: the project was lead by the school boards association in partnership with the superintendents group, and solicited community input to fuel the project. Fiddling around the edges? No, at least at first glance. They make the following claim in the introduction to the full report:

We recognize the difference between optimizing the current system (i.e., improving its operations without drastically altering any of its basic structures) and transforming it (i.e., rethinking the delivery of curriculum and instruction, allocation of resources, and perhaps, many long-held assumptions about when and where education is delivered and who delivers it). Christensen, Horn, and Johnson (2008) distinguish between sustaining innovations that make incremental improvements to goods and services and disruptive innovations that completely transform an industry, sometimes in a relatively short period of time. A commonly cited example of a disruptive innovation is the personal computer, which in a period of years, transformed workplaces and led to the rise of new web-based businesses. Christensen et al. argue that existing organizations have great difficulty in undertaking disruptive innovations.

The purpose of this document is to offer a series of recommendations that, taken in total, implemented effectively over our state, and supported by the citizens of the state and policymakers, will transform public education in Georgia.

Wow – that’s inspiring. So it’s frustrating that the report failed to live up to its potential.

While the second chapter pays lip service to the question of why we educate, and offers a handful of vague bullet points to that end, the report fails to get specific as to what “the preparation of high school graduates for college, career, and life” actually means in specific terms. It is also the last time that student or community-based outcomes are referenced. The rest of the report focuses on improving processes in areas such as early childhood education, teaching and learning, the structure of public education, management, and (of course) financial resources.

This is a perfect example of the primary problem with public education: We continue to focus on process (ie, how we teach), and adamantly refuse to have a real conversation about outcomes (ie, why we teach). It’s like if we were to talk about revolutionizing archery, and after making a brief nod to the fact that yes, there is a target somewhere and we should aim in that direction, we then spent all our time focusing on the archer’s clothes, the bow, and the fletching on the arrows. If we don’t know what the target looks like, or where it is, then what point is there in talking about how we shoot?

In the Georgia report, they highlight the importance of early childhood education, but to what end? There are no goals listed; we cannot know what a successful early childhood education looks like. Should they be able to read, or do any math? Why?

They also don’t expound on any of their very-roughly-laid-out objectives at the beginning. Sure, we want students with civic awareness. But what does that mean? Tell me what a civically-aware graduate looks like, in concrete terms, so I can tell whether you’ve produced one.

The same goes for workforce preparedness. Yes, we want all kids prepared to enter the world of work. But what does that mean? Give me specifics. Do you expect every child to go to college, and if not are you proposing a tracking system? What does it mean, in concrete terms, to be prepared in this area?

I appreciate the impulse to re-vision public education; it’s something that desperately needs to happen. But please, can someone start a conversation on why we educate, and leave the “how” until after we figure out that primary subject?


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