“Renewal: Remaking America's Schools for the 21st Century”, by Harold Kwalwasser, is now available wherever fine books are sold. Click here to order your copy today.
For most of the 20th Century, American public education was an exercise in mass production. From the way teachers were trained, to the contracts by which they were employed, to how kids were instructed, the system reflected many of the same attitudes and operations of a car plant. It was neither flexible nor innovative. It could educate some kids, but not all, and even then, there was a question about whether those who were capable of learning in the environment really were getting everything they could from their education.
Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, things began to change. The combination of the civil rights movement and the decline of American manufacturing, which had historically offered good jobs and good wages to those who did not have a great education, suddenly created a demand that every child had a right, indeed a need, for quality instruction. The fact that many of them were minorities, ethnically or linguistically, or had learning disabilities, or were just plain poor, did not matter. This country recognized that, both morally and economically, a better-educated America was an absolute necessity.
Mass production education cannot fulfill that promise. Education that will reach every child has to be professional and artisanal. That is, teachers have to learn and apply a widely accepted body of knowledge about both content and methods of instruction. But in so doing, they have to act as if they were craftspeople, turning the raw material of each five year old’s mind and body into an accomplished seventeen year old high school graduate who has been motivated to use his or her individual talents and interests to grow into an empowered young adult.
The great challenge of American education in the 21st Century is how to move from the old vision to the new one. We need, literally, a renewal of our pledge to educate every child.
That’s why I researched and wrote “Renewal: A User’s Guide To Remaking America’s Schools for the 21st Century.” The forty high-performing or transforming schools discussed in the book have taken great steps to meet the promise of educating every child. While the details of their strategies have varied at times, they all share one thing in common: they did not simply change one thing or even ten. They changed entire systems, from restructuring the role of the central office, to how they trained teachers and delivered instruction. And they pushed, sometimes successfully, for changes in state or Federal policies that could make their task easier. As daunting as that sounds, their high performance or profound improvement demonstrates it is possible.