It's been a busy couple of weeks for the education industry. Between Education Nation, the releases of Waiting for 'Superman' and Race to Nowhere, major grant announcements from Mark Zuckerberg and the U.S. Department of Education, countless hours of debate on major network shows, piles of op-ed pieces... we're getting a lot of airtime.
Everyone I've talked to has a different opinion on whether or not the attention will result in action. What that action will be. How that action will impact students and, ultimately, the nation. For now, I'm in the cynical camp, thinking this reform splash will follow similar patterns of previous waves.
Here's how it usually goes. Someone shines a spotlight on a particular issue: schools are failing in this or that way because of this or that reason. National outrage follows. Lots of people (who may or may not have relevant experience) design initiatives that address the problem. We spend millions of dollars implementing new programs. Later, evaluation data reveals what we're doing isn't working, and/or our schools are failing in a new way. National outrage follows. Repeat.
I've seen the education industry from a lot of perspectives: the classroom, the publishing house, the museum and the belly of the beast -- the Board of Education. I know reform isn't easy, and I know it's essential. I'd prefer to never again see a teacher tell a group of students, as one did in front of me one day, the U-505 that the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is the Titanic.
At one point, Johnny couldn't read. Then we were a nation at risk. We were leaving no child behind. We are racing to the top. (And maybe waiting for Superman.) For good reason, each decade brings forth new leaders, new ideas, new commitments. So far, though, our efforts haven't paid off. And if you doubted our data and stories, now Oprah has shocked you, and you do believe "this is happening" and "it's happening in America."
The medium is the message, right? Maybe the mainstream attention we're receiving -- Joel Klein was on The View last week -- is our best or only way to provoke action right now. Far more animal rights, environmental science, and nutrition statistics made their way into everyday conversation after the release of the movies Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc. than did after initial book releases by Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan.
Sudden celebrity is tricky. Take actors, for example. Some, after a lifetime of auditions and unfulfilled dreams, make good use of the opportunities that greet them. Others implode, unprepared for the hard work, lacking talent to support the attention. Education is having its 15 minutes of fame (again). Are we ready? Do we know what we need to do? Do we know how to do it? Are the right people in charge?
Fading celebrity is also tricky. Some actors find new ways to do good work. Some return to the mortal life. Some have breakdowns. In our case, if our spotlight dims (again), we will leave parents, teachers, and students in the dark.
I can't predict what the next decade will bring. Maybe this time we'll get it right. A few months ago, The Daily Show aired a fantastic clip of eight U.S. presidents' passionate promises to reduce our dependence on oil. Jon Stewart's response resonates today: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me eight times, I must be a f--king idiot." Let's hope not.