What’s driving conflicts over the future of public education

The public education system that was born during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century is slowly, painfully being transformed. New technologies and better understandings of how cognition and emotions impact learning are encouraging increasing numbers of elected officials, parents and educators to advocate replacing standardized, one-size-fits-all schooling with empowered teachers and students working in customized learning environments.

bookshelf-logoPredictably, these changes are generating strong political resistance from school boards, teacher unions, PTAs and others with long-standing ties to the status quo. This political struggle is playing out in numerous venues, including neighborhood associations, school boards, state legislatures, the courts and Congress.

Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is required reading for anyone wanting to better understand this conflict. Kuhn’s descriptions of how various scientific fields have progressed historically illustrates the psychology and sociology at play when communities are challenged to reconsider their most basic beliefs and understandings. His work explains why individuals and communities resist change, and why this resistance, while often frustrating and counterproductive, can also help ensure any changes are genuine improvements.

Kuhn argued that scientific progress occurs in the context of a comprehensive set of assumptions he called a paradigm. The word has been abused and misapplied in the decades since Kuhn published his book, but he saw a paradigm as a worldview that operates as the lens through which a scientific community perceives and understands its field.

A scientific field progresses as it becomes able to explain more about the world from the perspective of its dominant paradigm, a process Kuhn called normal science.kuhn-book-cover

Eventually phenomena appear that cannot be well explained, and scientists who are less invested in the status quo begin to question the veracity of the dominant paradigm. Kuhn called these inconsistencies anomalies, and found that as more anomalies emerge, more scientists begin challenging the paradigm’s validity until the field enters a period Kuhn called extraordinary science.

Extraordinary science is a tumultuous and contentious time for any discipline, as the advocates of a new paradigm rise up to challenge the status quo.  An intellectual and political struggle ensues, and eventually either the uprising is defeated or the old order is toppled and the new paradigm is adopted. Kuhn refers to a change in paradigms as a scientific revolution.

While scientific revolutions are usually less violent than political revolutions, they are traumatic and therefore rare.

After a new scientific paradigm takes over, scientists no longer see the phenomena in their field the same way. Everything in their discipline must now be reinterpreted through the lens of their new paradigm.

While there are significant differences between science and K-12 education, today’s disagreements around the future of public education resemble Kuhn’s descriptions of the struggle between competing paradigms in science.

The paradigm conflict in public education today revolves around divergent assumptions about human behavior, and the societal differences between nineteenth-, twentieth- and twenty-first-century America.

Today’s public education system has its roots in the social and economic challenges of the  nineteenth century. It evolved to address several societal concerns, including strengthening a young democracy by increasing literacy and good citizenship, assimilating a large immigrant population, increasing out-of-home child care in urban areas, keeping urban youth out of the workforce longer, preparing a workforce for blue collar manufacturing, and reducing the spread and influence of Catholicism. To handle a huge influx of diverse students into urban schools, nineteenth-century educators and elected officials began organizing public schools around the management principles of large-scale industrial manufacturing, a process that continued throughout the twentieth century.

As public educators embraced industrial management systems, they also adopted the assumptions about human behavior that accompanied them. These included believing that people are externally motivated, need to be disempowered and centrally controlled, learn best in one-size-fits-all standardized environments, have fixed intelligence, are more easily controlled and educated when grouped by common characteristics, and can’t be trusted to make good decisions and therefore need to be centrally controlled.

Educators and elected officials over the last 150 years have continually adjusted the application of these assumptions, but despite their modifications, unhappiness with the system’s effectiveness has grown as critics assert that too many children are being undereducated.

Kuhn’s research suggests that when the effectiveness of a dominant paradigm is being challenged, the followers of that paradigm make changes in an attempt to maintain its dominance. This has certainly occurred in public education.

Those wanting to conserve the status quo have tried to shore up the traditional paradigm by adopting, among other things, higher academic standards; more government regulations and accountability systems; standardizing pay scales, employment contracts, teacher evaluations, curricula, textbooks, certification requirements and tests; alternative teacher certification; merit pay; peer evaluations; better preservice and in-service teacher training; national teacher certification; forced busing; voluntary desegregation via magnet schools; industrial unionism and collective bargaining; and increased funding.

Some of these adjustments have improved student achievement, but none has generated the transformational learning gains our society now requires. Hence, the growing support for a new paradigm.

The emerging new paradigm has its roots in today’s societal needs and current knowledge of human psychology. It is less focused on ranking and sorting students and preparing them for blue-collar manufacturing jobs. It is more focused on equal opportunity and preparing students for a knowledge-based economy organized around digital technologies. It rejects hostility toward Catholicism and other religions, and embraces freedom of religion – including the rights of parents to educate their children in a faith-based environment of their choosing. It assumes intelligence is not fixed and can be increased through effort, and that people perform best when they are internally motivated, empowered, and have a greater sense of ownership over their learning and work.

Advocates of this new paradigm want public education to be organized around customized learning environments. They want more decentralized decision-making. They want parents to have more control over where and how their children are educated, and empowered educators and families to have access to the information they need to make good decisions. They want to emphasize helping students develop good cognitive and emotional management skills – especially children from homes and communities where these skills are often not modeled, nurtured or reinforced.

Because paradigm shifts are so disruptive and threatening to those in power, Kuhn says they usually take at least one or two generations to complete. This extended resistance forces the new paradigm to continually improve, which helps ensure it is significantly better when it finally becomes dominant.

This resistance-driven improvement is happening today in public education. Through their opposition, school boards, teacher unions, and others in their political tribe will force charter schools, new technologies, virtual schools, diagnostic and summative assessments, homeschooling, tax credit scholarships, vouchers and other related initiatives to improve.

From our today’s perspective, it’s hard to see how this paradigm shift will play out and exactly what the new system will look like. Presumably, by the time this revolution is complete, applications of this new paradigm and its behavioral assumptions will be much better than the initial versions, many of which still contain features of the old paradigm.

Although Kuhn’s book is over fifty years old, today’s conflicts in public education are closely following the narrative he laid out, which is why thoughtful change agents should read it.