01/12/2015 04:44 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2015

You Say You Want a Revolution?

In his 1992 autobiography, Sam Walton wrote, "Frankly, I'd like to see an all-out revolution in education." Similarly, advocacy for an education revolution has been adopted by Pearson, the education publishing and assessment giant.

Well, you know we all want to change the world.

Walton's ethos was the free market. Over two decades and billions in donations later, his vision has been embraced not just by other very wealthy entrepreneurs. Now, education reformers in state and federal education agencies say they want a market-driven revolution too. In support of charter schools and merit pay, even Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo says he wants, "to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies."

For most of the previous century the word revolution was associated -- albeit, often pejoratively -- with remaking the status quo for more economic equity. While current talk of revolution may have a vaguely familiar ring, times have changed dramatically. Now, it is the already empowered who say they want to disrupt the status quo, while they not only remain in charge, but increase their influence and economic privilege.

Back in 1968, when the Beatles released the song "Revolution," there were dynamic anti-war and civil rights movements. It was a time of activism and repression, hope and dreams deferred. My closest friends and I were actively engaged and motivated by the potential for racial and economic justice. We wanted to change the world. We were not naïve, but we did believe that large-scale change was possible and that it would be driven by citizen action. Since many of us studied history, our hopes were high, but still somewhat constrained. Nevertheless, we were dismayed by John Lennon's ambivalence about the raging social movements of the time. The Beatles sang:

You say you want a revolution,
well, you know,
we all want to change the world.
You tell me that it's evolution,
well, you know,
we all want to change the world.
But when you talk about destruction,
don't you know that you can count me out.

Don't you know it's gonna be all right.
Don't you know it's gonna be all right.

Great tune with bad lyrics, I thought. While I never advocated destruction, I did believe that we had to disrupt and change the social order and that it would not be all right. Over four decades later it is clear that the anti-war movement did not fundamentally alter U.S. foreign policy or lead to peace. The civil rights movement, for all its significant victories, was not, as we hoped, transformed into a broader successful struggle for racial, social and economic justice.

Indeed, Lennon was wrong. All was not to be all right. We remain enmeshed in wars. The growing influence of wealth in political campaigns and inequity in education undermine democratic participation. Access to the features of a humane, just society -- adequate food, housing, community supports and health care -- are still determined by vast and burgeoning inequality not seen in the United States since the 1920s.

Strangely, we are now confronted with a different brand of revolutionaries, education reformers who seek not to expand democracy, but instead to restrict it and not to wage a war to end poverty, but instead to make a path for a lucky few to escape from poverty. Lennon lyrics may now have meaning when self-proclaimed "game-changers" advocate improvement through disruptive innovation. Their vision is at once expansive -- disrupt the basic structure of democratically governed public education -- and pathetically small and selfish -- provide competitive opportunities for advancement for the few.

Today's education revolutionaries believe that they need to destroy the current structures of education in order to improve it. The problem is not so much the idea of destroying structures -- after all the legal structures and cultural practices that supported segregation needed to be destroyed. The problem is reformers' values, what is in their queue for destruction and their disregard for consequences. Their list includes eliminating elected school boards and teachers' unions and opposing class-size reductions. It includes replacing the joy of learning with the joy of winning competitions for top test scores. The casualties of such destruction are parents' and citizens' democratic voices through state take-overs of school systems, mayoral appointment of school boards rather than elections, and governance transfers to privately run, but publicly-funded, charter schools and vouchers. The victims of that destruction are children whose unstable lives, already disrupted by poverty, are made even less stable by school closings and dismissals from charter schools. The victims of that destruction are those students whose motivation to learn is replaced by the drudgery of test preparation. The list goes on.

When they talk about this kind of destruction,
Don't you know, you can count me out.

When Lennon referenced evolution in the lyrics to "Revolution," he might have been unintentionally prescient about another feature of the current education reform mantra. The prime mechanism for biological evolution is natural selection -- the interaction of natural variation and random mutations in populations with changes in the environment. With their advocacy for planned competition among schools for students, among parents for student entry into schools, and among teachers for pay increases, reformers appear to be misapplying biological evolution to social policies, favoring a long discredited survival of the fittest social strategy.

When they talk about that kind of socially destructive competition as the route to improvement,
Don't you know, you can count me out.

Great vision, citizen action, social movements and public investment brought us great achievements. These include: an end to slavery and much later and an end to legalized segregation. Other achievements include unemployment insurance, overtime pay, child-labors laws, Social Security, Workman's Compensation Insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, food, medical, occupational heath and safety regulations, the interstate highway system, the Internet and great widely-accessible K-12 and post-secondary education systems. The revolution we still need builds on the values of equity, democracy and community responsibility that drove these advances. The revolution we still need seeks even broader racial, social and economic justice. Of course, we need to elect people who support these values. However, only a reemergence of the spirit and reality of a mass social movement will realize these values in people's day-to-day lives.

For that revolution, you can count me in.

This was written by Arthur H. Camins, director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone and do not represent Stevens Institute. His other writing can be found at He tweets at @arthurcamins