There is (and has been) much talk around the idea of “school reform” both in the educational and political arena. The majority of this language focuses on raising standards and test-scores in an effort to help failing students in failing schools be “college and career ready”.
While I certainly applaud efforts to help students in any and every way possible, my deep concern is that we are trying desperately to fix the plumbing on the Titanic; even if we get our job right, the ship is still going down. Though there are great folk working tirelessly as teachers and administrators to love on kids in this current system, the problem as I see it is a bureaucratic and systemic one mired in an over-arching narrative that is sick down to its core.
Let me give a thought experiment to show what I mean (I owe this idea to my mentor, Dr. John Covaleskie, whose work in this field is paramount and urgent). Let’s say that tomorrow morning, when we woke up, every student attended a “reformed” school. That is, every student went to college as a given; every student made, say, around a 3.5 GPA; every student earned 3’s or higher on the Advanced Placement exams, 28 or higher on the ACTs, and aced the End of Instruction Exams. By these standards, the very ones educators and politicians repeat ad nauseam in their rhetoric on education in America, we should be able to say that schooling had been reformed, yes?
And yet, I would argue that, even in this dream utopia, where every student achieved at the highest level, schooling would still be failing both the students and the society at large because the over-arching purpose for which we educate has not been addressed. We would have, arguably, very smart people, but not yet wise. We would not have addressed what it means to do the very difficult work of choosing virtue. We would not have discussed what it means to journey toward the common good. We would, at best, have created a society replete with the greatest consumers possible, and, at worst, have merely replicated Hitler’s vision for education in Nazi Germany (a place overrun by highly educated doctors, scientists, architects, and even theologians, who were just more adept at bringing the Final Solution to bear).
Until we address the unhealthy narrative that drives our current vision of schooling, even our dream utopian vision carries with it seeds of nightmarish possibilities. I grieve for students who attend the best universities in our country on the merits of grades and test scores, who are still bankrupt relationally, morally, and psychologically. Sending students to Ivy League schools who have not wrestled with the question of how to avoid becoming the tragic character of their own story end up just as highly educated as Bernie Madoff, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods and John Edwards, but also with the potential to have their lives implode under the weight of their own unguarded weaknesses.
It is to this larger work that I have committed my life. Swabbing the Titanic, while it makes for great sound bites and impressive quantitative analysis, does little to deal with the fact that, in the end, that ship is sinking and taking many, many lives down with it.
In a previous post, Schooling, Education and the Shivering Self, I outlined the differences I see between what schooling is currently and what it could be. I will end this thought by saying, again, how proud I am of teachers and administrators who give of themselves sacrificially every day to love on kids who need love desperately This is in no way a critique of them (I have been in those trenches and know what Herculean work it takes to be there). What I want to do is go upstream and see pure, living water flow through education so that every student not only has the schooling necessary to get a job, but, more importantly, has the education necessary to learn how to live humanly and humanely as a wise, virtuous, fully flourishing human being working towards the shared good we all have in common.