School Reform: Is Disruption Key?

July 22, 2016
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A recent piece, in The Atlantic, explored the discussion surrounding the role disruption plays in school reform and if leaders of districts are fully aware of the motivations behind certain initiatives. I spent time with education stalwart John McLaughlin, Ph.D. to discuss his impressions on a growing topic of concern in education at-large.

Rod Berger: Well, John, it’s nice to catch back up with you. There’s a story out of the “Atlantic”, really an op-ed, by an individual who’s worked in education and has written some books that are familiar to some people. Jack Schneider wrote a piece in the “Atlantic” titled, “America’s Not So Broken Education System.”

John McLaughlin: Yeah.

RB:  – “Do U.S. Schools Really Need To Be Disrupted” and, of course, John, it made me think of you right away. (laugh) Well, you can take that any way you want (laugh) –

JM: Yeah. (laugh)

RB: – I meant it as a compliment. (laugh) What’s interesting about what Schneider talks about is whether or not it is an all or nothing proposition looking at our system in the U.S. Do we really understand what would happen if we did away with what we have now for something new? What is your take?

JM: Well, doing away with what we have now is kind of a fool’s errand, so to speak. What we have now isn’t as efficient as we’d like it to be. It doesn’t get the results we want but it does an awful lot of things in our society. To take it away would be incredibly disruptive. It employs six million people. That’s important. It provides childcare.

I say these things, Rod, as reality – even though I may disagree with them. Public education provides childcare for 50 million children a day, it allows for two working parents in this economy that we – that we have to have in order to have the things we want but not necessarily need. Our system of public education supports society as it is today.

But public education reflects the society it serves. It clearly does. So those people who would like to blow it up, and then build it back up from the ashes, even though that’s never going to happen, theoretically, it just couldn’t happen, but those who would wish it to happen would create a tremendous calamity.

Public education does a lot of good in our society. I know I’ve written and pointed out public education’s weaknesses, and there are many, but it does an awful lot of good in our society. One thing I think a lot of is how back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, public education relatively peacefully desegregated our society.

It’s where we changed the relationships between the racists and in areas where there was widespread segregation in the South. And in other areas like Boston where there was widespread segregation of the schools that brought the races together, and again, relatively peacefully, not totally peacefully. But the government didn’t tell The Rotary club to integrate or the Baptist Church to integrate.

RB: Right. (laugh)

JM: (laugh) It was schools. They didn’t tell the country clubs to integrate. Didn’t say you couldn’t only have upper-middle-income families at the country club. They remained primarily Caucasian families.

We integrated with our schools. We changed our society peacefully without revolt. We certainly had riots, but we didn’t have a revolt and a lot of other great things that they’ve done. They continue to welcome immigrants to our nation. That’s not been a private school role traditionally. Though the Catholics did a lot of immigration around the 1920s and ‘30s. Even during the turn of the century, the 19th to 20th century, you had the Polish Catholic School and the Irish Catholic School, and the German Catholic Schools.

They did integrate many, many people of European and Mediterranean origin into our society through those – through those Catholic institutions. But not as a whole –

RB: So, John, let’s look at the reformer’s agenda, that piece of it. I mean, I hear you, we can’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater, but there is good that has been done and even if the focus has been on some of the negative components of public education, it makes me put into question, the reformers themselves and what they’re talking about.

I mean, the irony is, someone or some group may be out there reforming under the guise of good, or creating good opportunities, yet they’re pulling the same levers that they’re actually lamenting about and they’re not including larger opportunities. We haven’t even talked about public-private partnerships as a way to incorporate the private sector into supporting the local communities. What is your thought on the reformers and the genuine approach that they may or may not be taking?

JM: Well, I’ve been part of the reform movement for decades. Writing the “Education and the Student Report”, doing the academic work as a tenured professor in higher education. I wrote about the coming of the reform movement, the coming of the private sector to be the savior, as I would have thought, in the late 1980s, early 1990s of public education. But that hasn’t happened.

I do want to speak specifically to the reformers, but I remember writing some of my first research in the late ‘80s and published research about how the private sector was going to bring the brains, resources, and systems that would really make public education create a much better outcome for children.Stencil.default (1)

That didn’t happen and there are lots of reasons why it didn’t happen, but let me talk about the reformers. I know many of the reformers and I’m a personal friend with many of the reformers. If you lump them all together, they’ve created an industry for themselves, frankly. This is one of the bad things that happen in a reform effort; reformers are certainly united around trying to improve schools or improve outcomes for children, or improve graduation rights of non-Anglo kids. Whatever their kind of particular focus is.

