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Musings of a (New) Education Insurgent

SHIFT PARADIGM | by Mark E. Weston

The system of schooling to which I have dedicated my life seems incapable of educating all students to high levels of learning  

For the past fifty-five years, I’ve spent most of my waking hours doing education related work. First, I was a student, then subsequently a teacher, counselor, consultant, policy advisor, education department official, strategist, researcher, and author. During this time, I never once doubted the importance of students getting a good education. And never did I doubt, until recently, that our current system of schooling could eventually develop the capacity for all children—regardless of their race, gender, disability, culture, and economic status—to be educated to high levels of learning.

I had no doubts because I believed that at least one of the countless initiatives sent forth by the congress, courts, legislatures, school boards, foundation, reformers, and technology companies would move the current educational system from one that educates some students well to one that educates them all well.

For instance, when federal initiatives—No Child Left Behind, HeadStart, Title IX, and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—sought to afford all students equal access to quality educational programs I supported each initiative by helping my students work within the programs that the initiative created to get the most appropriate services.

Similarly, when the courts established precedents—Brown v. Board of Education, Mills v. Board of Education, Rose vs. Council for Better Education—for adequacy and equity of resources I helped my school districts comply and students benefit. Later, when, in the wake of A Nation at Risk, nearly every state legislature and local school board raised standards, altered governance, increased requirements for students and teachers, and put high-stakes assessments in place, I helped education leaders create, enact, and implement the reforms. Most recently, during the technological build-out of schools—nearly $200 billion spent since 1990—I diligently worked to get every child and teacher a computer to use in school.

Sadly, I now find myself in a situation where—having once believed in my heart-of-hearts that the initiatives mentioned above and others like them would tip the scales in favor of every child getting a world class education—I must accept that the gains I’d hoped for will not happen through the existing approaches. Report after report confirms that widespread educational improvement remains elusive. Despite governments enacting more laws, more challenges being made in the courts, numerous grants being made by philanthropists, and new technologies being brought to the market, education as I’ve known it has terminally flatlined.

Efforts to enhance our current system of education—costing trillions of taxpayer dollars—that once were my passion and source of hope, are now a source of concern for me. I can no longer ignore the facts. Thirty-five percent of the students who start school do not graduate on time. Moreover, of the students who do graduate on time, over 10 percent need some sort of special daily accommodation; five percent are educationally disadvantaged, often needing individualized instruction to attain grade level; and 10 percent report being under-challenged. In sum, more of the same system to which I dedicated most of my life will not solve the problem we face.

Our current educational system is impervious to much needed improvement. And an alternative system—a revolution in thought, practice, and outcome of the truest sense—is desperately needed. An educational revolution that I once dismissed as unnecessary but, given the facts, now think is mandated, vital, and inevitable. But the inevitable revolution won’t occur without rebels.

Since I’ve never been a rebel, I’m not sure what to do. For that reason I’ve been studying the rebels whose insurgency produced the United States, hoping that their stories might inform my rebellious aspirations for education.

So far, I’ve learned that when Great Britain could not meet the needs of its American colonists (much like the current education system can’t meet the needs of its students), some brave souls—Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Paine—rebelled. As they did, they envisioned, agreed upon, and eventually created an alternative to the British ruled colonies. As they worked to make that alternative reality, they spent little time trying to save the British Empire. They picked their fights carefully. They never asked to be shot or hanged for being rebels. Rather, through their writing, speaking, and idea development they quietly and deliberately laid the groundwork for a new country. They systematically sought out likeminded persons who helped fan the flames of the American Revolution. Organizations, structures, and processes were put in place to support and advance the ideals of the new country. In short, they gave voice to a revolution in ways that deliberately produced an entirely new foundation upon which the new country would rest.

Taking those lessons to heart, I hereby declare myself an education rebel who will no longer work to save the educational system for which I’ve long toiled. Further, I vow to work to create, nurture, and give voice to an educational alternative that employs proven educational practices—real and individualized differentiated instruction, real and serious engagement of parents, ubiquitous access to information for all, and consistent and relevant feedback about performance—that will produce aptitude-defying-levels of learning among all students. I will work for new paradigm schools and technological tools. I make this declaration knowing full well that being a rebel will be lots of work because lots of vested interests will work just as hard to maintain the dysfunctional status quo. Join me in this space for regular updates about the education revolution. Your comments, suggestions, feedback and constructive criticism are welcome!


Mark E. Weston is the co-author of The Learning Edge: What Technology Can Do to Educate All Children. He has served in key positions in the education, policy, and technology arenas. For more details please see his biography. Write Twitter: @shiftparadigm 

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