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Is Education Reform Really Possible?

In watching several talks on education reform here in the United States, I began to wonder, is this reform actually possible? I ask this because currently in order to enact any reform one must be a certified teacher, attempting to reform a failed system, but in order to do so one must be a product of this failed education system. So I am curious to hear other takes on this issue. Keep in mind I am not a teacher, merely a philosophy student who finds the circular issue of reform coming from within an already failed system troublesome.

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    May 20 2013: The rational that was forwarded by Parent X is the common argument put forward to increase educational funding. I would maintain that we've always had students who were deprived, poor, handicapped. And I will admit that in the past society has not educated these students well. So, the "Schools" have done all the things they have said to spread the wealth so to speak. My point has been is that we have thrown good money after bad. States Legislatures are not bound fiduciary law but if they were, they would all be in jail for some of the educational funding that has been done.
    My point. Yes, there are educational challenges, but the manner in which these challenges have been address over the last ... 50 years have not been 'overly successful', so why do we continue to do more of the same at greater cost? I don't know what it will take to 'fix' the problems, but I can see what doesn't work.
    When I look across the world and see other countries with more successful programs, I say why aren't we doing what they are doing? Ask that question at your next school board meeting and hear the multitude of reasons why if can't be done... been there, done that. Do the same yourself and hear the responses.
    There are some very successful schools doing a great job. Why? Why can't every school do that?

    Is it funding or is it management?
  • May 20 2013: Education reform is taking place all the time. Most "reforms" are enacted by governing bodies of which few if any actually have any experience in education other than what they took throughout their career to get where they are at.

    This question very much depends on what it is that you want the "reform" to be. There are many good ideas out there and many schools are actually putting them into practice. For education reform to be at its best, you need a clear focus on what it is that you wish to attain. Then, you will know what it is that you need or want to reform.
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    May 19 2013: If I didn't think it was possible, I would be out of the profession of education. (My undergraduate degree is in elementary education and philosophy.)

    There is a wonderful Forbes article that identifies the problem. http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2011/09/01/the-single-best-idea-for-reforming-k-12-education/ He is spot on with the factory model of management.

    Solutions are found when time is taken to learn from each child as an individual. I'm pretty sure neural plasticity provides substantiation for constructivst theory, which has always been my guide as an educator.

    We have a ways to go to get to a place where we are paying attention to neuroscience in the classroom, but I can envision in working.
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    May 16 2013: I would like to think that reform is possible. The whole idea of public education was to provide functional adults with understanding on how our government works... more or less. Reading, Writing and Arithmetic were bonuses. One could make the argument that there has been a dumbing down of the nation in the last 50 years. Civics is almost not taught. History is a has been reduced to a recounting of every horrific act perpetrated on every minority group or another. Discipline such as learned by cursive writing is gone. Most graduates know so little arithmetic that balancing a checkbook is advanced mathematics. Reforms by current educators are usually only differing approaches to the same old problems.
    Real reform will come when society understands the problems. It's not the manner in the way children are taught (although a lot of work is needed in this area) it's about management. Schools districts (read Corporations) have become huge conglomerates that do almost everything except teach. Most today have overhead nearing or at 50% non teaching employees. Transportation, food service, police, medical service, social workers, psychologists, all were supposed to improve the educational outcome. All have failed. All have increased the cost of eduction to exceed funds generated by property school tax, state taxes including proceeds from lottery's, and federal funding. Educators come hat in hand to plead for more funds to educate children (how can you deny children). " We have a new plan if we can get more funds to implement it. New testing, no testing, more teachers, less teachers. etc., etc.".
    My reform? School Boards---- principals, everything in between is gone.
    • May 19 2013: Hi Cary,

      I think it would help to define what "reform" means before we discuss whether it is possible. It's been my experience that many of the people who champion a reform agenda are a lot more interested in reallocating education funding than impacting academic results and student achievement.

      Look no further than the Arizona legislature to see what I mean. There has been over a decade of libertarian-leaning leadership in the state legislature, and the state now ranks between 47th-50th on every national education funding survey. Although total costs have gone up along with enrollment numbers, when you adjust for inflation, Arizona's government now invests less per pupil than they did in the early 1980's.

      Like many other places, Arizona schools are also having to address a number of policy mandates that come with little or no funding. Additional testing, security measures, reporting, etc. may be beneficial, but unfunded (or inadequately funded) mandates ultimately have a negative impact on other areas of service delivery. I see the calls for additional civics classes, philosophy, creative arts and vocational ed in the comments below...and what school wouldn't want to offer these great classes to their children? But do not forget that it is the legislature that primarily dictates what will be tested and what services schools MUST provide before any 'extras' can be considered.

      One more thing to add before even thinking critically about what successful 'reform' would look like. 47% of Arizona children live in poverty (defined as income below 200% of the federal poverty level). All of those psychologists, social workers and special education aides that Mike bemoaned above come courtesy of poverty-related legislative mandates. Not because teachers (or school administrators) decided to just add some more positions. Public schools have to address special education needs, health and mental welfare. And none of that is cheap.
  • May 16 2013: Oh get realistic - Probably not - who really wants it, and if you are smart enough to care you probably belong in Honors classes. Keep Bubba happy is the political motto.
  • May 16 2013: And what is the purpose of this education? I think yer answer is buried there
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    May 15 2013: Mostly if you get the government out of the education business it will reform as with any other business
    • May 16 2013: Pat,
      I wholeheartedly agree with your statement. Indeed I believe that if we remove the department of education and allow education to be reformed than it will move further and be more successful than it currently is. I just responded to someone else that my problem is that specifically in secondary schools, all we really teach is how to regurgitate information. There is no real teaching of the concepts behind such information.
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        May 16 2013: Yup as I have stated so many times on this website it makes me want to regurgitate, the key is application which cuts through the memorization required by the central planners (thank you once again Jimmy Carter). It also is how you get out of the "mid level clerical work".
  • May 15 2013: Anything positive is possible. Some things positive are probable. "Where there is a will, there is a way."....and all that jazz.
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    May 15 2013: There are lots of reforms in education taking place every day. This has been true for many decades. New people enter the profession, new people become leaders, new research and training becomes available, and experiments that worked in some cases are replicated in others.

