Education: Reform or Remodel?
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.