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Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

School Redesign vs. School Reform

Reform: To return to a good state.

Redesign: A plan for making changes to the structure and functions of a system so as to better serve the purpose of the original design, or to serve purposes different from those set forth in the original design.

I look at the reform movement in education and see a form of insanity that boggles the mind.  It is as if the past education structure was good and all we need to do is bring it back to its previous glory by adding more time on task, core standards, professional learning communities, small learning communities, measure math and reading, measure more math and reading, phonics, whole language, tracking, social promotion, class size, blended learning, standards, merit pay, site based management….  I could go on an on and write a book about each of these reforms, in fact many books by respected people have done just that. Yet all of these reforms neglect the concept that the existing structure is by its very nature designed incorrectly for the development of a 21st century learner and economy.

I have come to the conclusion that the word reform is a bad word.  When I think of reform of schooling I think of reform school.  When I think of reform school my mind drifts to the word prison or jail: a place of containment to serve time.  This was fine when we were educating youth to assume factory jobs in a burgeoning industrial economy of mindless repetition.

Here is the problem; the world has changed.  Our form of schooling has not.  We still process students in batches expecting all students to emerge at 17 or 18.  But now the factory no longer is accepting applications, so what do we do?  We expect all graduates to go to college.  Yet according to a recent Harvard Study, “only 4 out of 10 graduates earn an associate or bachelors degree by their mid twenties.” (See Pathways to Prosperity).

Is the current design of our schools training our young people to assume a successful track towards a life of hope and prosperity? Or are we setting the vast majority of our youth up for failure? It is time to stop tinkering around the edges of our school system and consider for a moment a fundamental shift on how schools need to be redesigned not reformed to promote a different set of ends.  If I was to ask a diverse group of people in our communities what they wanted their children to graduate from school with, I can guarantee the list work look much like this[1]:


1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills

2. Effective Oral and Written Communication

3. Leadership Skills

4. Curiosity and Imagination

5. Ability to handle Change

6. Initiative and Entrepreneurship

7. Accessing and Analyzing Information

With these skills graduates will have the tools to create their own future as opposed to relying on an outside source for their well-being. If the end goals for an educated person are these seven skills then how do we operationalize this vision?  In other words, can you design a school that promotes and prepares students in these areas?  If you were given a magic wand, how would you redesign schools?

Lets start with the foundation of what healthy development and learning looks like.  Emerging from the womb, all humans are incredibly dependant on caregivers for everything they need.  As a child grows they begin to take on tasks that were once done by their caregiver.  If you have a small toddler, the conflict arises when the child wants to take on tasks that the caregiver thinks they are not ready for.  Life becomes a constant pull between dependence and independence. In most societies it is the expectation that as a child grows older they will reach a point where they will be responsible for most of their decisions they make and how they organize their lives.

What is odd about this concept is how it is played out in formalized schooling.  I would argue that Kindergarteners have more autonomy and choice about what they do in a day, than the High School Senior.  Developmentally this is at odds with what we should be promoting.  Better teaching won’t solve this problem, more money won’t solve this problem, nor will better facilities.

What will solve the problem is a close examination of the role of the learner in this system.  Currently the student is considered a consumer/product.  Schools provide content and time for students to process delivered lessons.  They are then tested on the knowledge retained and moved to the next level, much like the processing of a manufactured good.  The teacher and school are the tools for delivery of the product.  This type of system is de-humanizing for the student and the teacher, and results in bored for both.

Small children have a sense of wonder before they have been placed in school.  I have a four year-old and she is constantly asking very deep and thoughtful questions (she also asks very whimsical ones).  Her curiosity is rich and varied and she is passionate about learning new things and mastering skills in her own time.  Sometimes this causes great frustration on my part especially when we need to be somewhere on time.

Why do I bring this up?  Currently, schools are designed for students to answer the questions posed by the professionals.  There is very little opportunity for students to ask their own questions.  In fact I would argue that students who ask too many questions in class are often considered disruptive or inconvenient to a teacher’s lesson plan.  It doesn’t take long for students who ask too many questions to be put in their place.

So if the current system requires conformity and compliance; yet we know that humans need autonomy, mastery and purpose to be motivated, will reforming elements of the system really achieve the desired result? Or does the entire system need to be re-designed?

