Executive Perspective

What’s the Purpose: Transformation or Tinkering?


It is all about transforming our schools. The goal seems hardwired into much of the rhetoric coming from the current administration in Washington. The focus seems to be on our worst--performing schools, the bottom 5 percent. Nevertheless, the discussions take on a much broader context than just our failing schools. The talk spills over to education in general.

Dan DomenechDaniel A. Domenech

John Wilson, executive director of the National Education Association, invited me to participate in an NEA-sponsored brainstorming session on the transformation of our public education system. The group included a mix of association and not-for-profit organization executives and some senior staff from the U.S. Department of Education. Daniel Kim and Diane Cory were recruited as consultant-facilitators for the discussion.

Kim and Cory are not your typical group process facilitators who merely help to keep the discussion going and ensure that everyone participates. They provide both content and framework. We didn’t just jump into a discussion of what is wrong with our schools and how do we fix them. We were divided into small groups and began at the beginning: What is the purpose of a public education system in a democratic society?

My group focused on providing lifelong learners with the skills and knowledge necessary to participate fully in 21st-century society. Our purpose may seem vague to those who were not part of the discussion, but to those of us who were, it is replete with major transformational implications.

Tradition Bound
If we had to invent a public education system because one did not exist, we would not be talking about the artificial constraints of a kindergarten through 12th-grade system. Learning is a womb-to-tomb process, thus our reference to lifelong learners. Notice also the focus on “providing learners” as opposed to saying “teaching students,” another major concept that focuses on learning rather than on teaching.

Public schools as we know them are steeped in the tradition of teaching content. In the second decade of the 21st century, we already are overwhelmed by more content then we will ever be able to assimilate. The needed skill is to learn how to sift through the volumes of content, sort out what is relevant and apply it.

We are bound by laws, rules and regulations, as well as by cultural expectations that make it extremely difficult to transform our schools. We do not begin by re-examining the purpose but rather assume the current purpose is still valid. Then we move directly to strategies and activities.

Many of the articles in this issue of The School Administrator address online learning and the impact of technology. Clear evidence indicates learners no longer need to be always in a classroom or, for that matter, in a school building to learn. Yet we have compulsory attendance laws and seat requirements that will frustrate the potential of online courses and virtual schools because students are required to be physically present.

In many states the financial aid formula for schools is based on attendance. Getting credit for a course requires that the student be physically present in class for a specified period of time. Much of this relates to the custodial function of public schools. Superintendents often are subject to the rage of working parents on questionable weather-related school closings.

Sometimes it is the business community that will dictate the requirements for when students should be in school. Consider, for example, what is euphemistically referred to as the “Kings Dominion bill” in Virginia. It requires the school year to begin after Labor Day. In spite of the overwhelming evidence that suggests year-round learning is preferable to the two-month interruption provided by the traditional summer break, the entertainment park lobby in Virginia has ensured kids and their families are free to visit the amusement parks because of legislation prohibiting school districts from starting classes prior to Labor Day.

Brainstorming Exercise
If we begin the transformational process by re-examining the purpose of public education, we then can move on to determining the core values inherent in that purpose. Is it to do what is always best for the learner or to accommodate the interests of the adults, the businesses or whatever groups have a vested interest in the process? Our little brainstorming group sided with the learner and doing what is always best for him or her.

From core values and purpose we move on to creating a vision. Freed from the constraints of having to do what has always been done, it is much easier to be creative. Two more sessions are planned for our Transformational Dialogue on Public Education group where we undoubtedly will move to create a vision and the strategies, tactics and activities to make the vision a reality.

This is an exercise that may or may not lead to substantive changes in our schools. It is a process, however, that makes us realize how difficult it is to bring about change. Current reform efforts are not focusing on changing the existing purpose of our public schools. The efforts focus on strategies, tactics and activities: charter schools, vouchers, accountability, assessment, firing principals, firing teachers, pay for performance, longer school days and a longer school year.

Nothing is wrong with attempting to improve the current public school system, but if we are talking about a transformation, we must begin by re-examining our core values and the purpose of public education in our democratic society.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org