And those are noble things. We want better opportunities for kids. But over the years, it’s become an industry. It has become known as the 20th annual reform movement. So it’s an industry in itself with its own funding mechanism, its own people in it, its own hierarchy to move up in that organization. I scratch my head and go, wait a minute, we have taken some of the brightest minds and turned them into just mouthpieces for reform movements and what has happened, really? What happened?

The reform movement is an industry in itself and that upsets me. The other thing that the reformers do – that irks me is they sit apart from public education. And they don’t get their hands dirty enough with it. Most of the reformers are well-educated, financially well-off people. Good, I mean, I’m glad that they care about reform, but at the same time, it’s quite at a distance that they make their proclamations and make their efforts.

RB: Yeah.

JM: It’s not inside of the schools as much as it needs to be. It’s not working with “what is” to try and improve it to what it “should be”, rather it’s making a run around of what is to try to create something that they think would be better, and that’s where I think we’ve really fallen on our face.

Part of it is the entrenched nature of public education and how hard it is to make reform. And that’s why I think getting inside the public schools and public-private partnerships makes so much more sense than trying to act from outside. I don’t want to destroy public education by any means. It does so much good in society. But it can do better and the way I think it can do better is by teaming up with the private sector and non-profit organizations of innovative people in a way that really allows things to create a thousand flowers – let a thousand flowers bloom.

I hope we’re heading that way with ESSA, there’s going to be an ability for states to embrace reforms in a – in a way that may make Vermont the best education state for “this”. It may make Utah the best education state for another area. I’d really, really like to see that. We don’t have to be perfect in all our areas. We have to be good in all areas, but some states should rise to the top as the model for special education, the model for managing children with autism, the model for trade education. We have the best trades in the state of Colorado. We have wonderful, what would have been in the past called, trade schools. Those things will come back and I hope ESSA fosters that. That would be a great outcome for it.

RB: John, what’s the moral of the story for parents? If you think about a parent that read Schneider’s piece in the Atlantic, that feel a paralysis by analysis, if they do anything at all. They put the time in to read it, they think about it and have conversations then they don’t even know what to do. “Where do I even start?” There’s this apathy that can result.

How should a parent look at this kind of information, this kind of honesty and look at where we are in US public education?

JM: Well, it’s a good question, Rod –

RB: Because they’re not all John Mcloughlins, right? They’re not seeing it with your expertise and your legacy in education. So I sit here and I think about people in my own neighborhood and I think that they’re going to treat this as daycare. Like you were saying, the babysitting piece, right? We’ve got so much going on that we don’t know how to participate.

And so, at the end of the day, we drop our kids off, we pick them up, we hope they’re safe and that they’ve learned something.

JM: Well, Rod – let me think about this, it is such a good question yet there are so many parent perspectives. If I’m a white upper-income suburban parent or urban parent – I think it would be wonderful if those parents went back to public school, frankly.

We destroyed our public schools in many of our urban centers even though we did segregate it relatively peacefully, we did not have the white academies that now predominate so much in our nation. And that’s a reality we don’t speak of much in the reform movement.

The city of Nashville where we are did not have prior to the forced integration through bussing. Probably the schools that now hold 40,000 children I would imagine, maybe even more. They weren’t there, that money, that energy, those brains, those families, those commitments left public education.

You look at the city of Nashville, and its public education is overwhelmingly free-and-reduced-lunch, 80% I think is the average. Why? People left for Williamson County and Wilson County, to the suburbs, to a different school system, to a wider school system.

And they also sent their children to new schools that again, didn’t exist in 1965. And now they have 40 or 50 years of service and legacy and they’re well-established institutions. I don’t see them saying, “Well our mission has been complete, and let us all go back to the public education system.”

So, we have to admit to a real bifurcated system that race and money and politics created in America 50 years ago. That’s a blank and stark reality. You know, people didn’t want their children bussed across the city and they didn’t want their children to have the tools of social engineering. Many did and again it was relatively peaceful, but here has been an erosion of our support for public education and a dramatic increase in our support of private education.

When bussing started happening in the 60s, most kids who went to non-public school went to Catholic school. So, it’s the highest point of enrollment in American Catholic education there. Except recently when they have started to create more pre-school programs and they have inched over that number from the early 1960s. But at the same time there was a thimble full of children in what would have been called Christian schools and now there are more children in Christian schools than there are in Catholic schools. That’s about three million kids in schools that didn’t exist 40 years ago, plus another two million families who have given up on either, and now homeschool.

