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David and Goliath: A Blueprint for Reforming American Education?

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The fight over the future of American education has too often been framed as an "them vs. us" proposition. In his latest book "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants" author Malcolm Gladwell challenges traditional views of advantages and disadvantages and offers a new interpretation of how difficulty can actually be a advantage. While school system leaders struggle to move from classroom and school level success to sustained systematic excellence, a careful reading of "David and Goliath" would cause them to beg the question of whether America's historical and divisive "them vs. us" fights over education will actually serve as an advantage in the development of long-term, systematic, excellence in public education.

The next great chapter in the American story can be how early difficulties over education reform actually created the environment that led to America being a model of education for the world. The early history of fighting over education was a fight over segregation in American schools based on race. The fight did not begin with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education trial and the fight didn't end when racial segregation in schools was declared a violation of the 14th Amendment. Victory in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education was the culmination of years of experience as a result of years of disappointment leading to the Supreme Court's decision on May 17, 1954.

Interestingly, the legal strategy Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP used to win Brown vs. Board of Education was developed 19 years earlier by his predecessor, Charles Hamilton Houston. Over 19 years, Marshall and the NAACP gained invaluable experience and skill struggling to argue cases like Briggs vs. Elliott (1949), Bolling vs. Sharpe (1950), Brown vs. Board of Education (1951) and Davis vs. Prince Edward County (VA) School Board (1951). In each case Thurgood Marshall and his team readied themselves and the country for what would come in 1954.

Over 19 years, the NAACP made strategic decisions like bundling the aforementioned cases in 1952 to signify that the issue of racial segregation in schools was not regional, but national. The NAACP's perceived disadvantages were actually what Gladwell refers to as "desirable difficulties" or difficulties that actually build people and institutions up to a point of making the difference between victory and defeat.

During times of economic hardship, the American model of funding schools based on local tax revenue only intensifies the fight over how dwindling school budgets are allocated to students. In school districts around America, school boards are negotiating their 2014-2015 budgets and making determinations on whether to increase funding for programs that benefit low performing students like reading recovery or to continue to support programs that benefit high performers like International Baccalaureate (IB).

In education, the perception that "every dollar counts" has pitted groups against one another in a time when falling resources should actually be making us all more resourceful. At the height of the economic crisis I penned a Huffington Post blog entitled "The Economic Crisis: Is There A Silver Lining? (August 15, 2010)" where I postulated that "Americans will rebound, the unemployment rate will improve, and if we've learned from our past, what will remain will be a middle class less preoccupied with overconsumption and more prepared to live a lifestyle of moderation and interdependence. If America can sustain the community institutions that have been built during this crisis, America will in fact be stronger for it."

The results of the 2012 OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam reflect an American decline since 2009; 25th to 31st in math; from 20th to 24th in science; and from 11th to 21st in reading. As America's ranking on PISA fall, it's become acceptable to qualify education when referring to American exceptionalism. The "them vs. us" debate over the future of American education in a globalized world is healthy if it also includes debates over the legitimacy of how education is governed in America. In a time when high performing countries like Poland and Finland are updating their own common standards to further improve, America's ability to ask the important questions can make all the difference.

The frustration surrounding America's inability to "fix" our education system to outperform the world highlights what Gladwell calls "the limits of power." In "David and Goliath," Gladwell outlines the importance of the "principle of legitimacy" to those in power. The legitimacy of those in power hinges on three conditions: (1) People who are asked to obey authority feel like they have a voice, are Boards of Education bodies that welcome the voices of parents and educators? (2) Rules are predictable, are state regulations flexible enough to give districts freedom to maintain consistent school--level administrative procedures? and (3) Authority is fair and treats every group the same, does the U.S. fight for financial and social equity for all schools? The answers to these fundamental questions outlined are central to our ability to drive long-term, systematic change.

The disadvantages of laboring over court cases, falling school budgets, or prolonged international scrutiny can actually be an advantage when it creates systems and leaders experienced in more innovative ways to leverage scarce resources and create new value from external partnerships. Whether "Brown vs. Board of Education," "funds for remediating low-performers vs. specialty programs for high performers," or "America vs. high performing OECD countries," Gladwell's idea of "disadvantages as advantages" is about how difficult times shape us for the better. America's students deserve a fight, and over the years they've gotten one. Now is the time to learn from history, be thankful for the experience, and move forward, together.