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The Difficulty of School Reform
By David W. Kirkpatrick (September 07, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
         Few things are as difficult as reforming the public schools.  Since the early beginnings of the public school system, with the enactment of the Common School Act in Pennsylvania in 1834 and Horace Mann as Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts a few years later, the schools have remained relatively unchanged in their fundamentals.  Changes have essentially been of solidifying the system rather than of what could be or should be.
 
         For example, initially Mann objected to compulsory schooling .  Perhaps because the resistance to the initiation and expansion of government owned and operated schools was much more intense than he anticipated, he soon changed his mind and Massachusetts became the first state to pass a law compelling students to attend school.  Since then every state has passed such laws, and they now cover a greater period of years than was first the case.
 
         And, please, do not refer to this as compulsory education.  No state has ever required that students be educated.   The laws require students to attend school for a stipulated time - so many days a year, typically 180, for so many years, such as from age eight to seventeen.
 
         Even these are largely requirements on the school, not the student.  Rare is the student who attends school for 180 days in any given year, much less for all the years from K-12.  Average daily absenteeism rates may run from 10% in some schools to well over 50% in many inner city schools.
 
         It is commonly recognized that not only dropouts but too many graduates are something less than literate.
 
         Study after study over the past 25 years, beginning with A Nation at Risk in 1983, have examined the system and found it not only wanting but, to a large degree, horrendous.  And there were studies long before 1983 that were hardly complimentary either.  One summary says that, beginning with one in Chicago in the 1890s, no study has ever found that the public system satisfactorily educated a majority of the students.  One almost self-evident proof of this conclusion is that it wasn't until 1950 that half of the students in 5th grade seven years before were still in school.
 
         What the system has seen over the century and three quarters since its inception is more students, more teachers, more schools, more money, more this and more that of quantitative things but not more and more - and arguably less and less - of qualitative things such as academic achievement.
 
         It should be obvious by now, as more than one person has concluded, that the public school system cannot be reformed.  At the very least it might be recognized that logic has nothing to do with the way it is organized.  If the process by which students are educated was based on logic, the public school system would not exist.
 
         Sometimes even teacher unions hear words regarding the need for reform, although perhaps accidentally.  Dr. George Land referring to the growing need to do things differently answered the question as to "What will change mean to teachers?" by saying it will be "To reinvent education." He added that it will be necessary to rethink "what was it we decided we would never do,"because "that's what you're going to do."
 
         That hasn't happened in the 15 years since he gave that address but it might be noted that he had the courage to say it to a 1993 education conference sponsored by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (of which I'm a former president), one of the more powerful affiliates of the National Education Association.
 
         One of the problems, as former Milwaukee School Superintendent Howard Fuller said at the EdVentures 99 conference is the necessity of "Paying the Price for Change as the Struggle Continues."  Those not prepared to pay the price need to realize there is also a price to pay for not changing where necessary.   An interesting additional thought, especially from a school superintendent, was Fuller's suggestion that "It is better to beg forgiveness than to seek prior approval," which suggests a willingness to practice a bit more creative noncompliance.
 
         At the very least, what is missing is a lack of will, not a lack of tested ideas.

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         There isn't a single example of school change which university faculty have researched and advocated that is now accepted practice." Martin Haberman, "Twenty-Three Reasons Universities Can't Educate Teachers." pp 133-140, The Journal of Teacher Education, Summer 1971

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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

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