Head-On Collisions Leading to a Century of Failed School Reform

A friend of mine who happens to be an expert in educational technology, Jon Madian, sent me an interview in which he committed a mistake very similar to that committed by Seymour Papert, and 99% of those who aspire to improve education:  He tries to preach a solution rather than openly advocate for fundamental structural reform.  This, for example, is preaching,

“Students, teachers, administrators, and those who support them, like publishers, need to learn from each other.”

There is nothing wrong with encouraging people to learn from each other.  But in terms of moving towards the educational goals that Jon and I share, such exhortation will accomplish precisely nothing.

I am completely in agreement with him that learning should be based on autonomy rather than external control and coercion,

Research on how to educate people to solve problems supports something quite different. Daniel Pink lays out the research in his book, Drive. He strongly suggests that autonomy, or choice and purpose, or setting personal goals, is fundamental to engage people in complex tasks, including learning.

But the only way to achieve the great things desired by Montessori, Papert, Pink, Madian, and others who believe that education should be a matter of “lighting a fire, not filling a pail,” is ongoing radical creative destruction by means of allowing education funding to be completely in the control of parents and students.

Thomas Jefferson was perfectly clear about the importance of letting parents, rather than governments, control education:

  When a 1780 bill proposed placing education in the hands of state officials he said “If it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the governor and council…or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience.”

Our entire statist education system is a Prussian perversion of Jefferson’s dream that was foisted upon us by Horace Mann.  (Germany prosecutes, and imprisons, homeschooling families to this day).  It has NOTHING to do with Jefferson’s vision of democracy.

It may well be the case that in small communities (less than 1,000 people?), one could manage local schools well by means of elected school boards – if those boards had complete control.  This might approximate Jefferson’s notion that the schools be “managed by the parents within each ward.”  But creating educational policy at the level of large school districts (Miami-Dade has more than 30,000 teachers), less alone at the state or federal level, so dilutes the connection between parent and school that formal, “objective” accountability measures have become the norm.  Even at the level of a school district the size of Miami-Dade, educational policy becomes sound-bites at press conferences.  Anything more nuanced is lost.

I expect few parents know much about the school board candidates in Miami-Dade.  All they know much about is whether or not their child likes their teacher and is doing well or not.  If they are forced to go to a neighborhood school as their only option, there is not even much of an incentive to learn more about education than that.  “Accountability” necessarily is some combination of headlines that politically ambitious school board members put out there and the reality of one’s child’s life in the school.  Worse yet, the combination of union rules and state and federal policies significantly constrain even thoughtful, well-intentioned school board members and the superintendents that they appoint.

A good analogy for understanding the challenge of transitioning schools from external motivation to internal motivation is to consider the challenge of transitioning a nation from driving on the left side of the road to driving on the right side of the road (but vastly more complex).  You can’t create an effective transition by having some of the people do it some of the time sort of:  You just end up with head-on collisions over and over again, and everyone concludes that it was a bad idea to change.

I see this as a simple parable for what Diane Ravitch calls “A Century of Failed School Reforms.”  For a hundred years, many intellectuals (including most university-based education professors, psychologists, philosophers, etc.) have proposed reforms designed to move the system more towards authentic, self-directed learning.  Meanwhile the combination of population growth, school district consolidation, and increased state and federal control were simultaneously creating ever-more bureaucratic educational institutions that have steadily reduced district autonomy, school autonomy, and teacher autonomy.  The “head-on collisions,” in terms of wave after wave of failed school reform, have left everyone exhausted and many concluding, sadly, that education really can’t have much of an impact.

May Jon Madian, Seymour Papert, advocates of Montessori, and everyone else who believes in the unlimited potential of education as “lighting a fire rather than filling a pail” join me in forthright advocacy of allowing parents and students the right to choose schools freely, so that they can reward diverse new educational entrepreneurs, some of whom will create the schools of our dreams.

About Michael Strong

Co-founder, Ko School + Incubator, Conscious Capitalism, Radical Social Entrepreneurs, lead author of Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems, author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.
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4 Responses to Head-On Collisions Leading to a Century of Failed School Reform

  1. Jon Madian says:

    I am a great fan of Michael’s thinking and writing. So I am confused by his criticism of my statement indicating that to improve education all stakeholders must learn from students. How does continuous conversations about “quality” among all stakeholders become preaching? How does this approach NOT lead to “fundamental structural reform.”

    I would have thought that Michael would see this suggestion as fundamental to building more responsive, continuously improving educational processes.

    This suggestion, that we learn from each other and particularly from students, would be mere idealism in our previous institutional context of textbooks. Our digital systems have changed that. With our current technologies, the dialectic of conversation leads to new products that create new processes at an unprecedented rate. Our science of learning, enhanced by our technology, is creating new ways to understand and respond to people. We’ve seen it in marketing and sales, in science and digitally mediated “societies”, and we will welcome it in education.

    The focus of the interview cited by Michael is the relationship among autonomy, “quality”, community, and technology. These four are evolving new processes in education. Some of the best of these new processes are found in charter schools, some of which are entirely online; others are blended. Some are run by school districts, others by private groups.

    As an entrepreneur I love Michael’s view of the value of the free market, both for ideas and for business. However, I am unable to put as much faith in parents, local school boards, and non-government mediated schools as Michael does.

