Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

Reforming or Transforming Education: More Than Just Words

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
~ Margaret Mead


ew institutions possess as long and weighty a history as education. Disagreements about what education should be or do have existed since the days of Socrates and the Sophists. But in the recent decades, dissatisfaction with public education has risen exponentially. Condemnation of what schools do wrong has long since drowned out any praise for what they do right. Everyone from the President to Congress to governors, mayors, school boards and superintendents is falling all over themselves to respond to the criticisms by instituting one reform after another. As a result, education reform is now the norm rather than the exception. Yet despite the constant parade of reforms, little of substance changes. In fact, recent mandated reforms have placed public education into even greater jeopardy as corporate raiders claim that only for-profit charters can save it.

People and institutions must change over time or risk becoming extinct—literally or figuratively. Productive changes improve the person or institution so that they may function more effectively in, and be more responsive to, a constantly shifting culture. Yet attempts to change education often serve little purpose but creating new problems and making money for publishers and those who promote the reforms.

Let's look at several factors that may help us understand why wholesale reforms in education rarely satisfy those who find fault with the entire system.

The Business Model of Education


n a business, there is a tangible product or service. The purpose of a toaster is to make toast. While a manufacturer may improve the electronics, the functionality, or the design, the success of the product is ultimately judged by how well it makes toast. You won't find people condemning it because it doesn't also wash clothes or generate orbital velocities for spacecraft.

The 'business' of an auto repair service is fixing or improving the functions of an automobile. Mechanics are judged by how efficiently and effectively they do that. The car runs well or it doesn't. This judgment is rarely subjective because computers can measure everything from wheel alignment to fuel efficiency. Auto repair services base their success on objectively measurable changes in a tangible object.

In both examples, there is an objective standard against which results can be viewed and evaluated, as well as general consensus about what toasters and auto mechanics are supposed to do.

In education, there is no such consensus about the "product" or "service." Some believe that the primary purpose of education is the transmission of knowledge; others say it is enculturation of young people into societal norms. Some insist that schools are accountable for the social, physical, emotional, and psychological growth of students, and the development of individual potential. Still others claim that education is responsible for all of this...and more.

Although there is little or no agreement about the purpose of education, the most influential educational reform policies argue that transmission of knowledge is the most important purpose and the one for which schools and teachers should be held accountable. (A cynical person might say that this is the only one of the listed purposes that can be tested using multiple choice tests, automatically making it the easiest choice.)

But this view presupposes that 1.) there is a tangible, fixed, and agreed upon body of knowledge that all students must possess; 2.) it is possible to "transmit" that knowledge from one person to another; and 3.) that is is possible to "measure" learning.

Even if one accepts these statements as true, "possession" of knowledge remains internal to each student's brain/mind. It is not "out there" where it can be hooked up to impartial diagnostic machines and measured. Further, the manner in which that knowledge is stored and/or retrieved differs widely from student to student.

In education, the acquisition of knowlege must be indirectly observed and assessed. Arriving at assessment methods that are both valid and reliable is problematic, simply because of the variability of human thought and values. So, unlike the manufacturer of toasters or an auto repair business, education has one or more largely intangible and controversial purposes, the results of which are evaluated by equally controversial and statistically questionable assessments.

Despite these obvious limitations, the results of current "high stakes" standardized assessments are presently being used to determine whether schools are doing their job…whatever that is. They are being used to judge the potential of students, as well as teacher effectiveness—even as their validity is called into question by a growing number of research studies.

Education ultimately involves unique intangible human minds rather than tangible goods and services. As much as it might make educator's jobs easier, there are no "standard" or "average" human mind. As long as reformers persist in treating the educational process as a "business"—as long as one-size-fits-all standardized solutions are proposed for myriad complex issues—we are highly unlikely to see meaningful changes in the public education of our young. And unless and until educators reach agreement about what education should or shouldn't be and do, how do they even know what needs reforming?

Education is less like a single-product business and more like a huge conglomerate with companies dealing in everything from banking to transportation, and from foods to media. If the CEO and Board of Directors want to "reform" such a conglomerate, it is unlikely that they would set up standards that all products and services of all companies within the conglomerate must meet. While they might talk about "quality" and "accountability," those would mean very different things when applied to a bank loan or a hot dog!

Reforming a conglomerate more often consists in ridding itself of products and/or services that have outlived their purpose or fallen woefully behind the times; ridding themselves of managers who are still operating from a 19th century mentality; and ridding themselves of failing methods by replacing them with tested and research-based ideas. Should we then adopt a conglomerate model for reform? No! Keep in mind that thinking of schools as a business or a conglomerate is a metaphor. As such, it focuses on some features, but throws others into shadow.

The Machine Model of Education


ypically, the focus of educational reform is on "what's wrong" rather than "what's right"—on fixing what's broken rather than building on what already works well. By "what works," I'm not referring to research studies on various and assorted teaching methodologies or programs. I'm referring to individual teachers who have demonstrated their effectiveness in real-world situations with real-world students—teachers whose classrooms exemplify what education claims to be about.

Focusing on what's right—on what is working well—is counter-intuitive in a culture dominated by the machine model. Other than keeping a machine greased and tuned, little attention is paid to the parts that work. All efforts go into fixing broken parts with the assumption that, if all parts work correctly, the machine will return to efficient operation. Comfortable with this traditional model, reformers fail to recognize that schools are not factories, teachers are not machines, and students are not standardized assembly-line products. The metaphor of a school "producing" educated students is totally inappropriate for education.

