In my teaching and writing I sometimes ponder whether the existing structures of schooling are actually the biggest obstacle to student learning. Can schools as we currently know them ever accomplish the mission we've established for them?
This week Richard Elmore, one of the nation's most prominent educational thinkers, emphatically shared his conviction that they cannot. Speaking at a forum on education reform sponsored by the Aspen Institute, the American Enterprise Institute and the Harvard Graduate School of Education (where Elmore is professor), the father of instructional rounds distinguished himself from other panelists by concluding that schooling as we know it will inevitably fail.
"I do not believe in the institutional structure of public schooling anymore," Elmore said, noting that his long-standing work at helping teachers and principals professionalize their practice is "palliative care for a dying institution." Elmore predicted "a progressive dissociation between learning and schooling."
In the limited format of the panel Elmore had little time to explain his conclusions, but indicated he is writing a book that further explores what he thinks education of the future will look like. His comments reflected his concerns that technology, and the networked learning that is emerging in the 21st century, is a key reason for the collapse of institutional schooling, and that nueroscience is revealing how inadequate our schools are for addressing the way children actually learn.
"The modal classroom in the modal school [in the United States] is exactly the opposite of what we're learning about how human beings develop cognitively," he said.
What kind of learning structures better match brain science and the newly emerging networked world? Elmore pointed to the research of Sugata Mitra, whose dramatic "hole in the wall" experiments with children in the developing world reveal how, with a little assistance from technology and the community of fellow learners, kids can master tremendously large amounts of information with minimal coercion, aid, or teaching from adults. Watch Mitra's TED Talk, which Elmore references, below:
Elmore also mentioned a TED Talk by Charles Leadbeater, who builds on Mitra's work and illustrates how the most dramatic innovations in education are likely to emerge, not from the U.S., Finland, or other industrialized countries, but from the booming populations of children in the developing world:
Elmore's comments left me feeling both excited and anxious about the future of schooling. I was encouraged that someone of Elmore's stature affirms something that I've been feeling in my gut for many years: that all of our efforts to improve teaching and learning, while worthwhile, may ultimately be foiled by the way we "do" school itself.
I have been especially critical of the American high school, with its fanatical obsession with bell schedules, its rigid attachment to traditional measures of student learning (grades and "credits"), and its pervasive resistance to de-privatizing the practice of teaching. Indeed, some of Elmore's harshest comments were directed at secondary schooling. "High school is the second- or third-most dysfunctional institution in American society," he said, without mentioning the most dysfunctional (though we can probably take some good guesses; my money is on the federal government).
High schools, though, in some ways are a smaller system that represents key deficiencies in the larger system of education itself. Rigid bureacratic structures and an emphatic emphasis on institutional stability, along with with deeply vested and powerful interests that resist innovation and change, have made deep school reform nearly impossible. "I'm highly suspicious that the bureacracy has any interest in helping poor kids," Elmore said of policy initiatives designed to close achievement gaps.
What are the practical implications of Elmore's conclusions for leaders of traditional schools? There's much to ponder here, but Elmore was clear that he hasn't given up on trying to improve schools for the children who remain there for the time being. Elmore noted that he continues to take his work in this realm very seriously. But he seems to think we'd do well to recognize the limitations of these efforts.
Many Kentucky districts have invested large amounts of time into the practice of instructional rounds, the school improvement initiative Elmore is probably best known for. I was trained by Elmore and his team in the instructional rounds process in 2009 and subsequently trained scores of administrators and teacher leaders from multiple districts in the rounds protocol. But despite these efforts, and the rich instructional conversations that emerged as a result, I've seen little evidence of meaningful, lasting changes in practice, especially at the secondary level. (For more on my positive experience with instructional rounds, see my chapter in the forthcoming book, Lessons in Leading Change: Learning from Real World Cases, from RossiSmith Publishers).
Elmore seems exceedingly pessimistic that even powerful tools like instructional rounds will stave off the death of traditional schools, and while he emphasizes that he is making a predictive (as opposed to normative) argument, it sounds like Elmore will not mourn the death of school as we know it.
What I have been emphasizing to my colleagues and to practicing and aspiring school leaders is that thoughtful educators must put themselves at the forefront of this conversation, so that we might play a constructive role in whatever new forms of learning emerge from the ashes of traditional schooling. We must do so in a way that recognizes and embraces these changes instead of fortifying existing institutions that no longer work. This is why I am increasingly interested in various models of school choice, in child-centered learning models like Montessori, and seemingly radical movements like homeschooling.
Clinging to dysfunctional models will actually do more damage to our children in the long-run, and so more dramatic shifts of thinking and practice now seem in order. As Elmore put it, "You cannot break a monopoly by being nice."