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Public Education's Garage

Allow me to offer some context. We have lived in our home for thirty years. Now, as empty nesters, the family homestead is feeling a bit too large. The required upkeep seems to take more time than it used to. Or is it that more energy is required now than before? Regardless, we are looking fondly at the notion of selling what has been the family home and downsizing. There is really only one thing that stands in the way of this plan. Thirty years.

Do you have any idea how much stuff one can successfully accumulate in thirty years? And, if the house is large enough (as ours is), there are any number of nooks and crannies to stash it in. We find ourselves faced with the daunting task of sorting through the artifacts of this lengthy accumulation and purging a significant percentage of it. We are boldly taking the first steps. We rented the first of several required dumpsters from our garbage company, and we are beginning our task by facing the nemesis that resides in our closets and the garage. Wish us luck.

Our garage is a typical suburban two car structure that can only seem to accommodate one car at a time. I have felt simultaneously overwhelmed and curious during the many hours I have spent there over the past several days. As I have plied my way through three decades of stored treasure, these questions keep occupying my cranial space.

What is the significance of all this stuff?

Why have we kept it all this time?

Doesn't this, oddly, reflect the current state of our education system?

In an attempt to make any sense of these three questions, I'll pursue the last one first. It is my humble (and accurate) opinion that our system of public education is in a bit of a mess. Like the boxes piled in corners, the system is on initiative overload. So much so that we have difficulty understanding how the boxes (initiatives) relate to one another or contribute to a common desired outcome. We just keep adding more to the pile until teachers are overwhelmed and one car is relegated to the driveway.

We also cling to facts - facts to be memorized and regurgitated later on a standardized test. Facts that resemble the odd pieces, nuts, bolts, screws and orphaned parts that must be important enough to keep, rationalized by "this might come in handy someday." But in the final analysis, none of these artifacts, these "future essentials," (these facts) have any real value because they exist separate from the whole; separate from the very concepts and habits of mind that our contemporary world demands. (See my book, The Education Kids Deserve for a thorough analysis of this topic.). These facts are isolated and disconnected. They do not spur innovation, problem solving or dimensional reasoning. They simply exist as inventory to draw upon when asked to fill in a multiple choice bubble, or as a stored widget that will be pivotable in the repair of . . . something. (Who knows what?)

No one standing in my garage would experience any clarity about the intended purpose or organizing mission of the space. Rather, they would see an odd collection of stuff, important stuff to be sure, but stuff all the same. Kind of like our country's education system - lots of stuff. Stuff that is frequently mind-numbing, lacks relevance and falls short of satisfying the needs of the individuals the system is designed to serve. Children.

The appropriate responses for the first two questions are curiously intertwined. What is this stuff and why have we kept it around? Like our system of public education, the substance and longevity of the stuff in my garage is the product of sentimental tradition. The stuff I am actively sorting exists because it elicits a bizarre form of contentment with the familiar. This stuff honors my recollections of our family's shared experience and suggests that any effort to declare any of it disposable would represent a gesture of blasphemy against our history. So, we hang on. Even when we engage in intermediate attempts to "reorganize", to "reform," to "improve" we are really only moving things around. Dust it off, admire it and give it a new home.

Doesn't this resemble the numerous efforts to reorganize and reform our systems, to improve our schools, and thereby enhance the outcomes of our students? (I know I'm asking a lot from educational traditionalists. But, please try to give this question some honest reflection.) Our current system of public education (yes, the 21st century version) has remained remarkably unchanged for the past 20, 50 or 100 years. We remain fixated on what has worked in the past and fondly, with affectionate loyalty, offer an instructional model that is identical to the way it has always been - teaching as we were taught. It's comfortable. It's predictable. It's what we know. It's the familiar stuff in my garage - if it remains there, safely tucked away with historical prominence, perhaps it will be relevant and important and useful.

Accept, it doesn't.

I am relieved to finally confront the artifacts of the past. I welcome the opportunity to pass a judgement that is long overdue on the validity of these items/ideas/notions that have existed for too long, and to intervene before they are mindlessly projected into the future. The sad and unavoidable conclusion is that some of our "stuff" must go, that clinging to it for so long has been a misguided and counter-productive enterprise. It is now time to move on.

It's time for public education to move on, too. It's time to clear space for the essential components of a vibrant and relevant educational experience, as defined by the requirements of today's world, for all of our nation's children.

Public education must purge its garage.

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