Taking the complexity head-on
A recent New York Times article highlighted the numerous accomplishments and opinions of the educational thinker Diane Ravitch. What struck me was the development of her thinking over time. Her shift in focus might be described as embodying the two ends of the continuum of beliefs of current educational reformers.
On one end of the continuum reformers advocate for substantial use of student test scores to evaluate teachers’ performance (recall the Chicago teachers strike); school choice through the use of vouchers; and the creation of charter schools. Underlying each of these efforts is the notion of accountability. Both teachers and schools need to be held accountable for what students are and are not learning.
On the other end, there is fealty to the current structure of the public school system, with the acknowledgement that there are issues that need to be addressed, such as poverty and race. The idea being that we should work within the system to improve it.
The structure of our K-12 schools today is based on a model designed over a century ago by college presidents seeking to homogenize the students who entered their doors. In the first half of the last century, few people attended college, as late as the 1950s, only approximately 35 percent of the population 25 and older had completed high school. There was a significant shift in the 1960s and ‘70s when it became expected that all students would graduate high school (particularly with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, in 1975).
In recent years, changing demographics have altered the composition of our classrooms. Currently at a national level, 53 percent of K-12 students are white, 17 percent are black, and 23 percent are Hispanic. Meanwhile, 83 percent of the teachers are white, 7 percent are black and 7 percent are Hispanic. In Vermont, there has also been a significant shift in demographics with a 90.6 percent increase in English language learners over the past 11 years. In just seven years on a national level, it is projected that the numbers will shift, with 51 percent of K-12 students being white, 16 percent black, and 25 percent Hispanic.
While our expectations and demographics have changed, the structure of the institution has not. Instead, we work to include all students into the classrooms that have been run the same way for nearly a century. That is, all students are required to adhere to the century-old expectations of schools rather than schools responding to these changes.
The collision of these forces — the expectation and need for all students to graduate from high school, the changing demographics of our country, and the static structure of schools — results in the most chaotic time in our educational history.
The one thing we know about chaos is that it is complicated. There are many forces, seen and unseen, that shape a chaotic system, and making sense of the forces is a challenge, never mind trying to address them. I would argue that while it is tempting to want to address the current educational needs of our children (in particular by bringing up the current 74.7 percent graduation rate, as well as by bringing up students’ ability to reason and communicate their thinking) as quickly as possible, we have not spent enough time identifying all of the forces that are impacting our educators’ and students’ everyday experiences. Instead, we in the educational community have fallen into the same trap as our elected officials: We are in dichotomous gridlock with solutions equivalent to the sequester rather than reasoned and critical exploration of long-term solutions that actually address the issues.
Over the course of her career, Diane Ravitch has put forth a range of opinions about what our educational system needs. Some would argue that she has betrayed one side of “the cause” for the other. Her trajectory suggests just how complicated it is to think about and address the educational needs of our children. It is time that we acknowledge the chaos in public discussions about education, because only by acknowledging it will we be able to figure out how to address the needs of all of our children.
Carol Meyer is a resident of Shaftsbury. She is a teacher educator and the owner of Building Capacities for Success, an academic tutoring company.