The First Step to Education Reform? Stop Focusing on Schools

Although it seems ironic to take the focus off schools when discussing education reform, transforming our schools must begin by re-thinking our societal values and vision for education. Changes in the method or frequency in which test taking occurs or implementing new technology in classrooms are but quick cosmetic makeovers that keep the dominant system of education intact.

On a macro level, the work of reform questions the purpose of schooling and critically engages the social, political and economic ideologies in which the school is entrenched. On an individual level, change in our schools requires us to look inwards to understand how our identities shape our effectiveness or agendas as educators, policy makers, non profit service providers or school leaders. Education is a reflection of our dominant culture — in fact, one of the primary purposes of schooling is to transmit this dominant culture into students—and our dominant culture is the collective of our individual values. Rather than transmit culture, however, reform aims to transform it. Changes in schools first require a substantial shift in society — in me, in you, in us.

But in which direction do we go? The many stakeholders in education reform inevitably possess different beliefs regarding the purpose of schooling. Therefore, schools cannot follow copy-and-paste models—despite the ease of scalability, schools must to respond to the needs of their unique communities. However, until diversity of schooling is a value that we, as a society, hold, or until we are able to connect with and learn from those who hold different, even starkly opposing, beliefs from us, our efforts will be fruitless. The role that communication and collaboration play in reform is critical, which is why understanding our identities and capacity to perform these skills is so necessary.

These are merely beginning steps to a larger conversation about how to change our schools. I don't know which steps follow, but it is vital that we continue to engage in these conversations with others and within ourselves.  If we are unwilling to make changes beginning with our own thinking and value systems, we cannot hope to achieve system-wide reforms in schools. Education is an inherently personal field; we cannot separate our identities from our work. At the same time, of course, education is a system much larger and too complex to be changed by a single person's actions. Thinking about reform often overwhelms me, but rather than perpetuating the negative narrative plaguing our schools, I'm beginning by first learning more about myself and clarifying my goals, vision and approach to reform.