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Education: Reform or Remodel?

school building

Reform: to put or change into an improved form or condition.

Remodel: to alter the structure of; remake.


It’s an age-old question now: Do we keep trying to improve the flawed educational model we have; or is it time to declare it too broke to fix and develop an entirely different one? A total remake, in other words.

There is no shortage of proponents, past and present, of either possibility. We sometimes forget the original school reformer was Horace Mann, his mission to institute a kinder, gentler, more interesting version of the heavily starched model handed down to his generation by his Calvinist forebearers. As such, he was able to separate public education from a puritanical religion that viewed children as the devil’s handiwork and to lobby with some success against corporal punishment in school (which still remains legal in 19 states). He also preferred leading children to discover underlying principles and relationships to the rote teaching of out-of-context facts and information.

Still, Mann never intended to alter the structure of the model, with its emphasis on conformity, obedience, and competition; and its reliance on highly structured, teacher-centered, carrot and stick learning.

A contemporary of Mann’s, meanwhile, the future literary giant Leo Tolstoy, visited the Prussian schools that became Mann’s model in America and declared them an abomination. Upon his return to his ancestral estate not far from Moscow, he started a short-lived revolution in Russian education by turning half of the manor house into a school with a radically different model for the 80 or so children of his serfs. A sign hanging over the door read “Do As You Like!” and indeed, there were no compulsory lessons and students were free to manage their own learning.

The school was shut down by the Czar’s secret police three years later.

And so it goes today. A contemporary school reform movement sprang to life here after the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” the iconic education report commissioned by the Reagan administration in 1983. Citing falling test scores and the increasing failure of our schools to measure up to their overseas counterparts, the authors warned: “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.” The ensuing panic became the source of today’s obsession with standards and accountability. The irony of these  “reforms,” of course, is that they are ushering back the very same drill and kill approach from which Horace Mann tried to steer education away.

It is equally ironic that just a few years later in post-Soviet Moscow, Alexander Tubelsky founded the School of Self-Determination, a public school for 600 k-12 students that features non-compulsory class attendance, project- and interest-based learning, and democratic governance by a council half of whose members are students. Unlike Tolstoy’s school, the Russian government continues to support this highly successful alternative, which is part of a network of similarly democratic schools around the world.

It was John Holt who fueled the current movement to remodel education in the U.S. with the 10 books he wrote about education between 1964 and 1985. Holt’s thinking ultimately evolved to the point where he decided that school in any form is unreformable. His remake became known as “unschooling”—children educating themselves organically at home in the context of family and community. While the number of children pursuing their education outside of school is impossible to count accurately, current estimates average 2,000,000—a figure that continues to rise despite the leveling off of the overall number of school-age children due to a declining birth rate.

My own answer to the question of reform or remodel should be obvious given the 40 years I have spent practicing and writing about a school-based model that closely resembles Holt’s, except that the locus is a building full of children and adults who are for the most part biologically unrelated.

I entirely agree with Holt (and others) that what I now call the “conventional model” is based on too many false premises and defended by too many powerful political and economic interests to ever change in any fundamental way. Not to mention the fact that science is making it increasingly clear how antithetical the model’s structural components—standardized, infocentric curriculum; extrinsic motivation; teacher-directed learning; competition; etc.—are to what we now know about how children actually learn and develop.

The charter school movement—the subject of a future post—is a good example of a current failed reform. It began with the fantasy of developing innovative practices that the rest of the system would then adopt if they worked well enough. But in reality, the truly innovative charters have either been isolated from the rest of the system or shut down altogether, and private corporations operating highly conventional schools on a for-profit basis have gradually co-opted the movement. Nowhere in the nation are there examples of the other schools in a district adopting successful charter innovations.

So I shout REMODEL! because the conventional model rests on such a rotten foundation and history has proven it so impervious to real change. But I am quickly silenced by another hard reality: The overwhelming majority of children on the planet attend schools that operate according to the conventional model—and it is a situation unlikely to shift anytime soon.

Which means to me that framing the solution to the problem as an either/or as I did at the start of this post is part of the problem, when what needs to happen is that some of us have to keep fighting to make the conventional model better at the same time that others continue to develop and spread new models that operate on different principles.

And perhaps most importantly of all, reformers and remodelers need to communicate and cooperate with each other so that the successes of one group inform the work of the other. It isn’t the rightness of one side of the polarity or the other that matters; it’s the well-being of an entire generation of children.




