When it comes to education reform, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel anymore; instead, we’re building square ones.
It’s widely agreed that American education is in trouble. What is missed in both the response to the crisis and the cacophony of reform efforts is a true understanding of the nature of the problem.
In the early days of public schooling, Horace Mann called the schools the balance wheel of society. It was thought that schools served as a corrective for all kinds of problems ranging from skill gaps that needed to be remedied for the economy to flourish to culture gaps that were created by immigrants that needed to be Americanized. The school never worked in quite that way, but it was part of a web of social institutions that helped build a framework that allowed America to grow both in prosperity and in diversity. We face a lot of social and economic problems; we expect the schools to solve them. When they don’t, we think it’s a school failure. Instead, the schools are in fact a signal of a breakdown. Nowadays, the balance wheel is not working so well; it would be more accurate to think of public schools as the canary in the mine.