School Reform Is a Dead End, Unless...

We all say we want to reform our schools. But, to my mind, school reform is a pretty irrelevant topic. We live in a "developed society" (though one whose distribution of wealth is "third world"). In such a society, the vast majority of jobs are in poorly paid service work. With the erosion of unions, even jobs that once paid good wages and benefits do so no longer. And most jobs that require "standard skills", but not much face to face contact (whether high status jobs like engineering or low status ones like call center operators), are gravitating overseas to low cost centers. It gets ever harder for most people to find a sense of worth and dignity, and a feeling of control and participation in society, "on market" through their work.

At the same time, we have a neo-liberal philosophy that argues that everything should be "on the market" and not free. After all, if you gave every woman a $4000 purse, you would wreck the purse market. If you have to give something away free, it should only be the "basic version". Giving everyone a $4 purse would not wreck the market nearly as badly. The same argument could be and has been made about schools. Indeed, our urban public schools are centered on an accountable delivery of "the basics". If you want something more and deeper -- let alone 21st century skills -- you have to pay more for a private school or an expensive home in a rich suburb. Our "regular" schools seem best suited for preparing service workers. Our more "special" schools seem better suited for preparing students for tomorrow's relatively few elite jobs. And, indeed, this is what we get (whether we are neo-liberals or not) when we stress school as preparation for jobs in a developed country based on economic theories of ever increasing "growth".

What will our society be like when the vast majority of people can get no real sense of worth, dignity, and capability from work? Today, thanks to digital media, many people are getting their sense of dignity and capability outside of work as they engage in "passionate learning communities" to design and produce things, whether these be houses for the Sims, protein folds for Foldit, amateur science, or active collaboration around women's health. School, of course, does not prepare students to find a passion and a community within which to learn and practice it "off market", outside the jobs available on the market.

The only reason we would give every child a good school with deep 21st century learning -- the $4000 purse -- would be if we wanted a society in which this was seen as "just" and "right". Until we do, talk of school reform will go only so far. A discussion about "society reform" needs to predate a discussion of school reform. And yet we hear so much less about the reform of society -- especially outside markets as they currently exist--than we do about school reform. Could it be that all our talk about school reform helps us to ignore the real issues, issues too divisive and too threatening to our own slim hold on ever decreasing middle-class privilege to really and truly engage with? We live in a country in which people have a better chance of learning geometry and using it to gain a sense of capability by designing in the virtual world Second Life (even if they are an employee at Walmart) than in geometry class in a "regular" school. Let's not (just) reform STEM. Let's reform society.