Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Educational reform is not for sissies

Anyone who’s paid any attention to discussions about education knows that we have no shortage of problems and no shortage of ideas about how to address them. The real challenge is creating change. This week, I’m talking with Bill Mullane, a local educator who’s spent years working for change in local schools and districts. He served as principal at Warren Harding High School for a number of years, and he now serves as supervisor of School Improvement and Community Relations for the Ashtabula County Educational Service Center in Ohio. He’s been both an observer and an active participant in K-12 education in our community.

In our interview, Mullane talks about two aspects of the efforts to improve education. First, he notes that we’ve undergone a major change in what we expect from students and from schools. In the past, schooling was organized around rules and requirements. Students were viewed as having met expectations if they completed the requirements, and those requirements were often different depending on the student’s future plans. That system was built around the assumption that students have different needs and abilities and that education was about having the right set of experiences. Today, education is organized around competency, defined almost entirely by tests, and all students must meet the same standards. Mullane doesn’t reject the idea of testing, though he does question the ways that test results are used. He points out that changing the model creates changes in how we manage schools and how we think about education.

Mullane also notes the difficulty of changing the educational system. After all, most Americans experienced public education first-hand, and despite our critiques of the system, we are also attached to it. It feels natural and therefore unchangeable. So many people – teachers, parents, community members, school board members – object to ideas that would change the basic structure of the school or the pattern of the school day. Changes do occur, gradually, but as Mullane suggests, any serious overhaul of our educational system will always be met with resistance, simply because it’s different.

I’m working with a group of YSU honors students this semester, all of whom are writing research papers that address, in a variety of ways, the question of how YSU could do a better job of helping students from urban districts succeed in college. We had an interesting but frustrating discussion last week about how difficult it is even to know where to begin to improve education, because what happens in school is influenced by so many factors. The conversation made me think of one of my favorite lines from the Jewish Talmud: “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We may never find the complete solution to the problems of education, but neither should we ever stop trying to make it work better.

1 comment:

Moxie said...

I think it would be fascinating to read the student research papers or at least see a general analysis of what they suggest in terms of changes to the educational system. Can you do a follow up on this and let us know their conclusions?