Education is a Problem that Can't Be Reformed

Voices from the Field   20 November 2015
By Stephen G. Kennedy


Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.

Winston Churchill

EDUCATION IS LIKE RELIGION OR POLITICS OR FAMILY: multifaceted, often controversial, and so overwhelmingly complex that it can never be fully comprehended. Yet we mistakenly treat education as a single entity, a problem that can be reformed and revised, almost as though it were an algebraic equation to be solved. The right curriculum, the right standardized test, the right teacher accreditation, the right legislation plugged into this equation would result in the correct answer popping up on the right-hand side of the equal sign.

But for simplicity’s sake—ironically—suppose there are two kinds of problems in the world. One is akin to America’s race in the 1960s to put a man on the moon. The other is similar to another U.S. dilemma in the 1960s called the War on Poverty. Both were problems, both complex, both demanding vast resources. But while one was solved, the other remains as pressing as ever, even more so.

Why? One reason is that landing a man on the moon was the kind of problem that relied on a clear mission, largely definable technological strategies, and engineering and practical methodologies that human thinkers at the time could gather together, analyze—or creatively figure out—and apply. Poverty lacked clarity, certainty, and political collaboration and implementation. It was, and is, a vast sociological issue, with deeper roots and more entangled factors than any race to a spinning stone beyond Earth could imagine. The math was nowhere sufficient for the kind of definition, will, and resources required to solve it.


Let this summit of thinkers and doers set a new agenda, a new outline for America’s children, for our country’s learners and future leaders.

Stephen Kennedy

Likewise, we continue applying quantitative measures to education, as though it were a race to the moon. Simplistically, we seek answers in standardized test scores. To that end we spend untold dollars on constantly revised textbooks and technology hardware and software that merely streamline old techniques. Our paradigm for learning is based on such antiquated models as intelligence quotients, mass testing, and college preparation units, all of which were designed for other times, and for other purposes. We are still recreating our race to the moon on a spaceship made out of cardboard, aluminum siding, and false assumptions.

What we lack in education is not reform and revision, but new vision. We need the national excitement and exuberance of putting someone on the moon, but with a deeper, more multifaceted understanding of the social sciences, of biology and neuroscience, of the “physics and calculus” of individual learning within the social dynamic of an educational community. Instead of the dollars we have thrown at revision of the old spaceship, we need to establish an educational summit of thinkers and doers charged with forming a national vision on education.

Canadian consultant and futurist Richard Worzel writes that “we need a system that customizes a curriculum, and how it is taught, to each learner. There’s very little point in spending all that money to educate people in a rote manner that will be of little value to them or society.” (Teach, Jan. 24, 2011)

Pertaining to the learning and teaching aspects of a new model, a 21st century
educational vision could be based on three interdependent elements:

  1. The individual student as primary focus
  2. Other students serving as both learners and teachers
  3. Adults serving as teachers

We now essentially treat all students everywhere as one child. One educational shoe for all feet. One classroom, one school, one system for millions of complex, diverse, and individual, powerful learners.

As a result, we have become a nation of lost opportunity. Even for children who pass through with straight As, with alleged success, with a bevy of shiny trophies, we must ask: what else could they have truly accomplished for themselves, for others, for the world, had they learned in schools that genuinely placed each child at the center of the learning process? And for the millions of children in impoverished conditions, we already know the glum outlook as we grow into a more divided country economically and socially.

Let this summit of thinkers and doers set a new agenda, a new outline for America’s children, for our country’s learners and future leaders. Yes, we have had enough decades of falling behind, of lagging behind other countries that have moved beyond us. But worse, we have had too many years of lost potential for children who have been inadvertently deprived of their gifts, their talents, and their potential.

Education is about learning, growth, and opportunity—about life opening up and out. Let’s make that process a real one in our schools, and in our country.

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