Education Isn't Broken, So Stop Trying to "Fix" It

Education Isn't Broken, So Stop Trying to "Fix" It

Three important reasons why the common wisdom that education is "broken" and "failing" and needs "fixing" is nonsense.

It has become common wisdom to proclaim that our educational system is "broken" and "failing" and needs "fixing," but this notion is just plain nonsense. Anyone who claims otherwise has to be able to answer these questions:

  • When did it break?
  • Who broke it?
  • Was it working just fine before that?
  • What did it look like then?
  • If it's now “failing,” when in the past was it succeeding?
  • What did that look like, and what happened to change that?

When you ask these questions, the reality becomes apparent: education has never worked fine for everyone. It has always worked for some, and not well at all for many others. The current system needs some repair work here and there, but to say that the entire education system is broken or failing and needs fixing to achieve "success" is at best misguided; at worst, it's a misleading, even pernicious lie. This is so for three important reasons:

1) It opens the door to would-be "fixers" of education who offer handy “solutions” which in reality are not solutions at all. Children's author Richard Scarry created a character who helps us understand how this works. Mr. Fixit is "fix-it" incarnate -- but as millions of children worldwide wisely know, Mr. Fixit has, shall we say, an inflated sense of his capabilities. He can fix some simple things, but his efforts usually go awry: a leaky boat that won't ever leak (or float) again, a vacuum cleaner that only works on the ceiling, or a talking doll that says "Dadda" instead of "Mamma." The results produced by would-be "fixers" of education are eerily similar, and often a lot more expensive.

2) Saying that education is broken and needs fixing belies a thoughtless lack of serious commitment. Think about what it really means to "fix" some of the items on which our daily lives depends -- automobile engines, electricity, drainpipes, gutters, air conditioning unit. What do each of these have in common? We almost never think about them - except when they need fixing. In fact, they are explicitly designed for just that purpose; they function effectively when they fulfill their promise to free us from having to think about them -- "worry-free maintenance."

Education is nothing like that. Education is defined by ongoing commitment, engagement, and dialogue, not by its ability to function so smoothly that we can disengage and forget about it. Even at its best, education never gives us worry-free maintenance. But too many would-be "fixers" treat education as if it is a puzzle to be solved and then done with. Even those would-be "fixers" who seem to be in it for the long haul seek to impose their particular form of enlightenment. Fixers fix; they don't dialogue, negotiate or assimilate.

Other types of would-be "fixers" are even worse: the ones who wish to impose solutions which create dependency, the addictive type of "fix," or the ones who want to "fix" the playing field for their permanent advantage, or the ones who want to neuter education altogether, the way we "fix" our pets. Education doesn't need these types of fixes either.

3) Third and most important, trying to "fix" a "failing" or "broken" education system diminishes its current successes and fails to appreciate the real challenge we face, which is far more serious than restoring a system to some previous levels of functioning or to reclaim some imaginary lost paradise. The challenge we face, should we actually choose to accept it, is an historic, massive, formidable, and worthy undertaking to create something which has never existed before in human history: an education system which works for everyone in a large, heterogeneous society. It involves building things which we don’t know how to build yet, and probably some things we don’t even know we need.

The best way to meet this challenge is not to seek a fix, but to seek massive improvement. This is not some clever semantic distinction. Seeking fixes oversimplifies, looks backward, and ultimately aims for disengagement. Seeking massive improvement engages and sustains; it recognizes the complexity of the situation and the awesomeness of the task; it opens possibilities and moves us forward. So don't fix education; improve it.


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