In Cleveland burbs, Lone Ranger takes on public schools

And fails. A few years ago I became an accidental education reformer, and learned that my Lone Ranger approach to change doesn't work so well. Inertia besets schools, but also individual parents. It takes a community to reform schools.

About five years ago, I had a brief stint as an education reformer. I was asked to critique a marketing brochure my school district in Cleveland Heights was using to explain to parents the new “Small Schools” initiative.

Our large, inner-ring high school was about to be broken into five small schools of about 400 kids each. Every school had its own name and educational philosophy. The “Renaissance School” promised collaborative discovery-based learning. The “Mosaic School” pitched a problem-solving based approach. And so on.

I asked teachers and administrators what parents and students needed to know in order to choose a school. Was personality and learning style the key? Were interests the most important: future engineers in this school, future novelists in that one? Turns out any kid could “thrive” in any school. All the schools taught basically the same curriculum. I was told these were philosophies, not tangible pedagogies. And besides, not every kid could choose her own school.

I proposed that they scrap the brochure and start over. They should talk instead about the real reform at hand, which was that your kid was going to be in a small school, where he would have strong personal relationships with teachers but still have exposure to all the extra-curricular and social experiences of a large, dynamic high school. Talk about the value of “small” rather than opaque educational philosophies.

They listened intently. Most of the committee agreed whole-heartedly. The final brochure was almost identical to the one I reviewed. I wasn’t thrilled but neither was I surprised. Inertia is a powerful force. And committees are experts at protecting the status quo, not just in education but in business, as well. Most importantly, I wasn’t discouraged.

Daughter seeks a single-sex high school

A few months later the board asked for proposals from the public for the last two small schools. (This was a phased approach and the original brochure only discussed the educational outlines for the first three). My daughter Zoey was struggling in her last year of middle school. She desperately wanted to go to an all-girl high school, which meant we either had to spend a fortune on private school or send her, a Jewish girl, to a local Catholic school. Interesting times.

I proposed that the last two schools be single-sex. Make one for boys, the other for girls. After all, the district was losing a lot of kids – not just my daughter – to private and parochial schools. I referenced the attrition rate and hit some of the current research on same-sex education.

Their response? Something close to this: “We can’t do that. It may not even be legal, but it’s certainly not in tune with the spirit of public education. It will never fly.”

I assured the committee that it was in fact legal and that there were over 200 same-sex public schools in the United States. They looked at me as if I had just suggested they reinstate corporal punishment. The discussion ended abruptly. Two more ill-defined small schools were created. Zoey went to Catholic school. And I turned my full attention to paying for college – again (Zoey has four older brothers and sisters).

Fast forward several years and tens of thousands of dollars. The cost of tuition has continued to climb, rising three times more than the median income over the past 20 years. Everyone agrees we need to do something to lower the cost of a four-year degree. It turns out there’s already a solution to lower the cost by 25 percent. And almost no one’s interested. Including my kids.

On to college. A three-year degree?

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, more universities are offering three-year bachelor degree programs, but almost no students are enrolling. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro enrolled five students last year – out of an enrollment of 17,500. Bates College in Maine has offered three-year degrees since the 1960s and has graduated 36 students in the past 12 years.

It’s tough to compete against summer vacation, that completely unnecessary 10-week break we’ve institutionalized as if it were written into the Constitution. We have summer vacation because we’ve always had summer vacation. Or at least since the mid 1800s when school reformers created a national compromise between urban schools that went year round and rural schools that were off in spring for planting and in fall for harvest. Colleges adopted the same compromise schedule. Not very helpful for farmers, but it caught on. And it won’t let go.

The truth is, there’s enough inertia in education to go around. Most parents blame the schools when things don’t change. But if I’m honest, I don’t really want my kids to go to school year round. I like the status quo even though in many ways it’s not defensible.

To reform schools, we first have to reform ourselves. We have to break our habits and re-examine the things we do reflexively. And we have to encourage others to do the same.

That was my big mistake with the same-sex schools proposal. I resorted to the Lone Ranger approach I almost always employ. I didn’t engage others in the community. I didn’t encourage discussion. And standing alone, my proposal died. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to change a school.

Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.

Editor's note: An earlier version misidentified the school district. It was Cleveland Heights.

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