I was at an event last week at which John Covington, chancellor of Michigan's Education Achievement Authority, happened to be speaking. During his remarks, he suggested that if 1960s TV show character Beaver Cleaver were transported into a modern-day school, he would be surprised by the diversity of the student body and by mobile phones, but would likely otherwise find most schools comfortably unchanged.
It raised an interesting question for me. While most aspects of our society have undergone a tremendous amount of change over the last 60 years, the pace of innovation in education has, I think, been much slower.
First, is that true? Or has innovation in the classroom been happening in ways that are hard to see? Second, if it is true, why?
The second question has me stumped. I don't think there are easy answers. It isn't unions, as I would argue that private and independent schools have innovated just as slowly as our public schools. Indeed, one of the most disappointing aspects of the charter movement has been that so many operators have simply re-created the same school that we've always known.
It isn't lack of money. While education budgets have been cut (regrettably) around the country, public education remains a huge business. Perhaps it isn't as big as health care, but surely there is enough money in the system to incentivize innovation.
It isn't lack of pressure, or satisfaction with existing outcomes. Pressure to improve our K-12 education system has been immense for the last 30 to 40 years.
And for those who would argue that 1960 should be the model, I would reply that our national commitment to educating every child, which is embodied by the 1964 Brown v. Board of Education decision, means that our education system needs to look and act differently then it did in 1960.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not arguing for innovation for its own sake. But where it can improve outcomes for our children, why haven't we pursued it with more vigor? What conditions need to exist to encourage faster and better innovation in public education?
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