Executive Perspective

Butchers or Tailors?

by Paul D. Houston

Greek mythology contains a story about an innkeeper named Procrustes, who took in travelers. He had one problem: His inn had only one bed.

When a traveler came to the inn, Procrustes measured him. If he was too long for the bed, Procrustes chopped off his legs to the right length. If he was too short, Procrustes tied the traveler to a rack and stretched him to the right length. You didn’t want to have to spend the night at Procrustes’ place.

When I thought about this story, I realized it pertained to how we have gone about educating our children. We have offered them a one-size-fits-all education, and if they didn’t fit the bed we made for them, the consequences were sometimes dire. As we consider ways to improve our educational system, we must discover alternatives to our Procrustean approach to educating.

Nostalgic Yearnings
Regular readers of this column will not be surprised to know I have a poor regard for our current school reform efforts. I believe they are built on a faulty set of assumptions about what is wrong with schools today. When I talk to the media about this I remind them that when you lean your ladder against the wrong wall you paint the wrong house. When you build solutions based on the wrong assessment of the problem you solve the wrong things. Much of the current reform is about reaching back and shoring up what we used to do. It is built on the belief that we need kids today to be more like we used to be. Heaven forbid!

While I have my own forays into nostalgia, I also am painfully aware that when I was in school it wasn’t a place for everyone. Many kids were systemically excluded and the skills I was taught in high school were what most kids today are learning in middle school. Certainly we still have our challenges. We have given everyone access, but children of poverty are not getting what other children receive as a matter of course. Unfortunately another truth is that much of what we give children today is pretty boring. The wonder isn’t that some learn and some don’t. The wonder is they don’t rise in rebellion against the deadly dull experiences we dish out to them everyday that we call learning. This leads me to another criticism of our reform efforts.

Much of the current reform is based upon a belief that what is needed is “more” and “harder.” We need more content, harder standards, more homework, harder tests, more classes, harder teachers and so forth. This has led me to comment that much of what we are trying to do is bludgeon people, in this case children, to greatness. We are beating them toward excellence. Of course this will not work because it flies in the face of motivation and cognitive research. You can’t scare people into becoming smarter or shame them into pursuing higher order thinking. Any system that is built on fear will ultimately fail because fear and coercion can only take you so far before they ultimately lead to breakdown and rebellion.

Further, the current system of reform lacks “beef” at its core. Yes, one needs standards. Certainly one needs assessment. But somewhere between setting the standards and testing them, we need to create a system that takes people toward achievement. This requires giving the kids who need the most help the most help—better teachers, good facilities, excellent curriculum and materials, and the time to take advantage of all that. Without this beef in the center, you have what Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, calls a bread sandwich. Not much nourishment there.

Personalized Learning
Probably what we most need in school reform is an understanding that we don’t need to reform it nearly as much as we need to transform it. We must rethink what schools are about and how we should deliver learning to children. The goal of transformed education is children who are eager to get to school every day—that the school is a place where they want to be.

That means schools must be engaging places where children are involved in their learning in active and meaningful ways. We perform best as adults when we are doing work that we love, work that has deep meaning for us. Why would it be any different for children?

That leads us to the need to personalize education for children. The best part of IDEA, as far as I am concerned, is the requirement for an individual education plan—a plan that was tailored to the special needs of the child. Well, aren’t all our children special? Shouldn’t all of them have a PEP—a personalized education plan, a plan that takes into consideration their learning interests, styles and pace of learning? A plan that meets their needs as individuals? With the availability of new technology, it is not beyond our reach to think in these terms anymore. We know how kids learn and we can shape learning to fit their needs.

I love clothes. A few years ago during some of my travels, I was able to get a few suits tailored for me. What a difference from the off-the-rack clothes I had been buying. Tailored clothes not only fit you better, they accentuate your best features and compensate for those little bulges and bumps that most of us have. School reform has to be about getting our children the right fit and not about chopping them up to fit what we have to offer. We need more tailors and fewer butchers.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.