What is core? What must change?

I originally wrote this article for the Daily Times-Call.  It was published in October of 2005.  The content still reflects my opinions.

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Great organizations preserve their core purposes and simultaneously evolve in response to a changing world.  This is one of the lessons taught by organizational guru Jim Collins.

Public schools should head this wisdom.

I am among those who believe public schools are one of our most essential institutions.  There is no better bellwether of our community and nation than the health of our public schools.

I also believe public schools must fundamentally evolve. The timeless values of public education, which should never change, boil down to three things for me:  access, accountability and community.

Access is important on many levels.  A quality education, more so today than ever, is the only way to gain access to the American Dream.

Beyond education’s utilitarian value, ensuring access to all public schools (distinct from a public school) is a testament to the kind of society we want for our children.  For instance, do we want our children to live in a society built on a commitment to equity or privilege?

Institutions that receive public funds should answer to the community.  For me, this means school board members should ensure access to, set standards for and monitor the performance of schools receiving public funds. We must take care, however, not to confuse oversight with operations.  In other words, a school board should not micro-manage schools.

Public schools are one of the best and few places we have to nurture democratic skills and build community.  Indeed, few institutions embody our interdependence like public schools.  It should always be an express purpose of public schools to bring together diverse groups and help them learn to forge one community.

What must change?  Here are a handful of changes I believe should be priorities.

We should create what leading education thinkers call a “portfolio” of schools that offer families distinct choices.  It is arrogant to believe there is one best way to educate children.  In our pluralistic society, ignoring demand for choices is a sure way to erode support for public schools.

There are many successful school models.  Some families prefer Core Knowledge, others believe in International Baccalaureate.  Some want dual-immersion language schools.  Still others prefer a Montessori approach.

I don’t profess to know the best mix for a St. Vrain portfolio.  The community must be involved in making setting priorities.  The point is we should provide options so that as many families as possible can find a place in our public schools.

Today, we need public schools to meet an unprecedented challenge.  Our schools must prepare every student for higher education rather than just a fraction.

The only way for schools to respond in a way significant enough to meet this challenge is if we rethink how teachers, administrators, students and parents work together.  Our schools must become organizations in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

We must respond as a community, too.  We can begin by funding schools commensurate with the expectations we profess to hold.

Beyond dollars, we need community members to take an active role in schools greater than we’ve imagined.  We need public schools to truly be community schools.

A key to changing a system often is changing the incentives, as a friend recently reminded me.  Currently, there are strong incentives for schools to superficially comply with laws and regulations at the expense of the needs and interests of the school community.

As Howard Gardner writes, “The fatal limitation of a carrot-and-stick approach… is that this behaviorist tack ignores what motivates human behavior: a feeling that one is engaged in something of consequence… to the community, to the students, to oneself.”

We must create incentives that will unleash the energy and serve the unique needs of each school community.

Today, the very franchise of public schools is at stake.  The choices we make about what to preserve and how to evolve will determine public school’s fate.

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