Posted by: crudbasher | October 14, 2010

Superman Can’t Save the System

I have been reading about the resignation of Michele Rhee, the head of Washington DC public schools.  Many educators I follow have been considering her ouster as some kind of victory in the education reform battle.

This kind of battle is like winning a fistfight on the Titanic.  Great job, but you are missing the larger picture.

Here’s the problem.  The public education system isn’t one system, it’s thousands. Children have to be able to move around in that system so it has to be either standardized where every child gets exactly the same education, or personalized where every child gets a customized education.   Until recently it has not been practical to go the customized route, therefore the standardized way has been followed.  There is no one person who will be able to totally change the system because all one person can do from the top is to redefine the standard rules.  A customized system is by definition, directed from the bottom (the student) not from the top.  Waiting for Superman implies that there is one person who can change things. They can’t.

Right now the leaders of the system are making more and more rules and trying include more standardization.  They are doing this with a series of carrots (RTTT) and sticks (NCLB).  This. Won’t. Work.

Instead we should be dismantling the bureaucracy.  The mechanisms for top down control  come from the top.  How about eliminating the Department of Education?  Return control to the state and local levels and let them innovate.  If thousands of schools are given freedom to experiment, with modern communications the fruits of this will spread rapidly to other schools. Give every parent a voucher for their kids so they can choose the school, public or private that best fits their child.  They are the only ones who know their kids the best. Trust them.

Of course none of this will happen.  Government never gets smaller it only grows.  Innovation will come, but it will be from outside the system.



  1. Excellent points. I personally liked your comment about giving power back to the state and local levels. That would be would be fantastic. You are all to correct that this will never happen, and it is unfortunate. I guess I’m left with a couple questions though. What entity outside the system will bring the innovation? And will they have the power/ability to really bring a change?

    • Thanks much for your response! I’ve just gotten finished reading a great book called Disrupting Class and they talk about how innovation will start small and quietly. You can see it now in Virtual schools and such. Even on devices such as an iPod or iPad you can now get software to learn things. At some point, people will realize that they can learn a subject better and cheaper via online learning than from in a classroom. Then the revolution will be on. Remember back in the mid 1990s nobody really understood the effect the internet would have on things. Certainly not newspapers and record companies.

      Don’t look at Washington DC for innovation. Look closer to home.

      Thanks much for some great points!!

  2. I disagree. [I think. I’m still trying to figure out the big picture in my head.]

    I think that there is a need for standards for learning. For instance, to complete 8th grade you need to know Algebra and how to write a research paper. Other than that, no standards.

    Where you are right is how students learn and how that is measured. It might be an essay. It might be a video of a student presenting their research.

    I also think that 8th grade doesn’t have to be for a 13 year old. A student might demonstrate mastery of Algebra when they are 10 or 16. But they couldn’t move to Geometry until they get that.

    Everyone learns in their own way and their own pace and that needs to be respected through differentiation in the classroom.

    • Hey Ben thanks for commenting!

      Can we say you partially disagree? 🙂 I do agree with most of what you say. I like where you said that 8th grade shouldn’t be age based.

      I think where you and I differ a bit is why does every child need to learn Algebra? How many adults use it in their day to day lives? I took all sorts of classes in school that not only do I not remember anything about, but I don’t even remember the class! Am I a better person for taking them? Wouldn’t my time have been better used if I had been able to focus more on the things I wanted to learn and to do in more depth?

      If every student is different, then why do we teach them all the same thing?

      You raise some good points, thanks much for contributing!!

  3. Ah! Great point. Why teach Algebra? Here’s my thought [still in the forming stage, I love this dialogue.]

    When I graduated from college after 4 years, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I some ideas but it wasn’t concrete. I knew I needed to be college educated.

    In 8th grade, I had no clue as to what I wanted to be when I grew up. By not learning Algebra, that would have severely limited my options in the future or added extra classes to my college fees. Also, had I not taken biology in high school, my options would have been limited.

    I love the people who say they’ve always wanted to be a teacher/doctor/lawyer/garbage man. They don’t need classes outside of those areas.