Schools that honor the developmental needs of kids and “the schools our kids deserve”[2] contain many if not all of the following elements:

  • Project Based
  • Individualized Learning Plans
  • Heavy dose of practical field studies
  • 1:15 student to teacher ratio
  • Emphasis on reading and literacy.
  • Presentations
  • Community Involvement
  • Caring Adults
  • Real choice for students on what they learn
  • Facilities that promote collaboration
  • Technology to promote higher order thinking skills
  • Advisories
  • Expectation that service, college and work are complete before graduation.

Can we really have a school with these design elements? The answer is yes, I happen to be the director of such a public school in Minnesota.  More on our school can be learned from an interview I gave for EdReformer.  Currently I am working with a group of parents to start a similar school in Northern Wisconsin.  (See Quaking Aspen Field School).  What is needed to start a school like this: courage and desire.  Aren’t you sick of kids just doing time?  I know they are!


[1] This list comes from Dr. Tony Wagner’s book: Global Achievement Gap.  In the book Dr. Wagner interviews over 400 industry leaders asking what qualities they want from their employees.  Even in highly technical fields, respondents without exception listed these skills as the most important skills for the 21st Century.

[2] I lifted this phrase from Alfie Kohn, who happened to write book by the same title.  More information on his incredible work can be found at



About Jamie Steckart

Currently the Head of Academic Affairs for the Qatar Leadership Academy. Passionate about experiential and project based learning.


9 thoughts on “School Redesign vs. School Reform

  1. Rich & thought-provoking!

    Posted by Russ | March 22, 2011, 3:10 am
  2. I want a little of both. There are great ideas from the past that we’ve lost (apprenticeship, multi-age classrooms, philosophy, the notion of school as necessary for democracy) and yet I want to see a progressive, forward-thinking redesign. I don’t think it has to be either/or.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | March 22, 2011, 12:16 pm
    • John,

      I couldn’t agree more. Apprenticeships, multi-age classrooms, and building democracy are elements of redesign not reform. Take multi-age classrooms. This redesign element could the tool to save rural school districts from having to consolidate. Pair this concept with pbl and individualized instruction and technology you could have k-6 students in one room and 7-12 students in another. This would reduce the staff load requirements that are necessary for a course driven content silo delivery of education that is the mainstay of the current structure. Apprenticeship make an assumption that adolescents are capable, can be autonomous enough to be working in the community. There would have to be a fundamental shift in our view of teens and create new systems holistically to allow more than a token amount of kids out of the building on a daily basis. I would also argue that the current system is one of the most un-democratic places we send our children. Democracy is founded on the notion that your voice is heard and you are given freedom to act on choices that do not harm others. Schools by their very design prevent this from happening, one simple way to redesign that element is by giving students choice and a voice over what they learn on a daily basis. Yet this simple change would require a drastic shift in school design. Democracy is messy, but the only way to learn how participate is to set up a structure where it is the norm not the exception.

      Posted by Jamie Steckart | March 22, 2011, 1:01 pm
  3. Jamie, I’m with you, and I agree that a re-design involves bringing in ideas from the past that have never been allowed to take root in school.

    I am often in awe of programs like NWPHS because you’ve designed a program that looks little like traditional school even though we live in a shoolified time. As Kirsten has noted and helped me see, our work is not always so much about new ideas, but about how to bring into school the best ideas we’ve had – the ones that the system has abandoned and that past reformers have taken elsewhere thanks to the intransigence of public education.

    How does the Coöp and and how do all educators concerned with re-design succeed for this generation? What does that take, can we articulate the requirements, and can we enfranchise a new professional organization that enlists and connects the allies needed to make it happen?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 23, 2011, 6:07 am
    • I do agree with all of the above. Just one question: Assume for just a moment that the students you teach a bright, fun, and as most teens are, a bit lazy. But the kids here are multi-millionaires. There is no carrot why they should study. None. They get paid every month already by their county. Good for them. Their country is taking care of its’ own people. But.. Learning is not fun for them for they prefer to eat, sleep and shop. Jamie, I am really happy that you accepted the position. We need all you have to offer….smile.

      Posted by Claudine Burger | February 11, 2012, 1:01 pm
      • Claudine,

        Thanks for reading my article. Dan Pink in Drive talks about three key components as the primary motivational factors once money is taken off the table: autonomy, mastery, purpose. If we believe this to be true and the research supports this, then with our students we have been given a gift.  We have to work on promoting and re-designing how we teach to tap into those big three. I like PBL because when done correctly it can promote all of the three at the same time.  I look forward to joining the team at QLA.  There is a lot of great energy with staff and students; I can’t wait to tap into the expertise and experiences you bring to the table. 


