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This is the third part of “a” blog post that applies the EdStartup 101 “pain test” to 20th-century factory-model schools.  Back in Part 1, we considered the causes of the pain problem: in a nutshell, the system – functioning as it was originally designed to function – no longer meets its users’ needs.  In Part 2, we looked at people who feel the pain (students, parents, teachers, other educators, political leaders, employers, society at large) and what they’re willing to do. I found three main categories:

  • pretend it’s all OK,
  • get angry about it, or
  • try to get away from it, leaving the problem for someone else to fix.

But how do those categories translate into solutions, and why are the current solutions less than optimal?

3. What are all of the current solutions to the problem?

For a while, I thought the solutions fell into the same three categories as the responses to the pain, but my friend Debbie helped me see more clearly.  If you’re in a painful situation, she says, you really have four choices: you can change it, accept it (reframe it), leave it, or keep doing what you’ve been doing.

a) Solutions where you keep doing the same thing

What causes the pain problem, and how do you solve it?  “What problem? I don’t see any problems ….”

If you’re a good or superior student at a good or superior school – or if your child is a student at one, or if you teach at one – you may not feel a need to change.  If you’re not a great student, or if the school is OK or terrible, you may not see how to change.  So lots of people “solve” the pain by trying to ignore it.

b) Solutions where you reframe the problem

These solutions acknowledge a pain problem in schools, but they attribute the pain to something other than the factory-model structure.  Some see poverty as the root of the pain, while others put the blame on poor implementation of a basically sound  model.

At first glance, No Excuses charter-school networks and the Save Our Schools movement have nothing in common.  There’s no love lost between them, either!  But they do share one assumption: the factory-model school is basically OK, and something else is causing the pain.

What causes the pain problem?  If you ask the folks at KIPP and Green Dot and YES, the school day is too short, discipline isn’t enforced, students don’t learn how to show that they’re paying attention, expectations are too low … in short, schooling is poorly implemented, but the model of school is just fine. Properly implemented, it should work even where schools have been “failing” (by 20th-century metrics) for decades.  No Excuses schools still look and feel like schools; in fact, they look and feel like strict, well-run schools from 50 years ago.  That’s one reason for their popularity, and it’s also a reason for the angry criticism they receive. Doing things better can work pretty well, especially if you measure success by standardized test scores, college placement rates, and other 20th-century metrics.

What causes the pain problem?  If you ask folks in the Save Our Schools movement,  they’d also argue that the model of schools is just fine.  But children oppressed by multi-generation poverty need extra help.  Poor urban and rural schools and districts would be just fine if they only had more money, longer days, more support services, smaller classes, vision screening, arts programs, less testing, more staff, medical care for children and families, and other things poor families need but can’t afford.  “Controlled for poverty,” they argue, “our schools and test scores are still the best in the world.”  And when those services are provided, schools do improve – especially when you look at 20th-century metrics like test scores and college placement rates.

c) Solutions where you angrily try to change things

What causes the pain problem?  They do.  Schools are broken, and they are to blame! So we need to punish them until they stop it and see things our way! Then the problem – and the pain – will magically disappear, right?? (There’s some overlap between reframers and angry changers, of course.)

Sometimes they are politicians who impose testing requirements or cut school budgets; sometimes they are “spoiled, lazy, entitled” teachers and teachers’ unions; sometimes they are “bad, lazy” students who don’t work hard enough; sometimes they are “bad, lazy, entitled” parents who won’t make their children conform to the school’s requirements.  The Chicago teachers’ strike and the efforts to limit collective bargaining by teachers are two sides of the same anger-based coin, and angry implementation of parent trigger laws and proposals to grade parents fall into this category as well.

d) Solutions based on leaving and getting away

What causes the pain problem?  Schools are broken, and it really doesn’t matter why; I just want something better for my child.  One early idea about charter schools was that they’d function as laboratories for innovation: they’d develop innovative practices, refine them, and share them with more traditional schools.  Some charters do that – but others, along with many private and parochial schools, are really about getting away and saving yourself (and your children) from a chaotic, confusing, dysfunctional school system.  Homeschooling and unschooling have grown exponentially over the past few decades; the causes are complex, but for some families, escape from a “broken” system is a powerful motivator.

What’s wrong with each of these solutions?  And why do I think I’ve found a better one?  I’ll have some answers in another post, but what do you think?

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