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Lily Eskelsen's picture

I’ve just finished one more article on what essentially becomes “The Three Main Things” that we need to do to improve our schools. They aren’t bad things. Well, sometimes they are. But, basically they sound essentially reasonable.

And I hate, hate, hate to argue with something that sounds reasonable because it puts you in the position of sounding unreasonable when you question what often seems like pure common sense, so I hate, hate, hate to say this, but…
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Three Main Things will always fail. Three Main Things are doomed. They are doomed when you are trying to fix a system.

It doesn’t matter if you are trying to fix the toughest problems in our toughest schools or the easiest problems in our easiest schools. They are doomed because a system is not like furnishing my living room.

Stay with me. When I was a young, married kid, we couldn’t afford much in the way of furniture unless it consisted of an overturned milk crate that I could pretend was an end table. We were putting ourselves through college. I wasn’t able to go out and buy a perfect Home Beautiful room. So I picked the Three Main Things.

A couch. A coffee table. A lamp. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better. I could sit; put my feet up; read a book. Other things could come later.

But what works great for a living room doesn’t work well for a system. Any system. Take your digestive system. Again. Stay with me. Your doctor says you’re sick. She says you’ll need to take a blue pill, a green pill, a teaspoon of this, change your diet like that, and have minor surgery. Taken together, you’ll get well.

If you, in your ignorance, decide that you only need to get a little better and choose Three Main Things like the green pill, the stuff in the teaspoon and part of the diet, you might end up even sicker than before because the green pill really needed the blue pill and the surgery was to correct something major that diet alone wouldn’t fix.

If you are trying to fix a system, you simply cannot pick Three Main Things (which usually computes to Three Easy Things or Three Cheap Things).

So, back to education. We often think of our elementary schools as separate from our high schools as separate from our community colleges and universities. But our schools are a system. From preschool to graduate school.

map of the world If you are trying to fix the problem that too many students from poor families drop out and never go to college or trade school, the answer might have to do with high school counselors or relevant curriculum choices or disengaged parents, or preschool gaps in reading-readiness that can linger throughout the school years.

If you try to boil it down to Three Main Things, you’ll end up choosing a green pill that only works if you swallow it with a blue pill, but the blue pill wasn’t one of the Three Main Things and so you’ve made things worse.

Some folks think the Main Thing needs to be a standardized test. (And I will always take pains to say it loud, say it proud: I am not against tests. I’m against giving the wrong tests for the wrong reasons and pretending that a standardized test tells you all you need to know.) Others might say a Main Thing is a teacher evaluation system that rewards and punishes. Others will say a Main Thing is collaboration. Others will say it’s recruiting the best. Others, removing the worst.

Pick three. You will pick wrong. You have to look at a system and what that system is trying to accomplish. Today, we want an education system that prepares our students to be thinking, problem-solving, creative, caring individuals who can work as a team, whether in a family, a team of colleagues or as citizens and members of society, to accomplish what needs to be done. Such a system is incredibly complex. It would be a system that from the beginning recruits, prepares and retains highly accomplished, talented people to make a career in that system on every level. It would be a system that networks those talented people into collaborative ways that support the whole child: Mind, body and character development.

It would measure the right things in the right ways and use multiple sources of information to constantly inform the professionals in their design of instruction and intervention.

It would be a system that required highly trained people to implement a meaningful evaluation process, using data that would give thoughtful, consistent feedback so that good people got better, struggling people got help and strugglers who could not improve were removed in a humane, orderly and transparent office

It would be a system that recognized the importance of school climate: the need for adequate, quality facilities that were safe, healthy and bully-free. Students and school staff would feel respected. They would have the basic learning materials and resources needed to implement a quality and diverse program that would lead to college, career and civic engagement.

There would be high expectations of students and families and staff from preschool to a door that led from high school to higher education.

Pick Three Main Things from this list like you would pick out a sofa, a coffee table and a lamp… and you will not have a system. Pick Three Main Things from this list, and you will ignore three dozen other things that have to dovetail in order to effect a real change.

Pick Three Main Things from this list, and you will betray the purpose of education to respect the Whole Child.

Pick Three Main Things in education, and you wouldn’t even have a decent living room to sit, put up your feet and read a book.

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