    It is worth noting that the federal government enlarged its role in public education to correct the racist policies that segregated our schools. While this intervention was not entirely successful, it was fundamental for our society to move toward greater social justice.

    While I am no lover of government mandates, I do not trust unregulated capitalism in agriculture, banking, education, or health care.

    I join Michael in believing that more entrepreneurs in public education will be a good thing. School choice is a further form of autonomy. But I also believe that our choices will improve as we focus on understanding the diverse nature of students by listening to and studying them as learners. If we can apply the evolving knowledge from the science of learning within quality focused communities, I believe schools will improve whether those schools are run by entrepreneurs or government agencies.

    A careful reading of the interview that Michael sites will lead a reader to understand that I am advocating for an education enterprise inspired by science and humanism, quality and democracy. If Michael chooses to call this advocacy preaching, then I would say that Thomas Jefferson also preached. And surely Michael’s “flow-idealism” preaches in so far as it idealizes free enterprise and local control without any government leadership or regulation.

    History has shown that progress requires humane values, science, a balancing conversation, capital, rules of the game, vision, and continuous adaptation. In the end, Michael and I agree: democracy and free enterprise are messy systems, but they are the best way to create our future.

  2. flowidealism says:

    Hi Jon,

    We all preach, including me, and there is nothing wrong with preaching per se. That said, I am profoundly convinced that those of us who believe that education should be driven by self-motivated students rather than coerced, bored, and often hostile students need to advocate for a system that is liberated from the many layers of top-down control that exist today. The only scaleable way to do this, in my view, is to allow parents and children as much autonomy as we can in the kinds of schools they choose, and to minimize the barriers to entry of new forms of education by diverse educational entrepreneurs.

    Thus for me the ONLY “fundamental structural reform” is to change how the dollars flow. Until then we are fiddling while Rome burns, so to speak.

    I look forward to an ever deepening dialogue, subject to the time constraints we both face, a “slow conversation,” if you will, to clarifying the evidence for why I believe that the beautiful dreams for education that you and I share are strictly impossible in the U.S. today unless and until we dramatically restructure education – by means of changing who controls the dollars being spent. Only when parents and students control what counts as “good education” does our vision have a chance. I don’t want to see the next hundred years be described as yet another “hundred years of failed school reform.” THAT would be a great tragedy.

    At the same time, I will acknowledge that the vast majority of parents will initially NOT choose the kinds of schools that you and I love – the vast majority will choose far more conventional schools. But even if the schools we love start out as .1% of the total, in the end we will win. Apple had thoroughly defeated IBM, a monolithic giant in the 1970s, beat by two hippy geeks in their early 20s, both college drop-outs. There are teenagers today who could change the world if we let them. But restricting the world of schools to education school graduates, who are then to be employed in government-managed schools, is a death-sentence to educational innovation.

    More to come,


  3. Jon Madian says:

    As ever, Michael, thanks for your kind and thoughtful response.

    I share your view about some of the potential of free markets vs. government bureaucracy when it comes to education, and of course, the power of choice. However, during two years consulting for Microsoft, I came to appreciate that big companies, and small ones, can be hide bound, bureaucratic and wasteful. So no approach offers a panacea, except in the imagination of the hopeful.

    Personally, I’m more of a psychologist and artist than an economist, so I gravitate to grieving about the lost opportunities that result as we persist in deliverying an irrelevant, redundant and sterile curriculum.

    In the technology, with its Open Creative Commons kinds of infrastructures, I see the potential of developing and delivering quality learning experiences online and off. Here my heart harks to back to James Joyce when he goes forth to become the “smithy of the soul”.

    As educators working in communities with students, our curriculum development process can now be digitally mediated, hammered out on a digital anvil that we, with our students, can use to shape the best in our human potential. This process of investigating and evolving curriculum to meet individual and societal needs becomes a very important part of the curriculum.

    Whether public, charter, or other schools will join in developing quality learning communities remains to be seen. But my work is to advance the theory and practice in this area, and I’m sure that your work of creating diverse market place opportunities complements these efforts. Let me add, I deeply value your work in creating quality learning experiences.

    As ever, thank you, Michael, for the conversation and for our shared concern for helping education realize its greatest human potential. Truly, this is at the heart of a healthy democracy.

  4. flowidealism says:

    Hi Jon,

    Just rushing to catch up, I just created a new post as a partial response to this:

    “I share your view about some of the potential of free markets vs. government bureaucracy when it comes to education, and of course, the power of choice. However, during two years consulting for Microsoft, I came to appreciate that big companies, and small ones, can be hide bound, bureaucratic and wasteful. So no approach offers a panacea, except in the imagination of the hopeful.”

    See here,


    It is not about a panacea, it is about creating a dynamic of deep, continuous improvement through ongoing disruptive innovation. Jobs and Wozniak did not create “a panacea” vis-a-vis anything going on in the 1970s. But they made the world immeasurably better because they were able to create cool stuff and keep growing, developing, and improving it.

    I believe that if educational entrepreneurs were able to play on a level playing field with existing K-12 educational institutions, we would see a similar process of ongoing disruptive innovation. Would the result be a “panacea”? Maybe, maybe not, but it would, over time, be beautiful, amazing, and delightful. I keep hoping that the “psychologist and artist” in you will get a glimpse of this at some point, and share my enthusiasm at the possibilities . . .

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