The Fake Revolution

If you spent any time in front of the TV last week, you may believe a revolution is underway in America's classrooms. NBC dedicated a week of its programming to seed in-depth conversations about how to improve our schools. A new documentary about public education opened across the country to sold-out audiences. And a young billionaire -- Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg -- pledged $100 million of his own money (on Oprah no less!) to help the city of Newark transform its public schools.

I wish I could participate fully in the optimism, yet I keep thinking of the old adage that says there are three types of reform efforts: traditional, transitional, or transformational. And despite the high-powered pomp and circumstance of last week, two moments in particular convinced me our current path is likely, at best, to yield cosmetic changes to a system in need of an extreme makeover.

The first of these moments occurred on Tuesday, when I received an email from, a well-funded website that aspires to become "the go-to guide for parents aiming to make a smart school choice." It's a great idea, and done right, could be an invaluable resource for parents who want to make thoughtful decisions about which school will best serve the needs of their children.

The email announced the release of a "revolutionary new scorecard," so I eagerly clicked on the link. After all, if we're serious about transformational change, we must augment our traditional measures -- test scores and graduation rates -- with other indicators that paint a fuller picture of how well or poorly a school is helping children learn and grow.

What I found was a scorecard providing a detailed analysis of how any school in the country is doing vis a vis any other... on test scores and graduation rates. That's not revolutionary change -- that's just a fancier way of counting the same pile of beans. And that's a recipe for educating parents to keep choosing schools based on a single measure of success. Where's the revolution in that?

The second moment occurred on Friday, when I was watching NBC's Andrea Mitchell interview Finland's Minister of Education, Pasi Sahlberg, about his country's top-flight system of schools. As Sahlberg explained it, Finland's transformation came from investing deeply in the long-term creation of a highly competitive and well-trained teaching profession. "What we've been able to do, " said Sahlberg, "is systematically secure the profession so it remains interesting and attractive and morally purposeful. And in my country, we don't constantly test students or teachers like you do here. That keeps young people flowing into the profession because they want to be the ones that have the authority to assess and evaluate the learning of students."

Unfortunately, last week's media coverage exposed just how opposite our current reform path is from our Finnish counterparts: where Finland provides a balanced curriculum for all students, we overemphasize reading and math; where Finland tests kids locally, we test kids nationally; where Finland invests in teacher training and provides intense mentoring experiences for new teachers, we embrace drive-through models that place passionate, inexperienced teachers in front of the children with the greatest needs; where Finland builds a culture of learning that sparks intrinsic motivation in both its educators and students, we seek to incentivize performance with extrinsic motivators, despite the wealth of research to suggest that such a strategy offers a poor likelihood of success; and where Finland's leaders reinforce a culture of respect for teaching and learning, we assault what little dignity remains for teachers in the United States by repeatedly suggesting that the majority of them must be moved out of the classroom and into other lines of work.

I want to believe that the right set of changes are underway in our nation's schools. Yet the more I hear, the more these donations, web launches and red-carpet premieres feel less like a transformational revolution, and more like a traditional smokescreen.