Education reform has its share of buzz words, given the slew of innovation-this, 21st century-that talk which has been keeping politicians and education reformers busy lately. Just ask Jeb Bush, who gave the keynote address at last week’s Excellence in Action 2009 Conference in Washington D.C.
The conference, “A national education summit for the country’s leading policymakers to share the latest research, lessons learned, success stories and strategy” concluded on Friday, delivering a program chock-full of presentations by international heavy-hitters in education and bite-size slogans on education reform strategies.
In his keynote address, Bush declared that “To really transform education, we need to embrace the fundamental concept that education should be custom-designed to maximize every child’s god given capacity to learn.”
If this sounds like a an impassioned plea for reform à la Inspired Teaching, think again.
Though Bush talked about keeping kids engaged, organizing curriculum around students’ individual interests, and other child-centered approaches, his speech was also full of alarming metaphors and familiar empty rhetoric.
Here is an example:
“Frankly, if Walmart can track a box of cereal from the manufacturer to the check-out line, schools should be able to track the academic growth of a student from the time they step in the classroom until they graduate.”
I cringed when I read this.
Comparing public school students to boxes of cheap cereal should give anyone who values students for the individuals they are, certain pause. That kind of language speaks volumes about the entrenched factory-model of education we are still working against. (Watch the informative video at the Schlechty Center for School Reform.) Likewise, the speech described dozens of grocery-aisle milk options, in a nonsensical attempt to introduce the idea of customized curricula. Much like a glossy breakfast cereal commercial which claims that artificially sweetened clusters in nature-defying colors can be “part of a balanced breakfast,” this speech aims to dazzle, but fails to satisfy, leaving an over-blown and flimsy impression of what education in the 21st century really means if one is to fall for the buzz-word-heavy hype.
Despite an earnest intention to advocate for a customized, creativity-fueled affirmation of education, time and again politicians can’t seem to break familiar habits of traditional top-down tactics. The tell-tale signs in such speeches belie their lofty goals and often point out an alarming, if unsurprisingly disrespectful view of both students and teachers.
It is notable that Bush mentioned teachers only in relation to technology in the classroom. In addition, the kind of digital innovation he described is a far cry from the digital divide faced by students and teachers in urban public schools today.
Inspired Teaching works from the research-based understanding that teachers are key to reforming education, from inside the classroom out. But that’s not what you hear from politicians these days and it’s not what’s being pushed on the national reform front. We need the leaders tasked with making changes to our school systems to mature beyond the catch-phrase and to develop a deep understanding of what makes education reform possible. Our doors at Inspired Teaching are open whenever they want to learn, and perhaps when they do, the keynotes at educational conferences will give us reason to applaud.