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Professional Opinion

There is no silver bullet for education reform

It’s a mistake to assume that all schools face the same challenges
Patrick J. Kearney is a veteran teacher and an advocate for public education. He currently serves as the facilitator for teacher leadership in Johnston Community Schools in Iowa.
Patrick J. Kearney is a veteran teacher and an advocate for public education. He currently serves as the facilitator for teacher leadership in Johnston Community Schools in Iowa.

Public educators find themselves in something of a Catch-22 situation these days.

When we celebrate the great things that are going on in our schools, we are told that we are simply slaves to the status quo who don’t recognize the struggles that our system is facing.

When we articulate the challenges that our schools face, there are those who are quick to jump on us for making excuses or to fault us for not abandoning our current system entirely.

Everyone has an opinion on how to make our schools better and everyone thinks change should happen faster than it does. Those who claim to be education reformers would have you believe that there is a magic silver bullet that will transform our schools and instantly improve student achievement.

The truth is there is no silver bullet. The honest and complex truth is that there are incredible things happening in every school in the country and there are massive challenges being faced by every school as well.

Shades of grey

When I began in this profession there were many things I was sure of, and I saw the world of education in terms of right and wrong, and black and white.

Experience has taught me that the answers to most of our issues in education are found in shades of grey.

Yet, upon reflection, there are three things that I know for sure:

Schools are not a business

There is no doubt that education has become big business, but our schools are not businesses meant to turn out a “one size fits all” product.

In his oft-reprinted article, “The Blueberry Story: The teacher gives the businessman a lesson,” businessman and consultant Jamie Vollmer shares his realization that schools do not operate under the same principles as a for-profit business, nor should they.

There are some notable billionaires who seem to feel that by simply creating competition for public schools, that learning will improve.

It just doesn’t work that way. If students came to our schools as standard-issue, cookie-cutter models for us to fill with knowledge, it might work, but that’s not how it is.

Students come to our schools in all types of conditions. The greatness of our public schools is that we embrace all of them. Our challenge is to serve all of them equitably and to be ready to offer unique opportunities to each of them.

I challenge those who believe our schools are overfunded to go into their local school and pick which programs to eliminate.

Are we doing too much for our special education students? Are we providing too much technology? Are there too many opportunities for students to make music or create art? Are there too many advanced courses for our brightest young people?

If what our communities desire is for schools to produce students who are straight off the manufacturing line, that would be easy to do, and it could be done cheaply.

Our communities want schools to graduate students who are creative, critical thinkers, able to communicate effectively, and know how to collaborate.

Forcing schools to compete to get better test scores might work, but that isn't what schools should be about.

Our public schools should be engaging students to prepare them for a rapidly changing 21st century.

Schools don’t have to look the same

The problem with the belief that there is a silver bullet to improve our schools is that it assumes that all schools face the same challenges and that our communities all agree on what our schools should look like. Educators are as guilty of this as legislators are.

Educators look at the schools we consider great and assume that if we take on their structure, our schools will immediately show the same results; it doesn't work like that. Our most successful schools are products of communities where the needs of the learners are the driving force for improvement.

The needs of learners in every school are unique and for that reason it is important that every school is unique.

We are trapped by the notion that there is a “best” way to do this thing we call school. There is no “best”—great schools are about responding to the unique needs of every learner. No one knows these needs better than our communities and our teachers, which leads me to my third truth.

We must trust teachers

It baffles me that there are those who push the narrative that we teachers are only out to protect our own self-interest. If there are a pool of educators somewhere who are becoming wealthy by putting in 60-hour weeks doing the hard work of teaching young people, I’m eager to join them.

The reality is that teachers do this work because we are called to it, and while we are called to it, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require incredible skill to do it right.

Ultimately the work of making our schools great lies in the hands of the teachers in each and every classroom.

We can argue about how to convince our best young people to consider becoming teachers, but we can’t argue that there has to be a great teacher in every classroom in order for our schools to be the best they can be.

There is no silver bullet, but there are truths that we must face. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. …Procrastination is still the thief of time. We must move past indecision to action.”

We must empower those on the front lines to take action to do right by our young people.


Patrick J. Kearney is a veteran teacher and an advocate for public education. He currently serves as the facilitator for teacher leadership in Johnston Community Schools in Iowa. A version of this article appeared in The Huffington Post.