Education: More Like Parks, Less Like an Oil Change
I am not particularly car-literate, so my experience with an oil change goes something like this: I drive to the service station, drop the car off, sit in the waiting room for a while, and then pay the bill. I may need to answer a few questions and make an extra decision or two, but that's the basic gist of it. I believe this has become the default metaphor of education, and I think that's a problem.
Schools are too often treated like service stations where kids are dropped off, subjected to little-understood maintenance procedures, and then returned to their families working a bit better than they were before. Everyone pays their taxes, and the service stations keep working. Let's look at three specific problems with this frame of understanding schools.
The Responsibility Problem
Under the oil change model, we assign the bulk of responsibility to the service station. The customer's responsibility is to get the car to the station and not crash it in between visits. Call me crazy, but I think that the successful education of a child is often about what's happening in between visits to school, and that families have much more of a role in education than transporting their child, making a few decisions about service options, and paying the bill.
The Standardization Problem
When I go in for an oil change, I'm looking for a consistent experience, regardless of whether I'm bringing in my sedan or my parents' minivan, and whether I'm visiting Jiffy Lube or Midas. I know that there are differences between vehicles, but I trust the service providers to diagnose and respond appropriately, because at the end of the day, it's the same service being provided with minimal variation. Not so with education, where an ideal system would have many different impacts on children, depending on their needs, interests, and desired outcomes.
The Improvement Problem
If I'm thinking about improving a group of oil change stations, I'm going to focus on a set of easily-quantifiable measurements from a 10,000-foot view. I'd look at cars serviced per person-hour or customer satisfaction surveys. The problem with applying this service provider framework to education is that most of the measurements we have don't match up well with what we want.
Unfortunately, the oil change model (perhaps better generalized as the “product/service” model) underlies most of the effort in education policy and advocacy these days. That's not to say that it's entirely without merit, but we sacrifice a lot by treating schools as black boxes where education happens with the same set of desired outcomes for all students (outcomes that happen to be the same ones we can measure with the tools we have). I'd like to propose a different framework.
When I was growing up in Rochester, there were a few parks that received frequent visits. When I was younger, Allendale Park was the destination of choice; it was near our house and had some basic playground equipment that I enjoyed. As I got older, I spent more time on the fields of the Roy Watson Sports Complex, where my youth soccer games were played and where my dad, brother, and I would occasionally launch model rockets.
A park is a chance for each person to find enjoyment. Rochester has different kinds of people who enjoy different things, and it has different kinds of parks to match. The parks are supported with public dollars, and everyone has the opportunity (if they take it) to find the right parks for their enjoyment.
Our discussion of education would benefit from thinking of schools more like parks than like oil change stations. Instead of being a product or service sold to customers, education is a chance for each student to find a route to success. Different students will have different definitions of success, and even students with the same definition may have very different routes to get there.
Under this framework, responsibility for education is shared between students, families, schools, and the broader community. Standardization is questioned beyond a few basics (that don't dominate the discussion). Discussions of improvement don't start at corporate HQ (or even regional HQ); they start from a classroom desk.
I imagine myself as a student sitting in a classroom. What's more likely to help me find my route to success, a class with 29 other students in it, or a class with 14? A teacher who's overworked and underpaid, or a teacher whose life has better balance? How about a teacher who's knowledgeable of and responsive to my cultural background? A teacher who genuinely wants to be at my school? Am I more or less likely to succeed if I know my family will support me when I get home? Do I have a home?
A school is so much more than a place where kids undergo maintenance, and education is so much more than what happens in school. It's time we started thinking about and treating it as such.