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Breaking the Mold: How Do We Reform Schools?

Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia
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Year after year, we debate numerous reforms to improve our educational system. Yet we are continually hampered by the conventions of our thinking about -- well, everything. We fall into the same old trap of tinkering around the margins and trying to reform an education system with an ever-increasing number of policies, programs, and regulations piled on top of each other. Even the words we use to talk about improving schools -- school reform -- seem worn and out-of-date.

Last week, a friend and adviser reminded me that the words I often use -- reinventing schools -- still ties us to a system that many say is broken. But here's the real clincher: What we have is not a broken system; it's an obsolete system. When something is obsolete, you develop something new, something better. You use what you've learned from the old, but you don't allow yourself to try to piece together something shattered beyond repair.

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If we dared to change our frame of reference so that the "school" we all know and many of us work in disappeared tomorrow and we awoke to find a brand-new system of learning -- a web of integrated learning experiences -- what would that educational system look like? If we designed what the recent report "A New Day for Learning" implores that we design, would we hold to our deep-seated belief that learning takes place only when children are put in a room and learning is guided by a system that often operates in a silo?

Would we break the mold and build a robust twenty-first-century learning system, or would we continue our attempts to reform an educational system designed for a simpler age? Would we still have a school bell that signifies that learning ends at a designated hour?

What do you think?

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Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Bonnie Bracey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an educator who has been involved in reform, in use of technology to change the learning landscape, but who also has been frustrated by the " reform" efforts. I have done unit teaching, team teaching, cluster teaching and then back to working on my own.

I have learned new math, old math, new science, old science, and then some. Many organizations have invested in my skills but the buck stops in a place where what I do could always be thwarted. I have learned physics, astrophysics, marine biology, geography, and social studies . But mostly what I learned is that it is not about me. Someone somewhere else can dictate what I teach without knowing much about students, teachers or the place in which we work , or the systems that control reform.

Charter schools, magnet schools, and online cooperation and collaboration happened and then was disallowed. It is like a dance. Before technology and before NCLB you could
wait for the reform and then not do it by simply shelving the things you didn't like it took that long for things to filter down. Now there is a different we have access to just about all policy.

An interesting thing was that technology gave us lots of more information but then
took out a lot the change process. Change was supposed to happen faster and we we didn't have to wait for a supervisor to tell us what the new things were in education we could find out on line. WIth NCLB in charge there has been more a view of teachers as customers and students as customers than as collaborators.

Then there is the school calendar. You might think I am against the changes in a school calendar, I am not . I am against the cramming in of more and more responsibilities .. let's face it , we all go just about year round in responsibility and there are the ubiquitous summer workshops and the learning that is planned for us whether we want to contribute our summers or not.

Time has always been a big problem. The school calendar is a national problem because their has been no change in a hundred years.
WIth the thinking on time for schools, that is a new day for learning or the old research I know that time is a problem. But the people who don't teach don't get it.Their is always addition to the work that teachers do, but there is the problem of having to pay for the extra time. The public doesn't want to do it.

Some of us helped to pave the information highway. Lots of the work we did has been unsupported , and experts who don't know teaching and learning make fun of teachers by saying that they don't know much of anything. But there are teachers who kow a lot. What difference does it make if what you can use is decided by non educators.

So spin comes in and the press and some pundits have a field day beating up on teachers. There is not a level playing field so you can usually not talk back.

The mechanisms like this, the blog, the listservs and other groups give us a little bit of a chance to talk back.. but not much.

Perhaps many of the innovators, agents of change and those who want to make a difference are muted by those who have political power in the nation. We do fine with our school boards , there you have a chance but to talk to the national leaders?( and be understood?)

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Ed Russell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Amongst all the changes are the spirit's of children. Are they just drifitng in the wind. Check out my free e-book, The Omegadigm at

