Cultural Barriers to Education Reform

There are lots of reasons why reformers in education face an uphill battle. I already mentioned some of them in previous posts: 1. no shared understanding of the purpose of education at the national level, 2. a political system obsessed with inputs and outputs while ignoring process, 3. and, school systems entrenched in outdated industrial revolution structures, just to name a few. However, I often wonder if these reasons are just red herrings, distracting us from the real barriers to change. I’ve observed subtle forces, that are not typically named, that I believe hold the current system in place. And the people who benefit from these forces have no intention of letting go voluntarily.

About 20 years ago a curriculum director I knew worked in an influential school district and won a grant sponsored by the National Science Foundation. It was part of the government’s push for more and better science curriculum in schools. The plan pulled together the best knowledge we had about learning and curriculum: experientially based, integrated and interdisciplinary, using developmentally appropriate groupings of students, and taking advantage of collaborative and self-directed learning methods. It was timely and relevant learning. The first module involved the kids building a weather station. Out of this experience they would learn new math skills, write about what happened, while learning how to learn together. I would’ve given my left pinkie for this opportunity as a kid; I would’ve blossomed here.

My friend was thrilled to be chosen to receive this grant and presented this program to parents, only to be accosted in the parking lot by a father, a local university professor. She explained to him that the research was pretty clear: his son would learn more working collaboratively with his classmates. The father replied, “I know that, but he needs to stand out so that he can get into Harvard.” We’ve all experienced something like this and the lesson seems clear: not every person believes in the sentiment, “no child left behind.” They may be more comfortable with the axiom: “race to the top,” assuming their kid has an advantage. And in this time of high unemployment, where even people with advanced degrees are struggling to make a living, the race to the top is everything. One need only overhear urban parents discussing the competition to get their child into the right pre-school. I’ve heard criminals speak with less bloodlust.

We’ve all seen studies where subjects make hypothetical forced choices to stick it to a perceived competitor (even if the choice requires both parties to loose) while passing over choices that benefit both. Some would argue that this is part of the limited-good, a belief that came over on the Mayflower, a belief that partly fuels our competitive society. People who hold this view believe that there’s only so much goodness to go around. In other words, in order to profit, others have to loose. Ironically, we live in a world where, more than not, for one to succeed others around us must succeed as well. Part of the problem is our obsession with the great individual, however, as someone pointed out years ago, the great individual never raised a barn. Still the worldview of abundance is often crushed by limited-good culture.

In our case the father believed that any shared benefit would overshadow his son’s chances to stand out to recruiters at elite schools, and he may have been right. Recruiters and other university gate-keepers believe that a limited number of applicants are college material, and since our culture tends to judge a child’s success through another’s failure. . . This insideous model pervades our thinking: if someone wins there must be a looser. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that everyone should go to college, but I am suggesting that our admission criteria should not inhibit sound pedagogy that allow everyone the opportunity to learn the way they learn best. The limited good worldview is most damaging to our society when it is used as a justification for oligarchic discrimination, a way for an elite class to preserve their power. (In all fairness, some schools and recruiters are doing a better job of assessing the whole person, but if a child is not given a chance to find their thing earlier, a recruiter may never notice.)

The tragedy for LD kids is when one set of intelligences is honored while another set is marginalized, it leaves some very gifted and deserving people in the shadows. For example, few things are more discriminatory than certain standardized tests, even though we know they only tell one part of the story. In this regard tests often discriminate rather than assess ability. For that reason the LD kid is often in the crosshairs of the twisted logic of the limited-good and as long as this logic benefits a segment of the population holding the most power, efforts to reform education will fail.

However, the good news is that we live in a world where power structures are being turned upside down, and there are signs that the same thing is happening in education. Stay tuned.


About marty castleberg

I grew up on a farm along the banks of the Upper Mississippi River in Wisconsin. I overcame my school experience to earn a PhD in Organizational Learning at The Union Institute and University. I developed curriculum for adults and taught at a small liberal arts college. Consulting and research in organizational learning with a group that started at MIT segued into ten years of field research at Harley-Davidson, where I was their Learning Historian/Reflective Analyst. I left consulting to learn the craft of writing that went beyond academic studies, organizational narratives, and the occasional essay. I thought the result would be humorous travelogues and essays, but what eventually emerged was much different. With all the theoretical understanding that I amassed about living with LD, I still didn’t understand; that’s why Dave showed up. If you don’t count my eight guitars and four bikes, I live a very simple life in San Francisco.
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One Response to Cultural Barriers to Education Reform

  1. Seems like there may be a tie in here, but the comments to this article don’t bode well for change in higher education (admissions standards in particular):

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