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School Reform: Easier Said
By David W. Kirkpatrick (December 27, 2007)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us
Perhaps no institution, occupation or profession is as difficult, or impossible, to reform as public education. Schools are bigger, more expensive, and have some recent features such as computers but, in the main, they are basically the same as they have been since the public school system began to officially emerge in the 1830s with passage of the Common School Act in Pennsylvania.
Even ignoring for the moment reforms such as vouchers, tuition tax credits or charter schools, it isn't that needed reforms are not introduced or that, in those rare instances where something better is introduced and shown to work, other districts don't replicate it - it's that there is virtually no recognition that they exist. Curiosity and interest in what is occurring in their field seems to be almost nonexistent in the ranks of public educators.
When doctors, with whom teachers dearly love to be compared, introduce a new technique, such as heart transplants, or an advance, such as the polio vaccine, its use often spreads rapidly throughout the profession and becomes so common that in some instances, of which polio is one, the medical condition may virtually disappear.
In the public schools, however, even the successful pioneer is rarely hailed as a model but, rather, is viewed as a threat or a troublemaker and may even be treated as a pariah. The more successful they are the more vehement may be the opposition to them and what they are doing. Consider Jaime Escalante, who had virtually unique success teaching math to disadvantaged students in classes as large as 70. His reward was to be pressured by his colleagues, removed as department chairman and later driven from his district entirely.
What might be regarded as the ultimate absurdity in school reform history came in a district that introduced changes in one of its schools that were so successful and popular that the district was overwhelmed with students and parents clamoring to participate in its programs.
One might compare this with what happened when Ray Kroc opened the first McDonald's several decades ago and it was swamped with customers. Capitalizing on this success he standardized and franchised his system, becoming extremely wealthy in the process. Today there are thousands of McDonald's around the world, with more opening regularly.
In a rational world this is what one would expect.
But public schooling is not a rational world. Rather than replicate their success the school district's board and administration decided that the popular school was distracting from the district's regular operations and closed it down.
On a broader scale consider this when reviewing the charter school movement. Whatever one thinks of charter schools in general there is no question but that some of these schools are having remarkable success, such as the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) schools. In isolated instances there are some public educators who think there may be something here that they can learn. But, more generally, the reaction of public educators to charter schools is to, first, oppose legislation that authorizes their creation; second, failing the first object, keep the authorizing law as weak as possible; and, third, then try to get such laws repealed, overturned in court or otherwise negated.
The first charter school law, in Minnesota, is now nearly 20 years old. Nationally, there are currently more than 4,200 charter schools with new ones being opened every year, and they enroll an estimated 1,200,000 students, a number that also continues to increase. In brief, charter schools are here to stay but much of the public school establishment remains in denial.
Another example of the possible is a report on the Terraset School in Reston, Virginia which uses both the sun and the earth for heat. Built partially below ground level, its two to three feet of ground cover keeps the temperature relatively constant. In the winter air conditioning is sometimes used to compensate for heat generated by lights and people.
Given the interest in the environment and rising energy costs, you might expect to see more Terrasets. The report about it appeared in the American Educator of December 1977, 30 years ago!!
But, in public education such things take time.
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"The near-impossibility of true educational reform has been documented in a number of studies...Now that I'm off the board and able to think more calmly, it is even clearer to me that the system can't be rehabilitated, only replaced." Howard Good, "Losing It, The Confessions of an Ex-School Board President," Education Week, March 17, 2004
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Copyright 2007 David W. Kirkpatrick
108 Highland Court,
Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633