Overcoming the “Incoherence”

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Green’s book “Building a Better Teacher” and the most recent chapter pointed out something interesting about the problem in education. I knew about all the problems that exist, in fact I’ve been taking a MOOC through Harvard called “Saving Schools” which detailed the history of education reform leading us to the status quo. But I like how Green puts it in her book when she talks about the American “education infrastructure” and says,

“[…] in American schools, the federal government was sovereign and the states were sovereign. Both. And if you thought that situation couldn’t possibly hold, you were correct about that too.

Instead of guidance, American schools endured mass confusion. Principals received mandates from the feds and from the state and from the district, sometimes matching and sometimes not (and only sometimes funded). Teachers got advice and orders just as contradictory as the directives their bosses received. Their local curriculum said on thing; their education school another. And the textbook, when there was a textbook, said something else altogether. With fifty states, more than fourteen thousand school districts, and nearly a hundred thousand schools, the law of the educational land was incoherence.” (p. 234 – 235)

Incoherence. It’s the perfect word to describe the problem in education. Since teaching, I have learned about the many education stakeholders and all of their overlapping opinions. There are simply too many voices in the conversation for anyone to be heard. This was more than evident during the Normandy and Riverview Gardens accreditation debacle of last year. There were voices both locally, state-wide, and nationally that conflicted about how to help the students of these communities receive a high-quality education. There was so much time wasted arguing about it last year and then at the start of this year there was more conflict about what to do with these students. Yet the only person this really affected–and the most important voice–was absent: the voice of the students.

So how do we overcome this incoherence?

In the end, how do we decide whose voice takes priority and whose voice to tune out?

I think this starts by removing some of the voices. In the current model, the most powerful voices are those least affected by the reforms: school boards and legislators. In order for there to be effective change the education system needs to be streamlined. The most powerful voices should be those people in the schools themselves. This means school leaders, teachers, community members, and students. Schools need autonomy in some decision making and teachers especially need autonomy in fulfilling their work.

In order for this to be successful, however, the U.S. needs a system built on results. It is true that accountability is a good thing when reviewing the performance of any system. Although education is measuring students–and not, say a process or products–the accountability component still matters. Education may not be a business, but it is a job that requires skilled professionals just like a business. So, in order to create the right environment to foster school autonomy the U.S. must first create a teaching and educational leadership profession centered on achievement. Recruiting and retaining the best and brightest would support the ability of schools to problem solve with their communities about how to best educate them.

In order to gain the public’s trust in school autonomy then America needs to establish a culture of prestige around teaching and education. Instead of the reputation as a low-paying, low-skilled and easily accessible career, teaching should be on par with becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Moreover, instead of teachers gaining tenure and a “job for life,” teaching should require constant observation, reflection and meaningful development (not just in the form of scant protocol). With these measures, teachers would take pride in their work and do their jobs well.

So, the first step to disentangling the education system from the incoherent policies is to separate it from the past. Education and teaching have changed immensely since the first American schools were born. It’s time to re-imagine a system based on 21st century learning and ideals. That starts with focusing on the schools and the people who are ultimately responsible for their success. None of this is new information, but I appreciate Green’s perspective on the issue and I hope that some day we’ll be able to clean up the incoherence and find a better way to deliver a high-quality education to all.


*David Cohen, referring to the book The Ordeal of Equality

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