For one thing, the machine model of reform fails to take into account the interactions among the parts. In a machine, interactions are predictable because of the machine's design. One gear interlocks with another. When one turns, the other turns. The application of X amount of power results in Y movement. And herein lies the problem with an inanimate metaphor. Gears and circuits don't "decide" how they will function on a given day.

Reform efforts that focus on parts—on content, methodology, motivation, scheduling, testing, discipline, etc. almost always fail to assess two major factors: 1.) how human beings will respond to the reform and whether the reform is consistent with their beliefs and values; and 2.) how changes in those parts will impact the total process of education. For example, at the height of the NCLB push for standards, the MidContinent Regional Education Laboratory estimated that even minimal "coverage" of the 5000+ "essential" standards and benchmarks mandated by NCLB would have required school to increase from K-12 to K-22 or -23! Standards writers in each subject area act as if theirs is the only subject a student will learn or teachers will teach. Time is never factored into the picture!

Common Core standards went in the opposite direction. The CC standards were based solely on Language Arts and Mathematics. But in focusing so-called "high-stakes" mandated tests on just those topics, they effectively forced schools to cut programs in other major disciplines, as well as fine arts and technical classes in favor of "test prep".

Reforms that conceptualize education as a machine and strive to fix broken parts while ignoring overall process must, inevitably, fall short.

The Missing Education Model


he metaphors through which we conceptualize aspects of our world shape our perceptions and behaviors. Originally designed around the factory model during the Industrial Age, education has never had a unique operating metaphor of its own. Thomas Sergiovanni states that "We are still using economic principles and vocabulary to express educational ideas. We are still allowing economy and production to shape and determine our understanding of education. We are still seeing students as raw materials to be processed in the most efficient way."(1)

Reformers, particularly in the growing push for charter schools, approach change as if methods that work in commerce or factories will achieve the same results in education. But because they deal in very different end results, corporations and machines are misleading metaphors on which to base decisions. Sergiovanni faults educational leadership for being "characterless" and "too receptive to influences from too many other areas of knowledge and too many other disciplines. As a result, [education] has little or no identity of its own...little or no sense of what it is, what it means, where it is going, or even why it exists." In Sergiovanni's words, "You can't borrow character, you have to create it."(2)

Visions of Educational Reform


he word reform itself unconsciously shapes and limits the kinds of changes that are possible. Consider two major definitions of reform reflected in today's educational reform efforts.

Reform as "Back to the Future"

In 1913, Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defined reform as "To return to a good state." While many people might consciously define reform as an effort to improve or to remove defects, unconsciously this "return to a good state" lurks in the background as the ultimate goal. This thinking arises from the assumptions that 1.) education was once in a "good state" (Back to Basics!); and 2.) the same "good state" is appropriate for today's schools. Let's look at these assumptions.

Clearly, this is not the world in which our students now live.

It should come as no surprise that reforms based on the goal of "returning to a good state" are doomed to failure. We cannot go "back" to the future.

Reform as Social Action

A second dictionary definition of reform is "Action to improve social or economic conditions without radical or revolutionary change." The very word "re-form" creates the unconscious and extremely limiting assumption that the existing form must remain. Essentially, to "re-form" means to rearrange the existing parts.

In a way, reform is similar to the word remodel. Remodeling may be as simple as painting a wall or rearranging the furniture in one's home. It may involve converting the garage to another bedroom, or adding a second story. But ultimately, the original footprint of the house remains unchanged. The foundation on which it rests remains unchanged. If that foundation is sound, remodeling may be all that is required. But when that foundation is cracked or made of inferior materials, re-modeling, or reforming is ultimately a waste of effort, time, and money.

I would suggest that this is the case in education. Today's reform efforts are comparable to trying to build a 21st century skyscraper on the foundation of a 19th century tenement building. Or trying to build an interplanetary rocket on the foundation of a hot-air balloon and then blaming the crew when it won't lift off!

On the surface, reform sounds preferable to revolution, but revolutionary change need not be violent. It does, however, require a radical change in thinking—a major shift in the worldview of all the major players.

What, if any, difference is there between re-forming education and trans-forming it? Is the call to "transform" education just another feel-good phrase designed to appease the public—like "No Child Left Behind" or "Every Student Succeeds"? Or is there a substantive difference between re-forming the existing parts of education and trans-forming education into a very different system.

The transformation of education requires that we begin at the beginning by coming to agreement about what education is, or should be, about. One might assume that it is about learning—but the meaning of that word is as poorly defined as that of education. If we are to build a more effective system, we must first examine the foundation on which it is built. That foundation must be based on both research and on a philosophy that has proven effective over time. There is little doubt that the transformation of education will require a paradigm shift as impactful as the shift from the geocentric (earth-centered) to the heliocentric (sun-centered) model of the solar system. Why? Because any meaningful change in the way we educate our children will require a profound change in beliefs about the nature of the human mind, about how learning occurs, and about the role of the teacher in that process.

The geocentric model was largely unquestioned for well over a millenium before Copernicus used the scientific method to introduce the heliocentric model of the solar system. Thanks in large measure to the defense of the geocentric model by the Catholic Church, it took 200+ more years before the scientifically-based heliocentric model replaced a model based soley on beliefs and outdated ideas. The current model of public education had its beginnings in the 17th and 18th century. By the beginning of the 19th century, it has assumed it's present "school as factory" model, based at that time on current interpretations of "science." The model is no longer scientifically valid. One can only hope it doesn't take hundreds of years for the educational paradigm shift to occur!

In the next article, we'll take a look at how education might be transformed.

  1. Sergiovanni, Thomas J. (1993) Organizations or Communities? Changing the Metaphor Changes the Theory. Eric Document 376008, invited address, AERA.
  2. Ibid

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