There are a few ways that urgency corrupts our thinking in education. First, if you see a crisis, your first impulse is to address the most obvious and pressing issues. However, the most obvious and pressing issues aren’t necessarily the most fundamental ones. So we choose fast solutions over enduring ones -- like rushing out new teacher evaluation systems so their effect is felt right away, instead of rolling them out a bit more slowly to ensure effectiveness and engender buy-in from teachers. This bias away from root causes can, ironically, end up making progress take even longer, but the more harmful result is that it blinds us to the paradigm shifts in our understanding of education that could be most helpful in producing meaningful change.
The point here is not to cast doubt on the policies put forth by reformers; certainly teachers should be held accountable for the results of their students and measuring those results in the form of standardized tests is an important, if not comprehensive, metric for doing so. Rather, the essential observation that Mehta provides is simply that the top-down, principal-agent nature of many reforms sits in tension with a vision for the education sector that is in many ways more radical in its vision for the future of the system. That is, you cannot have both a bureaucracy and a professionalized sector. Either teachers are heavily vetted and trained on the front end and then partake in efforts to reform the system or the system continues to undersupply schools with talented, well-trained teachers and so heavily prescribes their every action. But it can’t do both. And I worry that in our urgency to fix the system as it exists, we fail to see the ways in which the system might be fundamentally re-imagined.
Though the negative effects of an inadequate education system ought to concern us all, one corollary of understanding that our education system is badly broken is that it won’t be repaired easily or abruptly. Big fixes take time. If we are willing to swallow our urgency and concentrate our energy on the big, time-intensive changes, we might really make a difference.
CJ Libassi, a former teacher, is a public policy graduate student at the University of Michigan. Reach him via email or Twitter.