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Why David Brooks Almost Gets School Reform Right

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Once again, David Brooks has written an important column about education. And once again, he offers a vision of modern schooling that is almost perfect -- but not quite.

In November 2010, I wrote a piece in response to a Brooks column in which he wrote passionately about our "emotional education" -- the elusive, nonlinear and transformative nature of learning. Yet in the same space he also wrote uncritically about a "normal schoolroom" in which it is taken as a given that scholastic learning must always be direct, described, and discrete.

This is an important disconnect, and in a new column, Brooks makes a similar mistake -- this time while describing a remarkable elementary school in Brooklyn that is, as he describes it, "less like a factory for learning and more like a postindustrial workshop, or even an extended family compound."

The problem arises in Brooks' fascination with the way the school is able to create such an environment. "The students are controlled less by uniform rules than by the constant informal nudges from the teachers all around," he writes, adding later that a key part of the school's growth came when it "learned to get better control over students."

This is a subtle but significant misunderstanding of what great schools do; they don't control their students -- they provide an orderly environment in which all people can thrive. If you think that's a trivial point, look up the definitions of each word. One is about power; the other is about harmony.

These subtle disconnects wouldn't bother me as much if Brooks weren't so close to really identifying the core ingredients of a transformational learning environment. "Since people learn from people they love," he writes in the same column, "education is fundamentally about the relationship between a teacher and student. By insisting on constant informal contact and by preserving that contact year after year, The New American Academy has the potential to create richer, mentorlike or even familylike relationships for students who are not rich in those things."

Amen, Mr. Brooks. The next time you write about public education, please shake off those few remaining mental frames of the factory model, and paint the full picture you keep coming so tantalizingly close to amplifying for the rest of us to see.

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