        Posted by Jamie Steckart | February 11, 2012, 1:36 pm
  4. Right now Senate Bill 22 is being debated in WI. It would allow for the creation of an independent charter school board to authorize charter schools. Currently local school boards have all the power as to whether a charter school is created, in WI. I sat and watched 6 hours of testimony from a live video feed. When ever the debate is carried out there tends to be a polarization of the issue. Charter vs Traditional, union vs non-union. What I don’t understand is the lack of opponents to stipulate that kids and parents should be entitled to make a choice about where they want there educational dollars to be spent. Can’t we agree that all children should be entitled to a base amount of resources. I think $10,000 would suffice. Then based on poverty, and special needs dollars can be added to help children overcome specific challenges. Lets fully fund this equally across the state. At that point allow parents to select the best choice for their family and kids. It would be in the spirit of John Holt . He called for an educational account – Holt by the way was one of the most progressive educators in America.

    If this were the case and we allowed children and families to direct their educational resources rather than elected school boards, not only would it be more democratic, but we would not need a charter vs traditional debate. What would be sustained are educational opportunities that families would sustain with not only their physical attendance but also their financial resources.

    I think we do parents a disservice when we assume that just because they are in poverty that they don’t want what is best for their children. As a former community organizer, I have found that parents in poverty can be some of the most motivated and best advocates for their children. If the process is complicated to enroll in an ed option, lets streamline it. If at-risk families can’t find the information, then let’s go to them and walk them through the process.

    I heard a lot of talk about test scores in this testimony. Our school has great scores, or our school has poor scores and this law will make them worse. Test scores correlate to one thing and one thing only: income level of the test taker. What was lacking from the dialog, and related to this post is the fundamental need for a redesign of schooling.

    @Chad, how do we succeed? We need to re-define what the end goal is for our kids. Right now it is great test scores, creating mediocre test takers. Let’s be a bit bolder: We want all our kids to be critical thinkers that can access and analyze information, collaborate with curiosity and imagination, take the initiative, communicate effectively in an ever-changing world. But the foundation underlying all these ends is a strong disposition for a hopeful future. How do you build hope, through relevance, relationships and raised engagement. See my recent post: Fostering Hope

    This requires a fundamental shift in our perception of the role of the teacher, student and educational institutions. That is why SB22 is needed. Entrenched systems are very reluctant to change, at this point in time charters provide a promising avenue for that change. Would I like the status of teachers to be raised in the US, yes! Would I like more funding, yes! Would I like poverty to be seriously addressed, yes! We can come up we many reasons not to support this bill, but one thing that can not be disputed. When parents get to choose the educational option for their child, and their child’s resources follow their kid, they report a higher satisfaction in that choice. Why are the choices of parents discounted?

    Let me suggest one solution. What would happen if students played a significant role in the evaluation of a teacher? What would happen if students were asked whether they wanted to continue the relationship with the professional that was placed in THEIR classroom? Or if the child is too young, let their parents decide. At our school, I have sat with students and conducted focus groups on our teachers. Was it nerve racking for the teachers, absolutely. We tend to forget, it is the students’ classroom, we are just visitors in their lives, and have had a mandated monopoly for so long that we never question this basic assumption. When we approach our students with this disposition that we should be earning their respect versus the other way, then the dynamic changes. Positional authority is the weakest of all of the leadership styles. SB22 levels the playing field and gives parents and students more power in an already unequal relationship. It puts teachers and schools on notice that you exist because we as parents and students support you with our presence. Charter schools through choice explicitly send the message in the school that You (Charter School Personnel) need us (Parents and Students) to exist, we don’t need you. And at the heart of the matter, I think this shift in power terrifies traditional school personnel because they have never had to justify their existence to the populations that they serve. I know that working in a charter school for 11 years this concept was a very humbling revelation, and really brought home the idea that I literally work for my students. They are my employers.

    Posted by Jamie Steckart | March 24, 2011, 12:36 am
    • I’m very conscious of how much I agree with pop reformers about the need for choice and funding that follows kids in building innovative public schools.

      I went back to some Freire after reading John’s last post. This quote, from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, has stuck with me:

      Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.

      Whether I look around my classroom, or t my community, state, or country, I have to remember to trust the kids and parents trapped in struggling schools and in a school system pursuing – in all practical, if not rhetorical, ways – the wrong ends through the wrong means. As impatient as I am for change, I am joining a coalition, a movement, a history – not forming a new one. What can I bring to it in a spirit of service and solidarity with families of learners?

      Great post & response, Jamie – thank you.

      Posted by Chad Sansing | March 24, 2011, 5:42 am

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