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A Measured View on the Call for Education Reformation (2/15/14)

In a 1/28/14 Education Week article Clarke Rubel calls for a reformation of the current system of PK – 12 schooling in the United States. Rubel indicates that he and many of the educators that he is acquainted with are tired of toiling for an “education machine” that they have little confidence in as they try to balance the demands of the machine with their loyalty to the welfare of their students. This clearly reveals Rubel’s disbelief in the purpose and aims of current curriculum and instructional practice in the United States. We find later in Rubel’s article that he has some worthy ideals but they are not based on complete understandings of the system that he vehemently opposes; more on this later.

As we further examine Rubel’s rationale for reformation, we also find the assertion that the system of PK – 12 schooling in the United States is inherently flawed to the point of corruption and has “devolved to the level of the least capable.” As a result, Rubel insists that a reformation, analogous to the Protestant Reformation, is needed to shake the system up and diversify the message that is sent to students.

As an initial point in his argument Rubel states that the United States has an education system in which creative thought and aesthetics have been replaced with the need for correct answers in an environment where “accountability trumps relevance.” It is true that the age of accountability in PK – 12 education in the United States, experienced over the past 15 years, is unlike any that the profession has ever seen. Conspiracy theorists aside, a large part of the driving force behind this new era of accountability is that for more than three decades prior there was limited uniform and quantifiable accountability in the systems across the states, which led to a decline in the consistency and quality of the education that graduates received during that time. The accountability era is a response to this reality.

Regarding aesthetics and creative thought, Rubel is right, it should not be strangled from curriculum, instruction, and assessment. However, aesthetics and creative thought do not live in a world that precludes well-defined curricula in the various content areas, as Rubel suggests. Instead, this is where the role of the classroom teacher is again central to the student learning experience. Rubel himself argues that we need teachers with “wisdom” which I define in a parallel here in the tradition of Solomon, as those who possess deep knowledge and discernment. In the academic disciplines, these qualities manifest themselves in successful delivery of the content, evidenced by significant student learning. It is the classroom teacher that brings the content to life, who makes it relevant, and is able to build the connections to the real world for students. Curriculum in and of itself is not a deterrent to this, in fact it is a tool to be wielded by educators with deep knowledge and discernment.

In the spirit of reform of the system, Rubel also argues that the [high school] diploma is a symbol of prolonged conformity and not a true education. I do not agree with Rubel’s assertion. However, it must be acknowledged that at one level, high school and college diplomas do represent a quality of “stick-to-it-ness.” The diplomas show that the graduates are able to see a task through to its end, not an unworthy quality. In fact, it is a quality that is highly sought after by employers.

In regard to academics though, at its core the high school diploma should represent the achievement of a fundamental education in the four core disciplines along with various electives that have prepared the graduate for entry level workforce positions or further study at the postsecondary level. It is the basic equipment for the next steps in a student’s adult life. The problem for many years prior to the current age of accountability has been that there was no clear definition of what the “basic equipment” should consistent of. As a result, there has been inconsistency in the quality of graduates between states, districts, and schools across the United States. Again, the current era of accountability, including the development of the Common Core State Standards, has emerged as a response to this reality.

Finally, Rubel argues that we should instill a quality in students that will promote a belligerent refusal to define themselves as their transcripts and to be healthy skeptics of all information. These are worthy goals, and I add another level of clarity to Rubel’s argument by stating that in developing these attitudes we must teach students to identify their individual talents. Every student may not be successful in all of the courses that are studied in high school. However, by the time a student reaches high school, he/she should know what they excel in. Students must understand that the whole of the curriculum must be experienced though so that they become well rounded citizens. At the same time, students must be trained to identify their talents/passions, to seek out opportunities to keenly develop them, and to follow career paths connected to them so that they lead fulfilling lives as productive members of society.

In closing, the freedom to debate ideas and reform systems when they are broken through the processes of law and policy are two of the greatest freedoms that we enjoy in the United States. The key in the effective use of these freedoms is discernment in identifying problems and root causes which then allows us to develop solutions that are effective in addressing needs. While the current system of PK – 12 schooling in the United States is not without flaw, it is an effective method of providing educational opportunities for all citizens. As responsible educators, we must continuously seek ways to “fine tune” and “rebuild” areas that have fallen into decline.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO

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