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Sam Chaltain

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What We Talk About When We Talk About School Reform

Posted: 08/10/11 03:36 PM ET

With all due respect to Flannery O'Connor, my vote for greatest American short-story writer goes to Ray Carver. And with all due respect to America's current crop of leaders, my hope is that they convene a summer book club to read Carver's stories -- and heed his central message.

I'm thinking specifically of his collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. As with all of Carver's work, it's a collection filled with a cast of characters best suited for the island of misfit toys -- or the town in which you live. These are people who are down on their luck, who have fallen out of love and who are struggling to find the right words to communicate their feelings, their thoughts and their sense of how (and where) it all went wrong. Reflected in Carver's spartan prose are the surface realities of life -- the quotidian desperation of the things we sometimes say, see and do. But his genius comes from his ability to surface the submerged emotions of living -- the weight of grief, the insufficiency of the words we live by, the slow acknowledgment of seeing what we don't want to see. Carver's stories are always about what we know, what we are perpetually struggling to know and what we talk about while we linger in the chasm in between.

Which leads us to the present moment.

In the last week alone, we've seen a national prayer rally in Houston, the worst rioting in London in two decades, and -- oh yeah -- the first-ever downgrading of the U.S. government's credit rating. More narrowly, fools like me who focus on school reform for a living are burdened by a national debate that still frames success or failure in terms of a single indicator of student performance. And everywhere, it seems, people are out of answers, in need of new narratives and unsure of what to do next.

New York Times opinion writer Frank Bruni captured the zeitgeist perfectly in his weekend column, "True Believers, All of Us." "We all have our religions," he wrote,

"all of which exert a special pull -- and draw special fervor -- when apprehension runs high and confusion deep, as they do now... In government and so much else there are a multitude of options to weigh, a plenitude of roads to take and a tendency to puff up the one actually taken, because doing so squelches second-guessing and quells doubt... Magical thinking, all of it."

Bruni's advice in response? Less of the thinking that got us into these messes, and more of a willingness to search for entirely new approaches to solving the world's problems. "Faith and prayer just won't cut it," he concluded. "In fact, they'll get in the way."

As I read Bruni's column, I thought of all the magical thinking that exists in my own field. On one side I see smart, well-intentioned people continuing to discuss school reform strategies via the illusory lens of achievement, and refusing to acknowledge the ways in which that word has come less and less to reflect any fully conceptualized reflection of the real thing we seek -- learning. At the same time, other colleagues seem convinced that any outside influence is nefarious, that all charter schools are unwanted, and that Arne Duncan is the antichrist.

These are not just straw men -- they are, as Carver suggested, the things we talk about when we are unsure of what to actually talk about. They are what we cling to when we are unsure of what to do next. And they are massive obstacles standing between us and a new way of seeing public education -- and making it better, more accessible and more equitable for succeeding generations of Americans.

What if we heeded the wisdom of Carver's stories and acknowledged we're struggling to talk about what we really need to talk about because no one wants to admit we're not really sure how to get there from here? Would doing so help us start to address not just the concrete, visible aspects of school (academic growth, prescriptive policies, structural reforms) but also the intangible, invisible aspects of schooling (emotional growth, holistic practices, appreciative inquiry)? Would such a change even make a difference?

It's only a hunch, but I think integrating these lines of thinking -- the logical and the emotional, the visible and the invisible, etc. -- is the only chance we have at true paradigmatic change, which Thomas Kuhn defined back in 1970 as "change in the way that problems are posed and solved; change in the unconscious beliefs what about is 'real'; change in the basic priorities and choices about what to pursue and what social ends to serve; change in those approaches and solutions which display the whole world view as a coherent whole."

Is the coherent whole what we really want to talk about when we talk about school reform? Is it something else? Or am I merely engaged in my own form of magical thinking?

 
 
 

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