Work for real education reform
The changes needed in education should be far broader than the report's focus on math, technology and literacy. Educators of all stripes should support a vision for educational outcomes that include abilities to synthesize, creative imagination, motivation, social skills, leadership abilities, decisionmaking, teamwork, and what is generally called "emotional intelligence."
By William Spady
The new education reform report called "Tough Choices or Tough Times" is the first national report of its kind in recent years to truly address and challenge the deeply entrenched and systemic factory-model nature of our educational system.
Our traditional time-defined paradigm of "school" has become so legalized, institutionalized, internalized and continuously reinforced that it is ingrained in our culture and way of thinking. That's why virtually all other major educational reform reports or initiatives have either reinforced this outdated and counter-productive paradigm or simply tried to apply Band-Aids to it.
Since most Americans love the image of the school they attended, they can't imagine anything else and don't want to see it changed. That's a key reason why real educational change proceeds at a snail's pace, gets blocked or never really materializes. So, Colorado leaders like House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who've expressed serious interest in "Tough Choices," can expect the forces of inertia to find fault with report and prevent real change - no matter the urgency of education problems, or the merits of new ideas.
But, in spite of containing some far-reaching ideas, this report is entirely too one-dimensional to serve as a template for addressing educational change in a truly visionary and comprehensive way.
Its rationale and proposals focus exclusively on "economic man" - but not social man, humane man, creative man or any other metaphor we might use to characterize a complete, fulfilled and empowered human being. Yes, our economic well-being should not be overlooked, and we owe the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which produced "Tough Choices," praise for its in-depth analyses and mostly cogent reasoning.
But the changes needed in education should be far broader than the report's focus on math, technology and literacy. Educators of all stripes should support a vision for educational outcomes that include abilities to synthesize, creative imagination, motivation, social skills, leadership abilities, decisionmaking, teamwork, and what is generally called "emotional intelligence."
While the report gives rather short shrift to these "soft" capacities, advocates of real reform in Colorado and elsewhere should put them front and center in considering future changes.
There are other limitations to the "Tough Choices" report.
It has an enormous business bias and urges education yet again to operate more like modern business - a notion that has both merit and enormous dangers, depending on how its complex (and vague) vision of performance standards and enlightened instructional practices are, in fact, applied.
And many of the report's most far-reaching recommendations are interdependent - financially, operationally and institutionally. A pick-and-choose approach to the report's ideas may not work, because so many of its recommendations are tied in a complex financial balancing act: spend more money here by saving it there.
Nonetheless, progressive educational researchers and reformers should agree that there is huge merit in many of the report's recommendations regarding:
# A real performance-based rather than time-driven educational system that focuses on what individual students learn rather than how many years they attend school. But again, such a system should cover a far more expansive range of abilities than math, technology and literacy.
# Attracting and keeping top teachers in all subjects through dramatically expanded financial and professional incentives.
# Implementing a universal early-childhood-education program.
# Devising and implementing extensive non-traditional support structures for students who need them most.
# Developing assessments that measure significant life-performance areas of learning.
# Supporting learning opportunities for people of any age.
Despite the inertia in the current system, there are many educators and researchers in Colorado eager to contribute to the kind of fundamental rethinking that "Tough Choices" invites. They all should be part of the discussion.
William Spady of Dillon writes and lectures on education reform, organizational change and leadership development. For more information on the "Tough Choices" report, go to www.skillscommission.org.
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