In the depths of the Great Depression, shortly before taking office, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a speech about his approach to the economic crisis:
“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”
The brilliance of FDR the policymaker and politician was his understanding that he was facing an unprecedented crisis, that the experts wouldn’t have any magic-bullet solutions but that inaction was unacceptable. In good times, the succession of bold experiments that comprised the New Deal would have been unnecessary, even reckless. But with one-quarter of the workforce unemployed and the economic output of the country cut in half, big risks were justified.
In the discussion of education policy, we always seem to stop at the analysis of the risk and pace of change and never seem to get to what level of risk is warranted based on the severity of the problem.
Take the current controversy about implementation of Common Core State Standards. When the National Governors Association launched the initiative in 2009, there was broad agreement on the nature and urgency of the problem from across the political spectrum, and from those inside and outside K-12 education. The world had changed, and business leaders, universities and K-12 educators were motivated by the shared recognition of a crisis: students were not graduating from high school ready for college or the workplace. One of their proposed solutions: new, voluntary academic standards for K-12, based on what students’ future employers and professors identified as the skills and knowledge critical to long-term success.
Now that the new standards are being implemented, however, the consensus is collapsing. Some conservatives portray CCSS as a big government takeover. Some liberals rail against the new assessments that are coming online and the accountability that comes with them. And many district officials worry that implementation of the new standards along with new initiatives on education evaluation is too burdensome.
Ideological objections aside, questions about the burden on educators are totally legitimate. No one denies that CCSS represent a seismic shift in not only what content our students have to master, but also in how it will be taught. To be successful, implementation of CCSS will require new, high-quality curricular materials and assessments, training of principals, administrators and teachers, and clear explanations to parents and other stakeholders.
And, yes, let’s face it, just as in the New Deal, it will take some trial and error. Not everything will go well in every state, district, school or classroom. Not all educators will get thorough, ongoing support. Not every question on every assessment will be designed well, the administration of the new tests will go wrong in some places, and some kids will have more than the usual anxiety the night before state exams.
Perfection is not only impossible, it’s the wrong standard. Whenever anyone does anything, especially on a grand scale, there are bound to be hits and misses. To quote FDR again:
“We shall strive for perfection. We shall not achieve it immediately—but we still shall strive. We may make mistakes—but they must never be mistakes which result from faintness of heart or abandonment of moral principle.”
The inevitability of imperfection often inspires folks to go slow. And if we were succeeding with 98% of our kids, I’d be the first to say “Whoa—let’s slow down. Let’s implement math first, then English; let’s implement one grade each year; let’s not hold any of the adults accountable for the results.” But we’re not succeeding with 98% of our kids. Not even close.
In K-12 education, we are in the equivalent of a Great Depression. Nearly two-thirds of our high school seniors aren’t prepared to pass freshman English and math in college. In lots of districts, the college readiness rate is in the single digits. The kids who aren’t getting out of high school with college-level skills face grim prospects as to earning power, teen pregnancy and even lifespan.
This is not a simplistic argument that because “kids can’t wait” there is never a justification for delay. But we should always balance the risk of moving ahead with the urgent need for change. In the words of FDR, we need bold, persistent experimentation in K-12 education. The debate should never be about the need for dramatic change, but about how quickly we can launch it.