    However, the students that I’m teaching don’t have that. They don’t realize that college is option or have a solid idea of what they want to be. Therefore, I see many classes as a necessity to have options, save money and give direction for their future.

    Now, as for college…naw, that’s a different topic.

    • Ok now we’re talking! I have several thoughts about this.

      1. Perhaps if we allowed children more freedom to explore their options earlier, more would know about what they want to do with their lives?

      2. It has been proven that children learn better when they are young so time would seem to be a factor. I wonder what the optimum age is for learning Algebra? Probably is different for everyone.

      3. Life expectancy is much longer now. This means that people will be having several different careers during their lives. I do think it is silly that we somehow think that when you graduate from College that is the last formal schooling you need. I don’t think that is the case anymore.

      As I understand your argument, you think exposing the students to these different subjects will help them understand their options. I don’t disagree but I think it should be at an earlier age. Once you hit “high school” age, your education should be completely self directed. Does this sound good?

      Great conversation thanks!!

      • Self-directed. Sure. I’m not sure that high school is the right time. Given choices in high school, I still wouldn’t have taken the right classes.

        That said, I think there two issues: 1. learning at your pace, 2. self-directed learning.

        In the first case, learning at your pace, the classes and content are prescribed. The rate at which you accomplish tasks/classes is up to you. How you demonstrate mastery of a task/class is also up to you. In this model, you still have standards to meet and content that you must have. You might finish “high school” content by the time you reach 14 or by 21. A lot of this is based on effort and willingness to meet the standards.

        In the second case, self-directed learning, you have already mastered the content that you need to “graduate” from high school. After you demonstrated mastery of those standards, then you move on to a “college” career where you decide what you are learning and you focus on a career.

        My big thing, and it is becoming more obvious to me this year, is that the traditional classroom/grade level model doesn’t work. One reason is that teachers aren’t the same across classrooms. Kids learn much more in my classroom than another teachers room. If they know what they need to accomplish, they can do it and a group of teachers can help them meet their needs. Secondly, students don’t have the same desire level. It isn’t fair to have a person who wants to learn being held back by a student who doesn’t care. Let the learners excel, let the social clowns do their thing until they realize the situation they are in.

        Lastly, and then I’ll be done with my rant, I’ve used a lot of quotes. I use quotes because I’m referring to the system as a guideline and that isn’t really the model but it’s my closest comparision.

  4. You are right, the public education system is actually made up of thousands of systems. There isn’t going to be one answer that magically takes care of the whole problem. Each school will need to reflect it’s student population. Each classroom will need to reflect its students. The problem now is that because the top can’t do that, they take another approach…how can we make it all look exactly the same? Standards. Testing. Data. Mandates. It can’t work.

    • No it can’t. We have to go right back to the start and begin again. What an exciting time!

  5. Word press won’t let me reply directly to you again Ben so I’ll do it here. You raised a really good point that I hadn’t full appreciated which is there is a difference between self-paced and self-directed learning. I think another distinction between them (and correct me if I am wrong) is self-paced is suitable (and desirable) for everyone, where self-directed should be administered gradually, as the students earn it. It’s kind of like during dinner parents tell their kids they have to eat certain things before they can have desert. I think the reasoning is the same.

    I’ll have to ponder that some more. I might even have a blog post welling up! Thanks much for contributing!!

    • Thanks for keeping this discussion going. I’ve revised some of my beliefs because of this discussion. I’d love to read a blog post from you on this.

      I like your comparison to the dinner table. Eat this, this and this and then you can desert. Nice.

      I agree that self-paced is desirable for everyone. That is a great model for education. As for the self-directed, do you think that this would work for everyone? Are them some students will need the self-paced and guided model beyond high school? Just another layer.

      • I wonder if the difference here will be if students get to be more self directed at a younger age while they still have a love of learning? It’s hard to look at current high school kids and think of telling them they can learn whatever they want too, but they have been jade by school at this point.

        I too have learned a couple of nice things from this discussion and I’ll come up with some kind of blog post when I have digested them. Thanks for commenting Ben!!

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