There is much to be lauded in Chester Finn's discussions on the state of education and I would recommend his videos to anyone. But I would further recommend that they be taken for what they are worth. Mostly his comments are warmed over restatement of the status quo and a call for more privatization and localization of education. This is not going to work.
The reality is that American schools today look very much like technologically revamped version of American schools in the 19th century. We've learned so much about how kids learn and think, about effective teaching strategies, and the kinds of environments that are the most conducive for learning. And yet, we don't actually do what we know to be effective. In many ways, Mr. Finn is correct in attributing our lack of progress to social and political inertia.
What Finn seems to be afraid to say is that the only redemption for the public school is to completely revamp the system from the bottom up. The many failings of American education can be defined as institutional and cultural. Radical change must take place to replace the traditional values of education that are, to be honest, not very good.
Institutional constraints on change come about because institutions and organizations tend to be static units. They operate based on pre-established norms and personal networks. Those individuals within the institution that operate most effectivly within the norms, even if they norms make no sense whatsoever, are the most likely to advance in the institutional hierarchy. Because they advance in the hierarchy by virtue of the fact that they are well adapted to the norms and networks of the institution, they are the least likely to advocate for change at the institutional level. Only reforms that guarantee a level of normative security for the institution are likely to be enacted. And such reforms, we find, are woefully inadequate.
Reform is also complicated by how we've been acculturated to define the very nature of education. Cultures are based on values and belief systems and also tend to be resistant to real change. Individuals within cultural systems are unlikely to radically alter their traditional values or belief sets. Assaults on the prevailing paradigms are often met with derision, resistance and reaffirmation of the status quo. Granted, technological innovations and social movements often instigate change, but cultures often incorporate such dynamics with the least impact on traditional values. This is what we see in the culture of education. Technological and social reformulations of the 19th century status quo. We have in our minds a pre-established paradigm of what constitutes education. And this paradigm is not pretty.
Our cultural perceptions of education have to do with rows of desks and classrooms, and one teacher at a chalk board (OK, no more "chalk" boards, but a board non-the-less), and homework. It is difficult for us to conceptualize education as anything different, anything better. Despite the fact that we know that such classrooms are the least effective environments for learning, despite the fact that there is virtually no empiricle data to suggest that homework is worth while, we perseverate on antiquated, though iconic concepts of education.
And these concepts are, well, unpleasant. In the unlikely event that a child actually likes school, that's great. It means that he/she is well adapted to the institution, probably for reasons that have nothing to do with the school itself. The vast majority of kids who hate school are expected to just put up or shut up. After all, I went through school and came out a success. Yeah, I hated it, but you have to do it because...well...that's the way it's done. So put up or shut up.
Education does not have to be this way. The first step to change, I believe, is to attack the paradigm. We must ask ourselves, "why is it that children love to learn, and yet hate school?" When we answer that question we can start applying what we learn to creating an education system that meets the high requirements of the postmodern world while at the same time addressing the very real needs of children.
We then must disregard the preconceived notions of education. Get rid of the icons of the teacher and the classroom, the curriculum and the assessment and start from scratch. What works, what does not work? What are some ways to make things better? Does there only have to be one teacher in the room? Does there even have to be a room? Can we get children the opportunity to learn outside of the classroom? What should a school look like? What qualifications should a teacher have, and how do we assure these qualifications? What do we expect every child to have before graduation? What is the best way to guarantee that every student is pushed to the utmost reaches of his or her potential?
The state of education is not the disaster that most critics would claim. Schools, public and private, do an admirable job for the most part. But there are socio-structural constraints that are keeping schools from advancing and holding students down who should be uplifted. These social structures are reproduced in private schools as well as reified in public schools. The school voucher debate, of which I was a loud participant, is a meaningless discussion. So long as we conceptualize schools and education in the same antiquated ways that our grandparents did, real school reform is unattainable.