What's the question in education reform?

June 11, 2009 8:02 AM

Two years ago, I began the journey of writing this book. A lot has changed in that time - both in the real world and in my own life - but one thing remains as clear to me as when I began writing my book proposal: the question we ask is as the important as the answer.

It is with the question that we define the parameters of the conversation.

It's true when it comes to our personal lives -how many times have we fought with the people around us only to realize that we were answering different questions? It's especially true when it comes to public policy.

Look at the national debate over education reform. I write about this in Part 2 of my book, entitled "Citizens or Consumers?" I write about the decline of value placed on civics education in our schools, where young people are taught to question their democracy. I contrast that with the growing movement for financial literacy in the schools, where I believe young people are taught to navigate the market as is. And, of course, this is all happening at the same as standardized testing and "accountability" have come to define the educational experience of children throughout the country. What better evidence of the prioritization of answering rather than questioning?

In all of the conversation about the direction of our schools, experts, policymakers, advocates, etc. each offer their own perspective on what is most important and what works and what doesn't in a conversation that seems to operate at such cross-currents that I wonder if they are even answering the same question.

And I offer that the real question that they should be asking is: What is the role of the public schools?

Is it to prepare citizens? To prepare consumers and workers? I argue in the book that the answer to this question will lead us in very different directions when it comes to education policy. If we aim to prepare workers and consumers, it makes sense to emphasize standardized testing and to use valuable school hours to prepare children to manage their finances. If we believe, as the founders of the public school system did, that our schools should prepare citizens, we will have a different definition of success and therefore a different approach to what children experience each day.

I just doubt that, the personal vision and commitment of those engaged in the education debate notwithstanding, we can have a meaningful conversation about what to do with our schools if we don't ask the deeper questions about the role public education should play in our lives. There is no one "reform" that can trend this requirement. In fact, there can be no real and lasting reform without a conversation that starts with that question.

More on that over the next few days. Of course, get the book for the background.

What are you questioning today?

— Andrea Batista Schlesinger