Tag Archives: school reform

Riding the Bus: a Path to Greater Diversity in Schooling Options


Recently, I was in San Francisco for the Learning and the Brain technology conference. While there, there was an accident involving Bart trains at the West Oakland station. Hundreds of people crowded the Powell street Bart station, eager to find a way across the bay. Finally, a train arrived heading toward Dublin. People crammed into the train, looking like pictures of train stations in Japan. I could smell the wool of the woman standing next to me’s jacket. We were close. The train moved two stations, to Embarcadero where the powers that be decided that the train was going back to where it came from. Everyone had to get off of the train. The problem was, though, that the Embarcadero station was crammed full of people. There was hardly enough room to squeeze off of the train. The roar of people made it nearly impossible to hear the announcements about what was happening. There was mass confusion and little progress.

Thankfully, I called my sister, who lives in the Bay Area, and she said I could hop on a bus four blocks from there. I was one of the first twenty people to leave the station and one of the first four or five to climb the stairs of the nearly empty bus. We were in Oakland within a block of our destination in twenty minutes. Every single person on the bus was exceptionally nice, helping others to find seats, locate their cars, call loved ones, figure out directions, make change, and pay fairs. Meanwhile, hundreds of people sat and waited in the crowded subway stations for upwards of an hour before boarding trains. We had breathing room, a happy, rather than frustrated, community, and arrived at our destinations instead of just going back and forth.

To me, this story is allegorical of the current educational situation. Many schools are on a path that seems to be “the better path,” the same way that most passengers would prefer to ride on trains than on buses, which are older and sturdier, but also slower and more individualized. The giant factory high school with lecture-based and content-driven classrooms moves quickly through the stages of education. It is educating the masses in a way that factories have shown is very successful at mass production. The problem is, our students, children and teens, are not products and are, for the most part, not entering a future that involves working in factories like those of the 1880s for which schools prepare them.

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Filed under Essays

On School Reform or When Good Words Go Bad


Education writers, policy-makers, administrators, union leaders, and teachers alike drape their ideas in the rhetoric of reform as if it were some magic cloth immune to criticism. It peremptorily turns the critic of said idea into a behind-the-times hairsplitter who is getting in the way of progress.

The way industrial food corporations like Dole scramble to affix the “organic” label to their product, purveyors of educational policy are all too quick to identify themselves as “reform-minded.” But what does “reform” actually mean? Has the word been so overused as to have lost all meaning (much in the same way the meaning of “organic” has been appropriated to the point of meaninglessness)? Or is it kind of a deceptive concept to begin with?

Literally, the word simply means “to form again.” This means every time I change the seating arrangement in my classroom, I’m engaging in a mild version of educational reform. In this sense, the word carries no qualitative connotation. It just means changing shit up, for better or for worse.

The Random House dictionary, however, is not so nebulous. It defines “reform” as “the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc.” In which case, anything that makes our education system better, could be described as reform. But if it makes our education system worse, then it would be the opposite of reform, right?

Merit pay is one of those ideas that’s consistently peddled under the umbrella of “education reform.” Problem is, at this point, we have no idea whether merit pay would make our education system better. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan theorizes that it would. But that in itself is not “reform.” The dictionary demands certitude in the matter, a kind of certitude that is impossible in the present moment.

Shouldn’t a policy like merit pay at the very least be tagged as “potentially reformative,” in the same way someone accused of theft is an “alleged” thief until proven guilty?

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Filed under Essays