18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Robert B. (Barry) Elliott #

    This is brilliant and refreshing. The remodeling concept as opposed to reforming is a step in the right direction. But, for me, it is still too tame. I agree that it will take a long time for essential changes to happen and that the existing structures are not going to disappear in our lifetimes. However, there are a couple of issues that must be addressed. We need a more effective way to debunk the myths. We have to realize as a society that schools will never be educational institutions and that they should be understood to be babysitting agencies and places where kids can be socialized, enculturated, and indoctrinated. Indoctrination is a necessary evil that should be managed and non-hostile or misanthropic. Education is something else altogether. What we need is an educational revolution. That cannot occur until we discover the necessity of eliminating compulsory attendance laws (refer to the essays of Leo Tolstoy, who was mentioned in the blog). The laws are the mechanism by which control and authoritarian attitudes are maintained. I will have much more to say about this in the future.

    October 21, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Keep it coming, Barry. Your voice is strong and clear.

      October 29, 2013
  2. Marv Brilliant #

    Great summation of a very controversial topic. This travesty of the educational system also applies to higher learning. Why should students be subjected to courses which are superfluous to gain their quest for a certain field; that’s not say that the basics, such as math,and english are not necessary, but there do exist courses that have no educational relevance to a student’s goal in life. The student should have the right to seek out meaningful information which is determined by a philosophical outlook of meaning and life. I for one, believe in a philosophy of education. The model in use today throughout academia and primary education is failing.Perhaps,we should adapt some of the European and Asian models, with modifications, serving a new U.S. model. As you stated, communication is essential for spreading new philosophies of smart and factual ideas based on immense research. I will offer additional thoughts at a later time. Marv Brilliant

    October 21, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Marv, about the infantilization of “higher” learning. I remember my daughter’s initial reaction to her profs taking attendance. “We’re adults now, Dad.”

      October 29, 2013
  3. Lifelong learning is the key, but Google and the net have redefined what and why one learns. Implicit in any learning model are two opposing forces: the steady discovery and development of capacity and potential and social functioning. Getting along in one’s culture is always constricting. It implies strict constraints on what is and is not permissible. Howard Bloom, author of many books, termed these forces creativity generators and conformity enforcers. One’s position whether to reform education, remodel it, or damn the whole thing, rests on how we see and value these opposing forces.

    Obviously we need to do both, to develop and unfold capacity and get along, pay the rent, or more highly put, contribute to the web of life that we are all part of. As the world spins and changes the necessity of each, creativity generators and conformity enforcers also changes.

    We have reached the end of the line as far as the social need and conditioning is concerned. Looking closely we have not changed inwardly for thousands of years. Of course, outwardly, we are more technologically advanced, but the nature and structure of our core identity and our world has not. The time has come for the inner revolution that teachers like Krishnamurti and Joseph Chilton Pearce point to. Discovering and nurturing this inner revolution, with its completely new self-world view and relationship with all life is the next uncharted frontier for education. Everything else is simply rearranging furniture.

    As our self-world view forms, it serves as a filter that shapes the meaning and value of what is learned.
    Once this filter is in place it literally shapes our reality and becomes the Cosmic Egg Joseph Chilton Pearce spent his life exploring. At times this filter cracks and through the gap fields of capacity and meaning usually filtered out come flooding in, insights and intelligences not learned or accumulated can now blossom in a heart-mind prepared and ready.

    The key to all true education and most certainly educational reform is the nature and character of the filter, not subjective content, beginning with the so-called educator. We personify the filter as our identity. Filters implicitly screen out and selectively blind us, which is exactly what our social-cultural identity does. The less fixed or dense the filter, the more light and implicit learning passes through. What we actually are, see, experience and understand expands as our identity shrinks until we literally encompass everything. This is the sacred task and path of the educator.

    Michael Mendizza

    October 22, 2013
    • WOW! I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone else who has read Pearce’s book. I believe I still have the book. You are operating on another plane. These ideas are still a century or two ahead of their time if current circumstances in the US are any indication. You really know and understand what he was saying, but as someone said, you can’t soar with eagles when you work with turkeys, or something like that. Such enlightenment isn’t going to make its way into any school in the US, I think I can guarantee. School is about limiting awareness and receptivity to a more cosmic experience. I don’t remember anything at all from the book, but I sure would like to hear more about implementing some of Pearce’s visions anywhere within our society. There are heroic teachers who defy or circumvent the constraints that come automatically with an authoritarian framework and they may occasionally penetrate that egg in some way, however their influence is limited and there are innumerable forces at work to prevent real breakthroughs.

      October 23, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      This is such an important point, Michael, the contrast between inner and outer evolution, and the distressing lack of attention that education pays to the former.

      October 29, 2013
  4. carol nash #

    As the co-founder of an unschool in Toronto, I really appreciate what your blog is saying. I have a thought as to why the standardized system persists.

    One thing people associated with unschools find out when young people are permitted to self-direct their learning is that these young people are ready to make contributions to society far younger than those educated in the standardized system. Some of the young people associated with our unschool begin serious work in their area of expertise at 14—and they are well-respected in their field. What if every young person could make a serious contribution by their early teens?

