Friday, June 11, 2021

Utopia Thinking (Education Is A Journey, Not A Destination)

One of the signs that Common Core was fatally flawed was not just that it was one size fits all, but that it was one size fits all in four dimensions, that it would fit not just every student today, but every student in the future for years and years and years to come. There was no review process, no mechanism in place to revisit and adjust parts of it, not even an organization to provide oversight and reflection. And the guys who wrote it just released it and then walked away, moving on their next gigs. 

"Set it and forget it," is terrible education policy. Education exists at the intersection of innumerable strands of tension. Tension between the student's potential and what they are actually doing, between the curricular demands on the teacher and the realities in the classroom, between the expectations of the hundred different stakeholders, between following the program and being swept by the issues of the day, between autonomy and accountability (for everyone), between the demands of society and the desires of the student, between the weight of history and the press of the present, between the hundreds of pieces of content all clamoring for a piece of the limited time pie, and on and on and on and on and on. 

All of them shift on a daily basis, and every shift moves the target. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

You can pick your favorite metaphor. When I was blowing up my first marriage, I was trying to drive the bus by tying the wheel in place and setting a brick on the gas pedal, and every time I hit a tree, I deduced that I had tied the wheel in the wrong place and retied it. Not until it was too late did I realize that I had to actually drive the bus. Education is like that, too. The conditions change every day, and you have to steer to accommodate them.

So many attempts to "fix" education, both within the modern ed reform world and outside of it, involve a search for that perfect place, where we can just plunk everyone down and declare "Nobody move a muscle. If we just stay right here, things will be perfect." 

It takes many forms. No excuses schools try to block out as many factors as they can--teacher individuality, student circumstances, the random eruptions of human behavior--so they can stay locked in an education Utopia. Curriculum in a box, scripted teaching programs, teaching material "with fidelity," going "all in" on a particular education philosophy--all attempts to place a school in the middle of an educational Utopia and lock it in place. 

But that's not how education works. In fact, that's not how any human relationship works. There is no locking in on a perfect place because the definition of "perfection" changes every day, shifting with all the many tensions that we balance while we live in the world. We change. The students change. Circumstances change. Needs change. Strengths and weaknesses ebb and flow. We keep moving.

I understand the desire to find that perfect place and lock down in it. It's human to want to know that we have things set up so that tomorrow and tomorrow and a hundred thousands tomorrows yet to come will all be okay, that things are going to work the way they're Supposed To. Uncertainty and unpredictability are inefficient, and scary, plus if we could get things locked down ahead of time, we wouldn't have to deal with it in the moment all over again every single day. 

The often-unspoken part of Utopia thinking is "We'll get these things locked down in the perfect place--and then they will never change forever." Utopia is not only locked in place, but in time. And that's simply not how human existence works. We grow, we expand, we change, we learn. 

And so every idea to fix education that involves locating the solution, imposing the solution, and then locking it in place is doomed, doomed, doomed, just as surely as a wish that your ice cream cone stay just like this forever. Education is a journey, not a location, and it always has to keep moving. 


  1. Common Core standards in ELA hit the Bad Trifecta:
    Bad standards (vague, subjective, empty skill sets)
    Bad tests (objective format, subjective standards)
    Bad policy (linking bad standards/tests to teacher performance)
    Bonus Bad policy: 70% of teachers do not teach tested subjects!

    I have created the perfect lesson plan that will stand the test of time, said no sober teacher ever!