Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Symbols and Solutions

Eduwonk Andrew Rotheram had a really interesting piece in last week's U.S. News and World Report. His argument is that what the education reform movement is missing is a compelling use of symbols that will galvanize people into action. Just as the civil rights movement made use of biblical imagery contrasted with the injustices of the Jim Crow south, so too must education find a way to reach out to people to capture their attention and interest. At least, so goes the argument.

I certainly see where he's coming from on this. Words have power and once an image of injustice becomes lodged into the collective consciousness (especially an injustice as vast in scope and consequence as the problems facing urban education) it seems logical that action would follow. Logical, yes, but I don't know if it's correct. Respectfully, I think I have to disagree.

The fact is that people know education is a problem. If anything, the average citizen may even be overestimating the scope of the problem by thinking that the entire system is failing all kids rather than that certain elements of the system are spectacularly failing particular kids. People get that education is a problem that needs to be resolved. We can throw as many verbal images of half-filled graduations as we want, but it's not going to surprise anyone. People get it.

What they don't get is what to do next. In fact, no one really seems sure what to do next. And that's why we have yet to see a single, powerful movement for education reform. We have charter school advocates, smaller class size advocates, teacher quality advocates, accountability advocates, voucher advocates, social services advocates, and more. Each set pulls in a slightly different direction. Since there's no clear consensus on where we go next, there's no clear movement to get us there.

The problem isn't a lack of symbolism to underscore the situation. The problem is that we don't know yet how to fix it.

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