    One thing that would happen is that older people would have good reason to be concerned about their livelihoods. There are many people who prefer to buy a product or service from a teenager rather than someone who is in middle age. The reason, I believe, is that the young person appears special—someone with a great future—while the older person is just doing their job because they have to.
    But the problem is older people often have families to support, whereas young people are still living at home. And so one reason for inventing the standardized system was to make young people think they are not capable of real work until they are adults, and to increasingly believe they need to stay in school for more and more years and expect only internships when they graduate rather than paying jobs.

    And if this is true, then we have to consider whether it is more important to permit young people to be free only after they have been confined in schools for the first part of their lives, or to allow them to be free from birth with the recognition there will be little paid work for them to do.

    I, for one, still consider that being free is not something that you can become once you have been confined for the first 22 (or so) years of your life. To me, being truly free is the highest value. On the other hand, I have to live with the understanding that there is less stability in a free society when it permits young people without family responsibilities to start doing meaningful professional work as soon as they are willing and able.

    October 22, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      There’s a strong historical basis for what you’re saying Carol. A major impetus for making high school compulsory back in the 1920s was to keep young people out of the workforce.

      Meanwhile, Elliot Washor, who cofounded the Mets schools and Big Picture Learning, has just come out with a book called Leaving to Learn that documents the amazing things that happen when adolescents have the opportunity to engage in meaningful real-world work while they’re in high school. I”m thinking of interviewing Elliot for a future blog post.

      October 29, 2013
  5. Yes and yes! I find myself wrestling with the same daunting question – do we try to fix the system or do we do what we can along side it? I suppose, as you concluded, it’s cannot come down to either/or thinking. It will have to be both.

    It’s the same dichotomy that exists between Herbert Kohl’s and John Taylor Gatto’s fundamental philosophical approaches to (public) schooling and education reform. Kohl says work from the inside out; Gatto says blow the whole thing up, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.

    There are so many brave educators who persevere in the public school, working against the grain to give those children some semblance of authentic learning experiences. I hear their stories at all the education conferences and I am amazed by their tenacity. And I also hear the stories of all the rest of the attendees (the majority, by far) who have disengaged from the machine and are doing it their way. I am amazed by *their* tenacity, too!

    I live in a small, island nation where “alternative education” is a foreign concept (no punt intended) and reform might look like an echo of what american schools are doing.

    The task seems daunting, even with just a few tens of thousands. Public schools are in dire straights with almost no funding coming their way; private schools are in the business of making money and catering to the existing “get ahead ASAP” paradigm. There seems to be no in between.

    I’m rambling.

    My point is: I think our conversation about education reform needs to open up to a both/and thought process.

    Inside the public school system because that is where the majority of learners are getting their education. Outside the public school system because it serves as a small but growing model for people to re-evaluate their ideas about schooling and education.

    Both. And.

    October 22, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Ramble away, Cian.

      October 29, 2013
  6. Excellent article– I found myself reflecting on much of what I learned in my undergraduate developmental psychology course. I’m curious what you think of the Montessori school system, with its emphasis on task mastery and exploration (rather than performance) and learning at one’s own pace, both of which foster intrinsic motivation.

    October 23, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Sorry, Lydia, I’ve been on the road. Intrinsic motivation was the centerpiece of Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy. She believed that children are innately driven to learn every moment of their lives, and that schools and teachers should get out the student’s way and let him or her lead the way.

      November 9, 2013
  7. I love the framework of ‘remodel’ vs ‘reform’. High level administrators from public education have chosen alternative schools (Montessori) for their own children. The time has come. Change is near, I feel.

    Our children deserve it.

    October 28, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      I hope you’re right, Diane.

      November 9, 2013
  8. Dan Grego #

    I find myself in sympathy with just about everything you said. Until you got to chartering. We just launched a new charter school last September we call Escuela Verde. Here’s a link to the website: The school caught on in Milwaukee. Bankers and college professors are taking their children out of traditional schools and enrolling them in EV.

    But, I wouldn’t want you to think that EV is the only innovative charter school, in Wisconsin or around the country. It is true that there is a battle going on for the heart of the charter movement, and our opponents have big money behind them. Many charter schools are just traditional schools on steroids. Still, here and elsewhere, there are innovators. Check out the writing of Ted Kolderie at What Ted advocates is very similar to your plea for reformers and remodelers to work together and learn from each other. He calls it the “split-screen” strategy. Ted and his comrades were the force behind the nation’s first charter law in Minnesota back in 1991. (I teased him once and told him when I looked up the word “avuncular” in the dictionary, his photo was right beside the definition.)

    October 29, 2013
  9. Excellent insights! I agree with the notion to move forward and remodel. Your article brings a sense of calmness to a very stormy reform movement. The real challenge is moving away from the either/or fallacy. Escaping that solution trap allows for dynamic solutions resulting with an improved model for teaching and learning.

    November 4, 2013
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      Amen, Marian.

      November 9, 2013

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