Vacation gave me the opportunity to catch up with a bit of early American history, particularly the eventful last two decades of the 18th century. During that time, the 13 colonies concluded their war of independence, forged the Articles of Confederation, and, when that didn’t work, drafted and fine-tuned the Constitution. The world, I think, has never seen a more fecund or consequential period of governmental and political invention combined with test-driving, tweaking, and careful nurturing.
American education today finds itself in a similar period of challenge. But can we muster the imagination, leadership, and persistence to devise a different and better arrangement?
Our traditional K-12 structures and governance arrangements are showing their obsolescence and frailty. “Local control” via elected municipal school boards cannot cope with today’s realities of metropolitanization, mobility, and interest-group politics. Public education fails to provide enough choices or to accommodate diverse cultural, economic, and familial demands. State-level standards, assessments, and accountability schemes cannot handle the imperatives of a modern post-industrial nation on a shrinking and more competitive planet. Traditional approaches to preparing, licensing, deploying, and compensating educators are ill-suited to contemporary lifestyles, career paths, and management practices. Customary means of delivering instruction look archaic alongside today’s technologies. Familiar modes of financing schools, based on dramatically varying property values and income levels, yield results that are neither equitable nor efficient. And our “marble cake” policy structure of local, state, and national officials has proven better at blocking needed change than at effecting it.
One might plausibly describe 2002’s enactment of No Child Left Behind and today’s “Race to the Top” federal-funding carnival as the latest and most forceful efforts to make the old system work better — by creating, in Washington, incentives, measures, and sanctions intended to tug and prod state and local education systems to deliver better and more uniform results and to change their practices in specific ways.
And one might fairly describe the backlash to NCLB, and the conniving, finagling, competing, and obsessing over “Race to the Top” dollars, as the old system’s desperate struggle to retain its prerogatives while changing just enough to avoid forfeiting federal money. But the truth is that the old system is obsolete. Tugging and kicking at it from the banks of the Potomac is not going to modernize it.
Something akin to a “Miracle at Philadelphia” is needed, some coming together of forward-looking leaders able to conceptualize and construct a new set of arrangements that will work better than the old.
A tentative and limited version of that is happening now in the sealed room occupied by drafters of “common” academic standards for reading and math, summoned together on hot summer days by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. One must wish them well. If they do a good job, they may point the way toward further changes in our education arrangements. But standards comprise just a small fraction of what needs to change in American education, and I cannot detect any plausible efforts to tackle the rest.
I’m not sure what form such an effort might take. We might, though, recall four key elements of America’s passage from “Confederation” to “Constitution” that will need to be echoed in any successful reinvention of our education system:
Imagination. The Founders could visualize not only what wasn’t working, but also what was needed instead, and they had the creativity to design it, even though nobody had ever before seen anything like it. They weren’t just patching an old arrangement; they were inventing a new one that would endure.