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John Merrow

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The Pendulum Swings, and Choices Await

Posted: 09/07/11 07:57 AM ET

As always, remember that John's book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

A quick programming note before we begin, friends: if you live in or around New York City, I'll be hosting an event on Wednesday, September 21 at 7:30 p.m. with KIPP's Dave Levin and Eva Moskowitz of Harlem Success Academy; it'll be a conversation about the future of the charter school model at the JCC in Manhattan. We'd love to see you there. You can buy tickets here.

And now, onto the blog.

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Time was, this country had about 130,000 school districts; today we have somewhere around 14,000. The pendulum has swung toward centralization.

There's no question that the pendulum swings: not all that long ago, about the only beers you could buy were Budweiser, Miller and Coors, but today you can choose from among thousands of microbrews. And that's just the pendulum swinging back to the days before the Coors/Miller/Budweiser 'beeropoly' because in an earlier day, your parents could buy Schiltz, Schaefer, Piels, et cetera.

When I was a kid, there were thousands and thousands of radio stations; today Clear Channel owns about 1250 stations and dominates the market. But perhaps not for long, because the internet makes it possible for anyone to have his own 'radio station.'

Time was, the only way you could become a teacher was to go to a normal school, later called schools and colleges of education. Not any more, thanks to Wendy Kopp and Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, Troops for Teachers and a host of other alternative certification programs.

I could go on, because consolidation and expansion have occurred and are occurring in television, the music recording industry, health care and a ton of other industries.

It must be clear by now that I am not one of those who feels the sky is falling because of monopoly or near-monopoly conditions. The strength of this country is our stubborn insistence on both change and independence.

Take the consolidation of school districts as an example. Yes, the number of districts has dropped by close to 90 percent, but many of those districts are now experiencing their own mini-revolts, in the form of charter schools, which can actually resemble a school board -- largely free of central regulation but accountable for results. Take New Orleans, where 70 percent of students are in charter schools. Is that one district, or more than 40?

Did I mention textbooks and testing, where Pearson and McGraw-Hill now rule the roost? Their domination upsets a lot of observers, who fear and resent what mass testing seems to be doing to our children's learning.

But that too will change in time. In fact, when I read that more families are home-schooling these days, I wonder if we are now seeing the beginning of change, because I have no doubt that a major motivation for some families is to escape the 'cookie cutter' schooling that they feel the testing regime imposes on schools.

When the Secretary of Education says, as he did in his Twitter Town Hall, that any more than 10 days spent on testing and test-prep was a cause for concern, that could be a sign that the times will soon be a-changin'.

And as McGraw-Hill and Pearson are well aware, school systems are moving away from textbooks and embracing the iPad and other tablets.

That the pendulum swings is undeniable. Whether the arc is toward equality, fairness, opportunity and justice is largely up to us.

The wild card in education today is emerging Common Core standards, which inevitably will lead to pressures for national testing. Can we have high national standards without narrowly prescribing the single path that schools must follow to get there? Can we 'let a thousand flowers bloom' in our schools?

My bet is, we can. What do you think?

 

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