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Is Education Reform Even Possible? Two Sides of the Argument

Written by Bruce Deitrick Price

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There is a lot of despair about our public schools. Two common appraisals go like this: Is it possible to save the public schools? Should we even try to save them?

I wonder if the people in charge of these schools realize how pessimistic, and indeed disgusted, millions of Americans have become.

Public_Schools_Can_They_Be_SavedMany teachers spend their time being defensive rather than trying to understand the reasons for this tragic outlook. Administrators spend their time creating alibis and excuses, and distributing blame on everyone but themselves.  Perhaps, if teachers and administrators would stand outside the system, and try to understand the criticisms, they could better help the country move in the right direction.

See Related "Saving Public Schools")


Personally, I believe the public schools can be saved, and that it’s completely sensible (and urgent) to work toward this goal. My basic suggestion is to identify the bad methods, understand why they don’t work, and systematically eliminate them. Sounds reasonable to me. But let me tell you there are many people who think my hopeful attitude is proof that I’ve lost my mind.

I often put pieces about education on a major forum site and, almost as often, a woman calling herself Wintertime attacks me for being mentally infirm. Wintertime argues in effect: “Bruce seems to have some sense. Why is he always saying dumb things? Reform is not possible.”

Her scorn of the public schools is based on the belief that they are irredeemably socialistic and godless, that they coerce students and parents into politically correct behaviors, and that education can be better done by home schools, private schools, charter schools, etc. She makes this compelling point: “Baseless claims that ‘reform’ in any meaningful sense is a realistic possibility are exactly what have made it possible for the corrupt government education establishment to survive and thrive. Why? Because it leads people to accept the status quo while they wait for ‘reform” that never comes.” In short, she wants government completely out of education and good riddance! (There is, of course, nothing in the Constitution about education or the creation of public schools. The Founding Fathers assumed that each community would deal with education in its own way, as they always had.)

Wintertime’s tone suggests that I’ve disagreed with her ideas. No. I just don’t see, AS A PRACTICAL MATTER, how she reaches the goal she describes, namely, removing government from education and giving it back to the citizens. We can’t even make a dent in the power of the Department of Education or the self-aggrandizement of the NEA. Maybe her plan is good. I just do not see how she gets there from here.

So, in our running dialogue, I argue for reform and she scolds me for supposing that it’s possible. As Wintertime put it: “When is Bruce going to give it up? He persists in his quixotic quest to reform the unreformable.”

So there you have it, education commissars, the huge range of discontents that you have inspired.

I’ve just been reading a book by Patrick Shannon, a major progressive educator. He makes very clear that many school systems, as long ago as 1890, had created wonderfully successful educational programs. So the knowledge and insight were there more than a century ago. What happened? This book ( “The Struggle To Continue”) reveals one way of explaining our malady. Starting in the 1930s, we had people who call themselves “social reconstructionists.” In my opinion, that’s just jargon for Socialists. These people were obsessed with turning the schools upside down as a way of turning the society upside down. Trouble is, these so-called educators couldn’t seem to walk and chew gum at the same time. Translation: in pursuing their ideological dreams, they neglected the country’s intellectual needs. This is the inversion that we need to fix.

Wintertime would probably laugh at that sentence, because there’s no fixing spilt milk. She’d argue, sweep away the mess, start over and do it right. But as I say, there’s so much immobility and inertia in public education, how can we hope for even the smallest move toward sweeping away or starting over?

Keep in mind that education is a huge industry. It should always be called Big Education. There are billions of dollars flying around. People are paid inflated salaries to do things they don’t need to be done. How can you expect such people to eliminate their own cushy jobs? Money, so much money, has not led to better education but to corruption and stagnation.

So I always come back to the notion that the way you start a journey is to take a few small steps. As a practical matter, I think incremental reform is our only hope. Or put it this way: why rule out an option?

Here’s my plan: we discredit all the stupid ideas in the schools, and thereby discredit the Education Establishment as a group for coming up with those stupid ideas in the first place. Ideally, we reach a point where no one turns to these pretenders for advice on education. (Every town has three great sources of advice now: private schools, parochial schools, and homeschooling groups. No public school needs to listen to bureaucrats in Washington or professors at Harvard. Those people are the problem.)

Would  you like a reason for hope? Consider what happened in 1999. The Education Establishment tossed Whole Word under the bus. As casually as you please, they announced that phonics must be part of any reading program, having said the exact opposite for 65 years!!!! (Thus, we now have Balanced Literacy.) What happened was a massive strategic retreat. The reading wars were going especially badly in California circa 1996. Reading scores were way down. People were figuring things out. Almost overnight the Education Establishment said, “Never mind.” It seems that these commissars don’t want to appear completely absurd.  

So, 1999 gave us a victory for phonics and common sense. It happened once, it can happen again. Suppose we could achieve the same victory in each aspect of public education. We would basically do it the same way. Publicize the failures and explain why they happened. Pin the rap on the guilty. Make them squirm. Make them retreat.

At a party last Friday I was trying to explain to somebody how I viewed the Education Establishment. I said, “Just think of the Mubarak Regime. Corrupt, autocratic, entrenched....But they were thrown out almost overnight.”

An angry public combined with new media dethroned Mubarak. Why can’t the same thing happen in American education? Why can’t we chip away at the credibility and legitimacy of the Education Establishment...until it slinks away in shame?

Wintertime says complete privatization is the only option. If you agree, work for that. If you think some sort of step-by-step reform is workable, please join my crusade or start your own.

One way or another, we have got to make sure that American children get a better education than at present.


(Bruce Price founded Improve-Education.org in 2005. “38: Saving Public Schools” on that site deals with many of these issues.)

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