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Spill Happens: Education Reform & the Gulf of Mexico | Ecology of Education

Spill Happens: Education Reform & the Gulf of Mexico

There are a number of things we could arguably learn from the on-going Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico:

  1. These things are NOT fail safe.
  2. We should get off oil.
  3. MMS’s regulators are too lax.
  4. BP took too many chances.
  5. Corporations are to blame.
  6. Lobbyists are to blame.
  7. Politicians are to blame.
  8. We are to blame.
  9. Animals are not to blame.

While all of these may be worthy lessons, there is a larger value in this whole tragic episode that could (and perhaps should) inform education policy.

Things do not always go to plan. Spill happens.

This is not news to anyone who has ever tried to do anything. We constantly run up against obstacles we did not expect (even if we should have).

For examples:

  • Titanic
  • Tower of Piza
  • Confederate States of America
  • Being greeted as liberators when invading another country
  • Getting a toddler out of bed & out the door in less than 30 minutes

What does this have to do with education and education policy?

All of these examples suffer from the same fatal flaw as our current education reform efforts, which assumes, “If we do it, it will work.” If we are to believe the lingo, by simply “raising standards” and “holding teachers accountable” we will drive meaningful change in our education system. This is tatamount to assuming that by putting a dog on a shorter leash he’ll be better behaved off leash. Or, in edu-speak: By putting teachers and students on a shorter leash they will be better educators & learners off leash (in the classroom or after graduation).

However, what we want to happen and what actually happens are not always the same thing. Spill happens. Things don’t go to plan. Students are not necessarily going to become critical thinkers because we’ve standardized the curriculum, scripted the teachers, and tested the bananas out of them.

The irony is that the most pertinent skill to life on this planet — adaptability — is being systematically eliminated from our schools and curriculum. The much ballyhooed market-driven reform sweeping the nation relies heavily (completely) on a battery of multiple choice assessments that determine “effectiveness” and “performance”. This barrage of bubbles sends an implicit message that the correct answers are out there and already pre-determined.

This is the wrong message to send to students who will need to address their own oil spills, whatever they may be. At the watershed moment, will they look back and think, “Golly, all those high stakes tests really prepared me for this!”? I just don’t see it.  Students need crisis ready skills, and the first one is adaptability.

How we adapt to change matters — as a society, as individuals, and as learners.

How we respond when our plans don’t pan out often determines whether challenges become stumbling blocks or stepping stones.  The trouble is, the future is on a collision course with the market-driven, scripted education reform teaching students that there are  already pre-determined correct answers. Are these job ready skills?  Not if the can of worms BP popped is any indication.

Of course, in the event of a catastrophic event such as the gusher in the Gulf, we want professionals with long history of analyzing situations, generating possible solutions, implementing them in context, and then repeating the process until the problem is solved.  My question is: Do we wait until they are out of their formative years to give them exposure to applied learning, or should our ed reform efforts include increasing student access to real problems?

I vote for the latter.

The problem with individualizing our education system for students of a specific classroom, school, or even district is cost.  The profit margin is just not there.  For companies in the business of profiting off our schools, regionally tailoring curriculum would cost an exorbitant amount in development, and the programs would be unaffordable for cash-strapped districts.

BP solved this problem by cutting corners. Turns out, so are our ed reformers. The solution that the Chamber of Commerce, Pearson, and Holt (and other textbook/testing industry companies) support: National Standards. The implementation of national standards simplifies the entire process.

One set of standards, one set of texts, and one test to rule them all.

Plus, the upshot for executives eying their bottom line is that teacher effectiveness can then be judged off the test scores.

Teachers become replaceable, but the companies indispensable.

Gulf Oil: Society’s Pandora’s Box

The gushing oil is something of an opened Pandora’s Box, though it was opened well over a century ago, long before Jed of the Beverly Hillbillies struck it rich, when the first well was tapped. With the Deepwater Horizon event the lid has been flung open wide. However, while bad things gush into the Gulf, there is also hope, if we can learn something from it.

BP, as with many companies (including those in the textbook & testing industry), cozied up with regulators and fell into a habit of issuing standard forms that were consistently permitted.  For example, the environmental response plan for the Deepwater Horizon site included taking care of animals found nowhere in the Gulf, such as walruses, sea otters, and seals. (An infuriating aside: someone approved this standard form, allowing it to go through.)

As the education reform effort increases its push toward standards, standards, standards that can be bubble sheet tested, tested, tested, we stand to loose some of the individuality (and resulting innovation) that is keystone to our nation’s progress. The free-market ed-reform push helps businesses profit, narrows curriculum, and seeks to increase efficiency.

Yet real learning remains messy, unpackagable, and unscriptable. It is site specific, learner driven, and unique to each situation — just like drilling for oil.

In drilling, we need improvements and increased regulation to ensure our environment is protected against accidents, but those regulations need be site specific — land vs. water, Artic vs. Gulf, etc. Turning in & having permitted plans that address the needs of animals found nowhere within thousands of miles of the site in question is a failure of standardization & rubber stamping. It is a failure to adapt.

Ultimately, the hope at the bottom of Pandora’s oil box is that we learn oil is finite and we seize this moment to find new ways to meet our energy demands.

In education, we need improvements to ensure our education system is protected against variances in home lives, socio-economic statuses, and varying interests & cultural backgrounds.  We need to somehow find a way to regulate adaptability in our school systems.

Ultimately, the hope at the bottom of the education reform box is that we learn we don’t want all of our students to learn the same things in the same ways at the same time.  We want diversity, individuality, and differentiation.  We want students to have equal access to challenges & triumphs, but we don’t want them to be the same. And, ultimately, we want students experienced at solving problems in context.

Containing the Gusher in the Gulf will not be born from standards and sameness.  It will be born of imagination and innovation. What have we done to prepare students for solving this sort of calamity? Have we taught them how to adapt, to learn, to respond, and to reflect? Or have we simply taught them that there are 5 possible answers, one of which is better than the others?

As a primer in looking at things differently, I would encourage a look at Fair Test’s Ed Week commentary on finding “A Better Way to Assess Students and Evaluate Schools“.

As for the crisis in the Gulf, we can be thankful that no sea otters are in any danger what-so-ever. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for the endangered Kemp Ridley sea turtle.

Image: Elleway

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Author:Jason Flom

Learner. Educator. Reader. Writer. Cyclist. Part-time Polyanna. Husband. Daddy. Founder, Ecology of Education. Director of Learning Platforms, Q.E.D. Foundation. Twitter: @JasonFlom. LinkedIn: Jason Flom; Edutopia's Green School Group; and doing dishes while pretending to be a professional underground rapper. "I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion." Kurt Hahn