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In my first “pain” post, I started out talking about the pain that 20th-century textbooks cause 21st-century teachers and learners and parents.  But if you’ve read that post, you probably noticed it’s hard to separate textbook issues from the overall design of schools.  So this series of posts, which will start out talking about the pain that school users feel, will probably have things to say about textbooks, too.  I’d been trying to keep my textbook idea and school idea separated, but I’m realizing that may not be possible.  There’s so much to say that I’m afraid it will take at least two posts to say it.

1. What causes the problem?

As Ira Socol points out in a recent blog post, factory-model schools were designed to “succeed” with about 20% of their student population;  schools today are actually “succeeding” (on that metric) with 30-40% of their students.  But across the political spectrum, and across stakeholder groups from teachers to parents to administrators to politicians to business leaders to students themselves, there’s a constant refrain that “schools are broken.”

Why #1: Why do 20th-century style schools feel less effective today than they did 25 years ago, even though (if you use 20th-century metrics) they’re actually “doing better” today?

Because the world has changed and the 20th-century success metric isn’t relevant anymore.  To succeed as a nation and an economy, we don’t need 20% or even 40% of our population trained for managerial and technical roles.  Instead, we need 100% of our population to be self-starting, creative problem-solvers who don’t wait until told, but seek out problems and develop new solutions.

Why #2: Why are our needs so different now?

Because the world has changed, and everyone feels it.  As I mentioned in my “textbook pain” post, we no longer live in the world of slow-changing, expert-generated knowledge and information that I grew up in – the world (to use just one illustration) of three TV channels, all of which featured a middle-aged white guy reading the news at 6:00 on weekdays.  My children and my students can’t even imagine such a world.  But schools still look and feel the way they did in the three-channel world. To quote Ira Socol again, the user experience and user interface of schools haven’t changed even though the society around schools has changed radically.

Why #3: Why haven’t schools changed?

There are so many reasons!  One key, I think, is that the lines of ownership and control are so unclear.  Who owns your local public school?  In mid-nineteenth century rural communities, the answer was clear: the school belonged to the local community, who had found the land, built the building, voted to tax themselves to support a school, and appointed or elected trustees to watch over the building and the money.  The consolidation of schools in the 20th century brought many benefits, but one unforeseen disadvantage was that the lines of ownership and control became unclear.  Who owns schools today?  And who controls them?  It’s often hard to say.

Why #4: Why is ownership an issue?

When the lines of ownership are blurred, so are the lines of authority and control.  Parents want schools to respond to their children’s “special” needs – because, after all, surely the school exists to serve children and parents.  Students complain that they’re ignored, marginalized, and mistreated even though there would be no school without them.  Principals frequently refer to “my” school because, after all, their names are on the letterhead.  Teachers want students to “work for” them because, after all, “I’m the teacher and you’re the student.”  Political figures complain that schools need to be “accountable” for getting “results” from the money which, after all, is provided to schools by federal, state, and local governments.  And business leaders want schools to “do better” because, after all, a major purpose of schools is to provide an educated workforce.  (OK, everybody should know that they all really work for the secretary, but they may not want to admit it.)

Why #5: Why is this a problem?

Because a system without clear lines of authority and control is usually a system without a clear purpose.  And if there’s no clear purpose, how can you be “accountable” to anyone?  How can you “meet your goals” when no one knows what those goals actually are?  Dysfunctional companies without a clear sense of purpose focus obsessively on what they can measure (quarterly profits and return to investors), and dysfunctional schools focus obsessively on the one thing they can measure: students’ test scores.  They may not be a good measure or even an accurate measure, but test scores give an appearance of accuracy, precision, and rigor.  No wonder they’ve become such a popular measure!

So, from my perspective, the problem with 20th-century, factory-style schools is that they don’t have a clear purpose … and one reason they don’t have a clear purpose is because there aren’t clear lines of ownership or control.  The 20th-century, factory-style school is a huge, complicated machine – but what exactly is it building, and how can we know if it’s operating properly?

Nobody seems to know.

But I’m pretty sure any solution to the problem of schools will fail unless it addresses these issues of purpose and ownership.  And in my next post, I’ll look at the rest of the “pain test” questions through the lens of establishing purpose and ownership.

What do you think?

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