What can be done about the dismal state of public education in America?
How this question gets asked, and the answers often all seem, well, impractical. The problem with centralized governmental “anything” is often as simple as its size. We are a huge nation of diverse people. Attempting to fit all kids into the few “sizes” available in our public classrooms works out no better than if all kids were asked to fit into one of three basic sizes of pants. That is not to imply that all our problems are as simple as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but the analogy does hold.
It seems to me that the answers lie in this issue of size. If we are going to get serious about offering a better education, it will not be by pooling ideas, resources, and standards all into one large pool, but rather by empowering those closest to the students in a given locale to make local decisions that have local effects. In other words, the smaller the solution, the better the solution. The more local, the more likely.
Aside from all the other reasons I have already given in past blogs for this localization of the problem, and there are many, the one I focus on at this point is movement. As long as the problems of our educational system are abstracted and “nationalized” or even “globalized” we will see no movement toward improvement because the sheer size will paralyze anyone who seeks to make changes. I think it is quite like the married couple who have allowed their debt to skyrocket to a point where when they do the math, it just seems impossible to pay it down. Many of those in that circumstance wind up doing nothing because no one thing or even many things will change their situation significantly. Many in education have “frozen” because no solution seems big enough to solve the problems.
Resizing the problem has the advantage of making the necessary changes not something that must fit the whole nation, but rather something that fits just that community.
I am watching my home state (NC) try to reform their schools at the State Capitol. This is too abstract. It is far too tempting and easy to simply blame “others” or “them” or “the gummit” rather than actually employ real differences in specific classrooms. And it seems as though we have been trained to acquiesce to this “group think” or to use this comparative measurement to continue our paralysis. Continuing to seek large solutions in the end confirms in everyone’s mind that there are no solutions. Anytime a public teaching friend of mine seeks to do something different, the whole disciplinary process is thrown into high gear. And often their peers, those actually teaching with them, love the attempts at change, and even local admin gives their under the table approval, but officially, we all have to play by the book.
So while not suggesting a practical means in this blog, I give a challenge to my many friends whose lives are being given in the public schooling systems of the U.S.: focus on this issue of size. How can you, as one person, in one school, break the mold of paralysis and groupthink that pervades education and actually teach to the needs of your students? I am not saying it can or cannot be done, but the test will be in this issue of paralysis, which I believe is tied to size. Let’s make it local, more and more local, and break into motion again.