Author Angela Engel offers a way of understanding the two dominant perspectives in the debate over how to improve the nation’s public schools.

Improving education is dependent on understanding that the current attempt at school reform is not innovation.

Reformers tend to accept the traditional methodologies and underlying assumptions of education. They commonly assume that what can be measured has the most value. The leaders include George W. Bush Jr. and No Child Left Behind; Harold McGraw III, CEO of McGraw Hill, publishers of 26 state standardized tests, Michelle Rhee, CEO of Students First, Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for America and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education with the Race to the Top initiative.

Students work together on math skills in Patrick McDonald's first-grade class at Polaris.
First grade class at Polaris at Ebert. <em>EdNews</em> file photo

The fixation on measurement, tracking, sorting and reporting is understood as a function of management and efficiency. Their means are dependent on factors of competition and comparison that have very little to do with learning and children. The best way to distinguish a reformer from an innovator is whether the solution is tied to a price tag, product, sales or service. In my opinion, reformers advocate for online for-profit schools, external school management companies, virtual learning,  consultants, data systems, high-stakes testing, national curriculum (Common Core) standards, and product lines that fall somewhere in the alignment equation.

I believe that innovators, on the other hand, tend to question the purposes and underlying assumptions of education that drive the current system.

They seek answers to promoting all levels of diversity including diversity of ideas. They work to address the inequities and create equality in opportunity; they champion educator autonomy, student empowerment, and parent engagement; they promote learner-driven education. The long history of innovation includes those well-known leaders such as Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education, Maria Montessori, founder of Montessori Schools; Lyndon B. Johnson led the War on Poverty and the original Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965; Sir Ken Robinson, author and lecturer on creativity and innovation; Deborah Meier, who is known for her leadership in democratically run public urban schools, Howard Gardner, for his theory of multiple intelligences, and Daniel Goleman and his work on emotional intelligence .

Innovators view education not as a function of management and efficiency but as a function of culture and experience. Innovators share the philosophy that the public education system should emphasize not “what to think,” but instead nurture the innate human quality of “how we think.” Innovators respect human individuality and the differences in the way we learn and express life and learning. They define human success in terms of curiosity, creativity, initiative, collaboration and social contribution. They direct their attention to building trusting relationships, enriching experiences, shrinking inequalities, growing opportunity, personalizing practices, improving conditions, expanding resources, nurturing inspiration, prevention and intervention, factors often beyond the measurable, yet essential to learning and children.

The difference between reform and innovation

The back-to-school night at the Washington Park Early Learning Center best illustrates the difference between reform and innovation. Teacher Christina DeVarona broke parents into two groups for a pumpkin-creating activity. Group one was given prescribed instructions with common outcomes. The outline of the pumpkin was drawn and the shapes already cut. Group two was directed to a table with a variety of materials – construction paper, beads, paints, feathers, glitter, ribbons, etc.

At the end of the exercise, the pumpkins were lined up on the front wall. As she pointed to the elaborate and original pumpkins from group two, she emphasized how unique we are as individuals and how human capacity is unlimited.  She looked at the first group’s  pumpkins and pointed out the obvious – they had duplicated her pumpkin.

The parents of the preschool children learned more in that one pumpkin exercise than education reformers have learned in three decades of failed mandates – children and human beings cannot be mechanized, industrialized and standardized.

I believe that poor and minority students have been hurt most by school reform. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, poverty in the U.S. has increased by 9 percent, according to Census figures. In the decade following the War on Poverty and the Original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act poverty dropped by 6 percent.  The achievement gap between rich and poor has widened; college tuition rates have doubled, the need for remediation has grown dramatically; and many schools that have closed have been in low-income communities.

In the words of writer Jonathan Kozol, the prevailing reform paradigm has led to racial isolation and a narrowing of civic virtue. The majority of today’s high school graduates know learning in terms of what can be measured on a standardized test. Their experience of achievement is realized only in their comparisons with others and only in the context of prescribed academics. These young students are denied the opportunity to think critically, create solutions to the most challenging problems and build something worthwhile. Their education is being hijacked for purposes besides their own. Attempts from reformers to maintain and sustain power and control through all means necessary have dehumanized classrooms, fractured communities, trivialized the American education system, and corporatized the public trust.

We have two choices

In the most distilled sense, innovators stand for freedom – freedom of thought, feelings, faith, speech and freedom from fear, oppression, discrimination and exploitation. Innovators recognize that freedom is inextricably tied to equity. In Finland, where there are no private schools or colleges, the main driver of education policy has reflected the commitment to equity. Since 1980 when the Finnish addressed social inequity through their education system, Finland has emerged as a premier model in education.

Data-centered, profit-motivated reforms have done extreme damage to American education leaving traditional industrial school models near collapse. What has resulted is an opening for innovators to create learning communities truly reflective of a democratic society and invigorating examples of possibility.

Ultimately it is our money and these are our children and the future of education is still to be decided. We can continue with the current reforms of standardization and high-stakes testing, leaving students’ malleable and complacent enough to conform to the world around them. Or, we can revolutionize the education system; inviting students to question the systems and assert their rights as learners and future citizens in order to create a world we have yet to see.