Marty Crawford's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ah, how well Shakespeare said it! The thing about change is that we will go to any lengths to avoid it. Years ago, I read a parable about that called the "Sabre-tooth Curriculum." It seems that the caveman teachers taught the students to kill the tigers that were eating their friends. That worked fine until the all the tigers were erradicated, but once they were gone nothing was done to change the curriculum. It had become so institutionalized that they continued to teach tiger-hunting in an era where the problem was gone. That's where we are. Our education is based on an agrarian society that no longer exists. Most of us can't tell a peck from a bushel. We still cling to English measurements when the world is metric.
Can we create something new? YES! But we have to get the institutions (read colleges and governments) to buy into it. Then we have to get the TEACHERS to buy into it. At our school, that took almost ten years of negotiation, prodding, and pulling those stubborn old mules out of the mire and onto the path that leads to the golden future. Have we done it? Sort of. We would have made it long since if the colleges our kids plan to attend were willing to change their admissions policies.
In the words of the Bard, "All's well that ends well." We are still hoping for that happy ending. In the meanwhile, we push on with the courage to try to make a change.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that today's school are for another socio-political time. We are in the 21st century, yet still teaching like the 18th century (or before). But really change, reform, reinventiveness, what ever one wants to call it, will not be realized until change comes from the top in the way in which our leaders lead. Change usually comes about this way (top down) unless it is a negative, like a mutiny or a coup d'etat. The way in which educational leaders view themselves, they posiiton and most importantly, those who are working daily with students, ie teachers, authentic change will not be realized. Teachers must be given the respect and autonomy they deserve. Next to parents, no one knows a child as much as a teacher.

Perhaps teachers can become administrators and administrators, teachers. But then again, maybe straw can become gold.

Heather Damon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in agreement with all of you, each in a different way. Hasn't our school system been in reform since the birth of schools in America? Isn't this a foundation of our system? What I don't understand is why we continue to pay so much attention to what isn't working. We pour excessive amounts of time, energy and money into fixing what continues to be unfixable - or so it seems. Why don't we change our tune and focus on what IS working? From my own experience in working in schools, remarkable things can happen!

Stephen Hurley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've been hangin' out at the edge of my grade 8 classroom for the past couple of years, watching to see who would show up. It didn't take long for those students that had been labelled by the system as "slow", or "reluctant" or "at risk" or "gifted" to come by. In working with them throughout the year, I realized that there are so many of our students who just don't fit into the system!

I was away from the classroom for aout 10 years, working in our district's curriculum department, teaching at a Faculty of Education...trying to tell others how to do this thing called teaching. Truth is that, even after 24 years of experience, I'm not really sure I know what it's all about.

I came to work for a principal this year that wanted to start a School of the Arts for Grade 7 and 8 students. I accepted the challenge as an opportunity to explore some ideas about teaching and learning and how the arts could become a central part of that process. We decided that our initiative was not going to be an elite, auditioned-based program. Instead, we want to frame our project so that it captures those students that hang out on the edges of school. We want to create a home for these students.

I'm more than happy to keep you posted on the initiative. I just thought that I would let you know that Diane's article resonated with me for a whole new set of reasons!

Diane Demee-Benoit's picture
Diane Demee-Benoit
Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

I'd love for you to inform us about your progress. I'm glad my original post resonated with you. The intent was to plant a seed and get a conversation going. Please keep us updated. Email and tell me what you're up to! Be sure to say you're trying to reach Diane.

Julie Lay's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an educator of twenty-too many years, I agree with your posting of how things have changed and what you've had to learn--and nothing really changes. My teaching experience covers grades K-8, special education, Title 1 reading, literacy support/coaching, national presenter for teaching writing, and earning my National Board Certification in Literacy. During this season of my life, I'm finally getting my masters degree with only 4 more years before retirement! Call me crazy...

Currently I'm teaching kindergarten---talk about change or no change! No change has been that we still only teach our kids in a 2 1/2 hour day five days a week. Change has been that now I teach [what used to be] a first grade curriculum in kindergarten. These children should be reading by the end of kindergarten--what used to be considered a first grade requirement. These children should [instead] be exploring the world around them, learning social skills and learning through 'play.' "Play" is a young child's work!

In my state, kindergarten is funded seeing each child as .5 student! This seems odd as I teach a 'whole' child the 'whole' curriculum--I don't teach 1/2 a student each! I keep fighting the good fight, but I'm so tired of the 'policy makers' telling us what to do and when to do it, then only giving us 2 1/2 hours to teach a 6 hour curriculum.

There are many good teachers out there trying to do the same thing in so many different circumstances, but with the same challenges. I agree, school reform is not an ugly or bad word, but where is the reform and by whom is it making the reform meaningful and age-appropriate? I also agree the 'blog' is a great idea to let our voices be heard...but by whom?

Richard Gram Sr's picture

School architects are not concentrating on the acoustic environment
See the study in the school of architecture/University of Florida
by Gary Sabien. Translate to any supposed learning location.

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