Back To School The Vain Search For The Right Formula For Education

Jeff Bryant

Much in the same way that September ushers in a new football season every year regaled by a bombast of armchair quarterbacks analyzing “the game,” the month also brings on yet another Back to School Season with a chorus of commentators declaring their prescriptions to “fix our schools.” Unfortunately, too often the rhetoric of these two orations sounds an awful lot alike.

For instance, take a recent blog post by edu-journalist Jay Mathews. Writing at the Washington Post, Mathews exhorted his readership to “get serious about fixing our schools” without ever identifying exactly who the “unserious” are in the ongoing conversations about education. Then he suggested what may be one of the most “unserious” education observations of all: that the way to “fix” American public education is to find the right “formula.”

First off, it’s interesting to note, that formulas for public schools that always seem most in demand, as is true in Mathew’s post, are ones that will work for “low-income children,” as if somehow schools that seem to work well in better-off communities — you know, schools that are adequately funded, that are safe and inviting, that have a broad curriculum emphasizing critical thinking with ample opportunities to engage in extra-curricular learning activities — somehow are inappropriate for the lesser-off in our society.

Second, the sample formulas that are frequently cited by edu-pundits tend to steer around the very things that currently make public education in America today so fraught with complications. Take the examples offered by Mathews for instance.

The first, is a network of high schools in New York that are allowed to be exempt from four of the five New York state tests that students in all other NY public schools are required to take. The second is a prominent chain of charter schools, KIPP, that has never actually run a school district, has a reputation for pushing out students who misbehave or perform poorly academically, and practices a form of instruction that I can’t imagine many middle class American parents would like for their children.

Not to pick on Mathews alone, one of the most popular flavors of school reform being peddled this new school year is for schools to spend goo-gobs of money on laptops, software, and Smart Boards in order to create “technology-centric classrooms.” Even during a year when state legislators and governors are cutting public school spending back to levels below what was being spent in 2008, many of these very same officials are requiring schools to ramp up their outlays for tech.

Here again, as yesterday’s article in the New York Times revealed, there’s no silver bullet — even when it has been digitized:

In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.
This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed at all to the idea that school systems should borrow interesting ideas and practices from each other to try out in their own situations. But I would submit that the nation’s fixation on getting the right “formula” for our public schools is less of a solution than it is part of the problem.

There are reasons why perfect formulas for public schools are so elusive. First, education is a complex endeavor that often defies simple solutions. Just as no two kids are the same, the dynamics of any two classrooms are apt to differ, as will the strengths and character of the teachers, and the environment in different schools. The fact that research identifies some factors that appear to be more critical than others gives us a baseline only — one worth working from, for sure. But by no means something to roll out across the country.

Second, public schools by their very nature reflect their communities. Scratch any dysfunctional public school, and what you’re apt to find is a dysfunctional community. Not that schools don’t occasionally rise above their surrounding circumstances. But community inputs matter — a lot. To argue otherwise is to assert that schools for black children in the Jim Crowe-era South would have somehow gotten better on their own without a strong federal intervention.

So let’s start this new school year off with a vow to resist the rhetoric of education’s armchair quarterbacks pushing simple solutions to fix public schools. Unless of course, they’re actually proposing to literally “fix” schools, by providing funds to repair and renew dilapidated school buildings in our most impoverished school systems.

Instead, what we need from the national media are the voices of teachers, parents, and students who live and learn from their experiences with teaching and learning every day.

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