Two Roads Diverge for American Education: We Can Move Ahead into a Command-and-Control Era or Forward toward More Collaboration

By Camins, Arthur H. | Phi Delta Kappan, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Two Roads Diverge for American Education: We Can Move Ahead into a Command-and-Control Era or Forward toward More Collaboration


Camins, Arthur H., Phi Delta Kappan


We are at a fork in the road in American education. At this moment, we have to choose which road to travel--and that choice will make all the difference.

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U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is seizing this moment and wielding federal funds in order to precipitate a radical (and, I believe, undemocratic) change in education. He is promoting charter schools, rewards for success, and prescriptive control of those schools that aren't making adequate progress. The Administration's proposed ESEA reauthorization, A Blueprint for Reform, could codify a dramatic change in education policy that favors a competitive, market-based approach to education reform.

But there is another road, one that has yet to be paved. That road includes building expertise and internal capacity in learning organizations in every school. While Secretary Duncan's road leads backward to a command-and-control era, this second road runs forward toward collaboration.

Several factors make this a transformational moment. First, the information revolution means not only that everything we say, write, and do is open to public scrutiny, but also that it soon will be possible to tie very specific information about student learning to individual teachers and principals. We will be making critical decisions about how to use that information, for what purposes, and based on which values.

Second, we're coming to realize that economic prosperity and democracy won't be sustainable unless we address the persistent racial and socioeconomic gaps in education attainment. And third, there is a widespread concern that the United States is falling behind other countries when it comes to teaching our children the skills of problem solving, persistence, critical and creative thinking, collaboration, application of knowledge in novel situations, and knowing how to learn.

If we're to make informed choices about which road to travel, we need to examine the following questions.

Will we settle for some good charter schools for some students?

The Education Department's push for charter schools rests on several assumptions. The first is that schools can compete like restaurants do, and, if they do, they'll either improve or go out of business. In fact, most entrepreneurial business ventures do fail, and a substantial number of charter schools close their doors each year. But, when a restaurant closes, all that may be lost are money and some less-than-tasty meals. When schools lock their doors and disrupt education, the losers are the children. While a certain level of instability is integral to the evolution and vitality of our economy, that's not a viable strategy for school reform--assuming that our goal truly is to leave no child behind.

A second justification for charter schools is that, freed from excessive control and regulation, they'll be an incubator for innovation. The recent history of innovation in business supports the idea that giving people "space" and encouragement for creative thinking spurs new ideas and improvements. However, there is no evidence that most charter schools are any more innovative than other public schools. Innovation is not determined by how a school is governed, but by ideas, values, and leadership. In addition, regardless of the environment, innovations often are doomed by underfunding, a too-narrow focus, and the ubiquitous impatience for results.

The notion that innovations spawned in charter schools will spread to other schools also has proven to be false. Even in business, an innovation rarely "goes viral." While certain technological advances --such as eBay, the iPhone, and Twitter--have spread rapidly and modified behaviors, schools have been far slower to change. This may be due in part to the bureaucracy in which schools operate, or it may be that it's simply easier to copy products or service delivery models than to replicate the complex set of variables and conditions that lead to a first-rate education. …

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