    People who enter teaching went to k12 schools of different quality in which there were striking differences in the pedagogy and effectiveness from one teacher to the next and then to universities where they also experienced many different styles of instruction. People also come to teach in schools who have worked in different kinds of organizations in which people learn together, try things and succeed, and try things and fail. We move through many models of learning in our lives.

    Further teachers typically go through certification programs in which they learn and practice different styles of teaching and receive training after they are in the classroom as well as feedback from those who supervise or evaluate them.

    So I know education reform can, and does happen, every day through inventive educators and those they influence.
    • May 16 2013: Fritzie,
      I would argue utterly against the notion that reform is constantly taking place within the american education system. In order for that to happen there would have to be a revolution of sorts. And my issue isnt necessarily with individual schools, the system as a whole I am referring to. Take for instance, can you name more than one secondary education school that teaches philosophy? Instead of looking to develop a system where the student is considered as more of a peer whom is learning but able to develop their own ideas, we teach regurgitation of knowledge. Does this truly count as education? I would argue not only is it not education it is exactly what I am pointing to as inherently wrong in the system and why its failing. Certifications are nothing more than the regurgitation of knowledge.
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        May 16 2013: I believe you if you tell me that you have taught regurgitation of knowledge or that that was your experience as a student at at school. However that is not what I saw in my three kids' secondary educations (public or private) nor in the classrooms I have visited (of which there have been many). So at the very least your claim of what "we do" is not a very universal "we."

        I definitely know secondary schools- public and private- that have taught philosophy, both as self-standing courses and as part of literature and social studies courses. But even if no schools did, that would not be valid evidence that reform is not taking place. It would only mean philosophy specifically was not in the curriculum.

        Meanwhile Michael in his new thread is a high school student studying philosophy and could use some help with understanding Heidigger and Nietszche, if you have a moment: http://www.ted.com/conversations/18403/philosophy_need_help_understa.html
        • May 16 2013: what do you think standardized tests are and what do you think multiple choice tests accomplish? Students in America are judged through standardization, a standard many of histories greatest minds wouldnt measure up to. there isnt one universal definition of whats smart, but thats exactly what the Department of Education is saying. Multiple choice tests speak
          numbers about the current attitude toward critical thinking. How does multiple choice, which is highly present in American schools, reflect critical thinking in any way. Not to mention that standard everyone is judged by is being lowered all the time because our society is to weak to fail people. The truth is that once unions and government got involved it was never about education it was about politics
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        May 16 2013: Keith, you ask two different questions.

        Multiple choice tests have little place in classroom instruction, as they typically do not reveal what students are thinking. In that sense, one cannot see what students understand and one cannot from them distinguish conceptual problems from simple carelessness. I don't know of any teacher who gives them, though I would guess that some teachers throw a few such questions into classroom exams. Multiple choice mostly appears on the annual tests states often require and that teachers hate giving, but at least they tend to be only once a year.

        Second question is what standardized tests are. Tests are called standardized if different students are all asked the same questions so that one can compare how different students seem to compare in terms of being able to apply some body of material. The word 'standardized" does not tell us what sort of questions are on the test.

        So, for example, the standardized tests in my state involved lots of open ended questions. For example, every 8th grader in the state was asked to design an experiment to show how light or music affects the growth of plants and to specify what would be measured and how and what variables would be controlled and how.

        By asking 8th grade students such a standard question, which is to say asking them all that same question, the state hoped to get some summary information about how kids in different districts seemed to be coming along on designing experiments.

        There are standardized tests that are multiple choice, or at least partly multiple choice. But the term "standardized test" only means the same questions are asked of a lot of people.
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    May 15 2013: Not only it is possible , it is necessary. We've seen Finland have done it, we could model them , and make a bit of adjustment that fits with our circumstances.
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    May 15 2013: My questions to our topic are:

    * How has the system failed?
    * What is the standard of measurement so we can determine what is broken that needs fixing?
    * And, why do think that money is the answer? (I know you didn't raise but in Aust, we have just had a big announcement on funding reform)

    For me, schools and the education system reflect society. so if the education system is truly failing, then so is society, and I am not sure that is true.

    I agree it is circular, and has been for many years. I am currently reading early 1900s text of education and where it should go and what it could do for society; and they are saying pretty much the same things. The problem as I see it, is that we have set education (and specifically the school system) up as the answer to whatever question is asked? And we all know it does not and cannot cater for all. In Victoria, Australia we did away with technical schools. We had a two stream system, where tech. schools focussed on the trades and high schools focussed less on the trades. They were merged with the view (as I understand) that a one-size-fits-all education system would work better and there is a greater emphasis on transitioning people to university; to do this they have changed the leaving age to 17. We now suffer a tradesman shortage as people were steered away to create a clever country; and now those in the trade are making an absolute fortune.

    I think we will never get it "right" as there are two many secular interests and political agendas. But, we need to recognise that education - staying in school - is not for everyone and therefore we need governments to create job opportunities for those who do not want to be part of their revolution.

    On a final note, and to bring it back to TED, I agree with Sir Ken Robinson and we need to remember that education is a human system, and it does no more than preparing people for life - if it doesn't do that then it is broken. And we can fix that!