Opinion: Education is complex; we must be flexibile

Within the educational sphere, it’s common to hear popular reform tag lines surface over time, gain traction, receive widespread support, and then wane as time slowly erodes their popularity and cache within the field. It’s a frustrating and deep-rooted problem in education, as it has had the effect of undermining the elasticity of educators to embrace change when that change is pursued and then left to lie fallow. With so much riding on education and its outcomes, I think many wonder why the field as a whole can’t get it together to build upon success and move forward with singular vision to provide the types of learning experiences that will prepare students for whatever they choose to do in their lives.
When you look under the hood and get a sense of the dynamics at play within our schools, it becomes increasingly clear why it’s hard for us to sustain a common direction and build on our foundations. Perhaps most significantly, school legislation and oversight is highly complex. Our federal government is in a constant struggle with states for control over decision making, creating deep divides in the design and implementation of educational systems. Further, the question is not simply state vs. federal control, as we also work within county control, district, building and classroom. What was once a fairly autonomous profession, where teachers would be given a classroom and grade levels, has transformed into a highly complex system with roughly $1.3 trillion annually in public and private education spending. It’s illuminating to just step back and marvel at the considerable political and market pressures on our schools to gain greater clarity on the change process and the challenges of stable educational growth.
There are many in the country who are proposing that we “start over,” that we completely redesign our schools from the ground up to make learning more relevant to students in 2016. If you look across the country, you will see the development of many charter schools, which now make up roughly 7 percent of the U.S. public education system, promising to provide a new approach that will shift and move more quickly than public education can. There is debate throughout American communities about whether the charter movement is closing or increasing the achievement gap.
I believe we can maintain flexibility within public education and change to create more personalized, meaningful and engaging learning environments. It is our charge as a public institution to prepare our students to be engaged, committed citizens who can play their part in creating a community that fosters respect, compassion and social justice for all. In order to do this, however, we must come to terms with the incredible number of moving parts within education, and design systems that we can build on, that can adapt and not become so prescriptive or fragmented that we spend most of our time moving among reform ideas and political pressures.
As a state with the smallest student population in the union, we have the right scale to be thoughtful about our direction, to engage in critical dialogue about our vision, and to build a foundation that protects us from both the federal and market pressures that create such schisms in public education. To get there, we need to work harder to forge stronger collaborative systems, from the Legislature all the way down to the classroom. We need to stop designing educational change in isolated silos, which only creates more confusion and does not lead to the type of sustainable, powerful change that our students deserve.
Peter Burrows, D.Ed., is superintendent of the Addison Central Supervisory Union and has more than two decades of experience in education.

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