All that said, though, if I’m a parent, I have to think that my child’s education is something that I am chiefly responsible for, not the school district. Whether I place my child in public school or private school or Catholic school, I am still the primary educator of my child. That’s what the parents should think, whether they’re upper-middle class, whether they live in a housing project, they should always keep in mind they are the first educator of their child. They’re responsible for their learning, their learning of manners, their learning of language, and their learning of a love of learning. That’s a parental responsibility, and parents, regardless of income, regardless of race, should not offer their child to any school system to have that fostered, it needs to be fostered in the home.

That was what I would think would be the most important thing for a family.

RB: Yeah, I think it’s important, the context is very important. We’re not dropping in from 10,000 feet with our experiences and our resulting opinions. It’s very well said. There’s context to this and depending upon who you are, what community you relate to, you’re going to experience public education in a different manner.

JM: Well, we know, Rod, what works in education? We know that –

RB: That’s a dangerous phrase to a lot of people, right? Because like we were talking about earlier, it would almost put the reformers out of business to some degree, right, because it’s a cottage industry. If all of the sudden, it’s portrayed as being successful, who’s going to want to read their books?

JM: Yeah, yeah. (laugh)

RB: Who’s going to want to? (laugh)

JM: Yeah, their success will put them out of business, though they would like to be out of business, they would like to be satisfied with education. I think about our non-profits in this country. They irk me to a large degree because non-profits become cottage industries whose mission is never, never fulfilled. We’ve never said enough or we’ve never housed enough, we’ve never sent enough solar refrigerators to Africa.

Whatever the issues are, they become self-perpetuating missions. And so I say we know what works in education. If you have money, you send your child – and some very wealthy people put their children in public education. I acknowledge that, and I appreciate that. So, all generalizations are false, including this one.

But I think about the premier private schools in America like Andover/ Exeter. And I’ll pull a number out of my ear; let’s say it costs $50,000 of tuition. And the people, who teach there, have a certain credential and a certain standard.

Probably a lot of PhDs are on the faculty or people with doctorates, a lot of teaching experience, who are excellent in the classroom. And the students who graduate from schools like that, have pretty bright futures, academically, they’ve gone to very prestigious schools, those very prestigious schools put them in line for positions of power or authority or wealth; whether they’re in the field of law or in industry or whatever field, medicine.

We know that that system works. The kids who go to wealthy schools run our nation. They serve in our political systems; they serve in the highest positions in industry and in medicine and law. Those are kids who have had an economic advantage and of course there’s always the exception of the kids who bootstrapped it from a family of modest means.

But we have enough wealth in our American public education system, $630 billion to create schools like that if we think about shaping them in that way. If we think about every kid can have an Andover-Exeter type of schooling – there’s that type of money if we thought of redesigning schooling.

Now that sounds like a real reformer statement when I’m trying not to beat up on public education in our conversation over this cup of coffee today  –

RB: It’s a strong type of coffee. (laugh)

JM: It is a strong cup of coffee. (laugh)

The challenge, I think, for the reformers is that they have become an industry to themselves. And the challenge for public education is they have put up walls to try to resist reform, “leave us alone.” And that’s a knock on public education. Public education people are system educated; they have risen from generally being a teacher to a department chair to an assistant principal to a principal to an assistant superintendent, to an associate superintendent, to a superintendent. They’re all inbred. It’s rare the outsider that comes in from the military or another branch of government or private industry to become a real building or district school leader.

So, the culture of public education is entirely inbred, they understand it and they have an unspoken titular brotherhood of keeping things together.

RB: Yeah.

JM: But that’s a knock on public education. The reformers are also united into their brotherhood, into their meetings, into their reform event and they’re as united in their system of reform as public education is united in its. We know we can get better and we’re getting better every day. Let’s pat each other on the backs as we make a little bit of reform here and a little bit of reform there, let’s make sure we acknowledge the superintendent of the year and the teacher of the year to show that our system is working. And all of my life I think that what I’ve wanted to do is build bridges and dialogue between groups that don’t converse fluidly to the benefit of the masses. And I think that’s a good way to think about public education now. The reformers have their own industry.

Public education keeps society together and reflects our society with all its foibles right now, but I wish there was better dialogue –

Rod: Well, it’s upon us to take ownership of that and to have dialogue like you’re talking about, that builds bridges and brings groups together to understand the ways in which we are going to diversify and then support different groups of people, students, and communities.

Well, John this has been a very lively CoffeED, it just means I need more coffee. So…(laugh)

JM: Go get a cup and refresh your mind. (laugh)

RB: Thanks, John.

JM: All right, Rod. Great to see you, talk to you soon.