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The Primary Problem



It has been said that the only way to fix public or state education is to blow it up, and there are people who are attempting to do just that. Their explosives are in the form of vouchers, charter schools, privatization and the outright closure of schools deemed to be ‘under-performing’. Serious damage is being done to an institution that has the potential to be our best tool for cultivating a just society and a sustainable world. It is unnecessary damage. Schools can be fixed without destruction.

Early Russia cartoon

Reprinted with the permission of Alan King (

By correcting a problem with the elected members of government who direct ministries of education, a constructive reform of public education can be set in motion. These top decision makers have performed for decades in a manner wonderfully summarized by Alan King’s Early Russia cartoon included here. A new idea is tried, and when it doesn’t work it is thrown out and everyone returns to the old way of doing things. It is far too primitive an approach to managing something so important.

The root of the problem is that elected officials operate with political timeframes. Reforms that their governments bring in need to show signs of success before the next election. It’s too short a timeframe that results in changes being imposed instead of following good implementation strategies. Misunderstandings and resistance to dictatorial practices work to discredit both the government and ideas that are often worth pursuing. This is when a debilitating education reform cycle repeats itself. A new government comes in; it terminates the programs of the previous government claiming them to be ill-conceived and unworkable. Everything returns to how it was, and then the new government introduces its panacea for the troubled system. Not only is real reform prevented from following a logical course, the system is also being kept forever off balance trying to adjust to interim new directives.

Educational reform has consequently become a useless game. Teachers can predict how long a new initiative will last and they play along minimally, knowing not to get excited by the flavor of the day. What is lacking is the approach to research and development that takes place in other fields like medicine, aviation, electronics, or even the perfecting of a piece of sports equipment. This approach uses scientific timeframes. New ideas are given the time and thoughtfulness that refinement requires, and people have the freedom to adopt them as the benefits of new goods and services become obvious. By simply shifting educational research and development to scientific timeframes and allowing people to choose the methods that they come to see as the most suitable, public education can be put on the road to healing itself. The needed money and staff are already in place.

It is important to keep in mind that change is a process, not an event. In his book American Schools – The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community, Sam Chaltain writes that ‘The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.’ Change has to be cultivated, not dictated. The true free enterprise approach, creating change by giving people a better choice is the one most likely to get the desired results.

Reform efforts also need to take into account a reality Denis Waitley presents in his series of talks titled The Psychology of Winning. He categorizes people into four types of thinkers, and he estimates that only 10% of us are ‘the proactive innovators who anticipate and welcome change’. John Gatto in Dumbing Us Down expresses a similar concern when he says, ‘It is the great triumph of compulsory government monopoly mass-schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best of my students’ parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things.’

This means that change cannot be managed with a majority rule mentality. Leaders need to think small, to think in terms of minorities because new ideas start as minority views. Mahatma Gandhi put this into perspective when he said, ‘Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.’ Real change can be made to happen by unleashing the tiny group of proactive innovators already working in public education, but who are currently too constrained by the system to make a difference.

Vision 2020 by 2020 is a call for people to unite in an effort to have their politicians put the reform of public education on a more scientific footing, and it offers one concrete example of how this can be done. Please subscribe to our blog and follow us on Twitter. Make your support known and share your experiences as we undertake this important task together.

Next: The Vision 2020 by 2020 Course of Action.

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