…no this is not Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, but it is where we stand—at a crossroads in education. We have two competing views of how we as a nation should travel into the future. On one side exists a technocratic solution—the system has failed or is failing, and therefore a radical change is necessary. This is the disruptive innovation view. To those who subscribe to this view, the covenant that we have had with public education since the days of Horrace Mann in the 1850s is no longer what drives this most fundamental democratic enterprise. They would carve up neighborhoods, sort and select human beings into winners and losers (children and adults alike), and treat learning like a business.
On the other side exists a powerful vision to promote the core values and practices established by the highest achieving educational systems on earth. Many exist here in America, while others are thriving in both large and small countries outside the U.S.
Don’t be fooled by the protagonists that stand at the fork in the road waving a false banner of bad business practices trying to lure the public. Their claims suggest the road ends with the pot of gold promising that we will regain the lead in a globally competitive market place. Cheered on by celebrities and the media elite who fail to see the potholes in the road that no banner of merit pay, standardized testing, vouchers, and charter schools will repair—this is a road to ruin. This crowd of cheerleaders claims to see great promise in racing, competing, and overcoming society’s challenges with “Taylor like” dystopian metrics used to beat others, where only the strong survive.
A road that celebrates childhood, and one that sees professional teachers and teaching as being indispensible to building the future of our nation is a stark contrast to our foray down the path of slick silver bullets that dominate the landscape of the current reform agenda. Don’t be fooled. There are no easy “microwavable answers” to what we must do to promote the best for our children in America’s schools. Intractable issues like poverty, civic engagement, and the preservation of an enlightened citizenry will not be solved by tougher standards, market driven schemes, and a divided public education system.
At issue is a choice of how we can best serve our democracy. This is not a choice between the public and private sector, the left or right on the political spectrum. It is, however, a choice between a society that advances the principles of how individuals and organizations perform well, given the best evidence available, or how we might follow a narrow band of profit driven, unproven metrics that leads to potentially corrupt and short sighted returns.
Evidence abounds that the current reform agenda is reeling with mistrust, broken communities, and a simplistic attempt to leverage what works in some “ business sectors” and misapply it in others.
The alternative to the current agenda is not a pipe dream. This is not some nostalgic yearning for the good old days. Rather, hard won victories in strengthening the professional work of educators and forging lifelong habits of mind in our youth that will serve both themselves and the larger society well do exist. It is a wise path that sensible leaders and thoughtful adults espouse for themselves, their families, and their communities. In the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”