Ptolemaic Schools – Why Reform Won’t Work

August 3, 2011 · Posted in culture 

Until the 1500s in Europe, the Earth was believed to be fixed at the center of the universe. Planets, moons, and other celestial objects were thought to rotate around the Earth and each other in perfect spherical orbits. This terracentric world view–derived essentially from Claudius Ptolemy’s theories and calculations in the 2nd century A.D.– worked well enough to predict with reasonable accuracy the paths of the known planets and constellations across the observable skies.

But it wasn’t perfect. Ptolemy himself postulated a series of smaller epicycles–cycles within cycles– to explain orbits that weren’t behaving quite according to his model. Over time, increased understanding of mathematics and the development of accurate telescopes presented additional observable challenges to the Ptolemaic universe. These required additional sets of intricately-nested epicycles to explain how celestial objects ended up where they did. The universe was getting uncomfortably complex, requiring more and more tweaking to fit the theoretical model.

Enter Nicolaus Copernicus, who changed everything by postulating that the terracentric world view itself was the problem. The Sun, not the Earth, was he center of the universe. No more tweaks–things worked as predicted, and essentially work that way to this day, quantum mechanics notwithstanding. The Earth and the other celestial bodies hadn’t changed–it just took a re-imagining of the system in which they interacted.

We have a Ptolemaic school system. It worked for a while. There wasn’t much to know and there weren’t many ways to disseminate what we did know. Social and technological change was gradual. We had (we assumed) a homogeneous national culture. It didn’t take much tweaking to make things work they way they should. But the social context for schools changed rapidly in the 20th century and continues its rapid acceleration toward a black hole of uncertainty, to continue the astronomical metaphor.

That’s why I believe that reforming our current school system won’t work. We need to start over with a re-imagining of the entire context for schools.

The current dialog about school reform is based on the perception that our schools are not performing well, either relative to other industrialized nations or to our own historical standards. This criticism comes from both conservative and liberal factions, and the arguments from both sides are compelling. I am not one to disagree with the need for drastic school reform. We’re not producing a general populace that is either educated in the classical sense of the term or prepared for the 21st century as many current reformers claim.

But I’m afraid I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that school reform is not possible, at least in the sense that we can make any more adjustments to the system that currently exists. Jay P. Greene makes a similar point in his blog post Build New, Don’t Reform Old–“build new institutions and stop trying to fix the old ones.” Our educational system–like Ptolemy’s universe–is just too complex, with too many stakeholders having an interest in its continuation as is, for any tweaks to be effective. Since the inertial jolts of Sputnik and SCANS hit, many epicyclic tweaks have been proposed, including:

Charter schools, cyber schools, technology implementation, increased standardized testing, decreased testing, Common Core standards, local standards, raise teacher pay, merit pay, cut teacher pay and benefits, privatized education, state-sponsored prayer in schools, students segregated by gender, students bused to achieve ethnic or racial balance, increased availability of STEM and AP courses, standardized curricula and lessons, increased teacher autonomy, education vouchers, parental involvement, in loco parentis; alternative certification processes for teachers, greater state or federal control, increased local control, increased emphasis on vocational and industrial arts, standards vs grades…

Virtually every element listed above has been promoted as “the” fix for schools and all have been implemented at one level or another. And yet, nothing has provided the inertial force that will alter the velocity of our massive education system. (At least we’re providing a good demonstration of Netwon’s first law.) As Greene suggests, there are just too many people and institutions invested in our current course for meaningful change to occur. I’d add that most reform efforts come not from educators but from various political factions that are not as concerned with school reform as they are with political advantage and conflicting ideologies, further complicating an already overly-complex system.

I don’t mean to say that there aren’t pockets of effective reform out there. There are; but I suspect that most will wither and die as soon as the movers and shakers that propelled them retire or give up, or the grants that funded them run out. We always revert to the way that schools have always been, and–I have concluded–will always be.

Somehow, we need to build something entirely new, based on a re-imagining of the entire social context for schooling–why we do it, how we should do it, and what we’re willing to pay to get it done. Place that next to the current system and wait a generation or so until the old model withers away in the face of a superior, flexible system that adapts to individual and social needs. We need Copernican reform, not Ptolemaic tweaks.

Is that asking too much?


2 Responses to “Ptolemaic Schools – Why Reform Won’t Work”

  1. philhart on August 3rd, 2011 10:57 pm

    Yes, it is too much to ask while vested interests maintain that the Industrial (=Ptolemaic) model is the only valid model, i.e. the one that suits them.

  2. Skip on August 4th, 2011 6:53 am

    Of even more concern to me is the way that we change how schools work according to political ideology and not educational policy. We swing between NCLB and Race to the Top and whatever “reform o’ the day” happens to suit a political need at the time. It’s unfortunately quite true, as you mention, that vested interests hold considerable sway over our politicians, and that’s a bad proposition all around.

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