Pop quiz:

American education is:

  1. Irreparably dysfunctional and needs to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up;
  2. Dysfunctional but capable of reform;
  3. Both (A) and (B)

The answer is C, according to The Education We Need for a Future We Can't Predict (Corwin, 2021), by Teachers College’s Thomas Hatch, with Jordan Corson (Ph.D. ’20, M.A. ’13) and Sarah Gerth van den Berg (M.Ed. ’20).

Searching for models that could inspire transformation or reform of American schools, the authors compare high-performing education systems in the United States with schools in Norway, Finland, Singapore, South Africa, Pakistan and Liberia. None of these systems is perfect, write Hatch, Professor of Education and Co-Director of TC’s National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools and Teaching (NCREST); Corson, a TC graduate and assistant professor at Stockton University; and Gerth van den Berg, a current TC doctoral candidate. But all suggest ways that the United States can create more equitable and effective schooling.   

Spoiler alert: it won’t be easy. Educators and education stakeholders will need to dig deep for answers, whether they’re looking to transform or reform. 

“In order for educational systems to change, we must reevaluate deep-seated beliefs about learning, teaching, schooling, and race that perpetuate inequitable opportunities and outcomes,” the authors write.

The book examines the core principles, beliefs and conditions that, in any setting, prevent or hamper fundamental change. Perhaps its key takeaway is that reform and transformation are not only both possible, but also both necessary and interdependent.

It’s about trying to help people to understand that we can’t afford either to merely improve the schools we have or simply blow up the system. We actually have to do both and embrace that contradiction.

—Thomas Hatch, Professor of Education

Addressing that apparent paradox is about “trying to balance optimism and despair,” says Hatch. “It’s about trying to help people to understand that we can’t afford either to merely improve the schools we have or simply blow up the system. We actually have to do both and embrace that contradiction.”

Large-scale changes in education policy can be too large, the authors warn, particularly because so often they are implemented on communities rather than with community members’ buy-in (think: the federal No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top programs). Then, too, “those who seek to improve educational outcomes have to confront the fundamental reality that the more radical their approaches are, the more difficult it will be for those approaches to take hold and to spread across many schools and communities,” the authors write.

Yet change can be too small if it fails to recognize the myriad cultural, economic, political and social factors, inside and outside of classrooms, that perpetuate or combat inequity.

Each of the book’s six parts asks and answers a key question about education.

Is there anyone except those in the very elite—and even some of those people—who think schools shouldn’t change?

—from The Education We Need for a Future We Can't Predict

The first, “Why should schools change?” is answered with another question:  Given the widespread inequity in access to quality education, “is there anyone except those in the very elite — and even some of those people — who think schools shouldn’t change?” It’s not enough to simply make the inequities highly visible, they suggest. What is required is a reversal of power of rich over poor that makes it impossible to give each child the “specific educational supports they need.” 

Part 2 asks, “Why don’t schools change?” The answers lie in what the scholars David Tyack and Larry Cuban call “the grammar of schooling” — the web of conservative forces that help maintain conventional learning environments, such as “egg crate” buildings that separate students into different grades, classrooms where individual teachers do most of the talking, the study of standardized subjects like the “national language” and mathematics, and outcomes measured primarily by grades and test scores.

Designed a century ago to meet the needs of an industrializing economy, the “grammar of schooling” has failed to keep pace with advances in understanding of child development and human learning, note Hatch, Corson and Gerth van den Berg. Even so-called “reform” efforts today, because they are largely shaped by the “same policy elites who have always been in charge (overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy)” are not designed to challenge systemic racism and racist beliefs about children, the authors assert.

Many small-scale alternative schools and programs do succeed, but they often fail when they challenge the “grammar of schooling” on a larger scale. “It’s an invisible force that always pushes back,” the authors write.

Schools can and do change, albeit slowly, and the changes work for some students. But as reform policies and initiatives become more broadscale, their success is jeopardized by greater pressure to show quick success and accommodate increasingly complex societal, economic and educational needs.

And yet, as often as education policymakers have made these mistakes, they have not learned from them. They continue to enact policies that are too big and too expensive, and promise sweeping changes across schools and communities that disregard local needs and conditions. Like the Race to the Top program launched during the Obama administration, which among other things tied federal funding of state and local school systems to student achievement and teacher performance measures, they fail.

Part 3 of The Education We Need considers these large-scale failures and asks, “How can schools improve”? The authors chronicle educational efforts in settings from Pakistan and South Africa to Texas and New York City that have succeeded in making “concrete, incremental improvements” on a local scale, by reflecting a “keen sense of what matters to people” derived from a “careful analysis of multiple problems and continuous reflection on the process of addressing them.”

Importantly, this attention to local needs and assets can lead to the “quick wins” that can help build local support and “propel organizational and social changes in many sectors.” 

Part 4, “How can education change?”, suggests that, in order to succeed, policies aimed at changing the status quo need to address “high-leverage problems” — those that really matter for students’ lives and affect their educational opportunities and long-term learning — with “micro-innovations” that fit the values and trends of the school and community in which they are being implemented. Small changes will never produce fundamental, large-scale change, but they can demonstrate the possibility that learning experiences can be transformed in “niches, rather than across entire school systems” from which “powerful learning experiences can take root.”

“What does it take to change school systems?” the authors ask in Part 5. Their answers, drawn from examples of substantial research on schools in Finland, Singapore and Norway, include investing in teacher development, with costs paid largely by the government; putting high-quality materials in well-equipped schools; and using “a small set of high-quality curricula and assessments.” It also requires staying alert to opportunities to exploit major shifts in other aspects of society.

And speaking of major shifts: the manuscript of The Education We Need was nearly complete when schools began shutting down in March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On lock-down at home in the summer of 2020, Hatch wrote a preface to the book and updated the book’s concluding section to address the question: Has the pandemic’s disruption of most aspects of society provided opportunities to truly transform education?

On the down side, Hatch writes, the pandemic has exposed and widened already deep divisions between haves and have-nots in American schools and around the world. Learning disruptions tied to remote instruction over the past 14 months have taken a larger toll on low-income and students of color, who have less access than wealthier peers to learning technology and whose communities have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19.

By listening for and addressing key concerns in their own communities, educators can create the foundation for the social movements that can shift our perspectives on learning, schools, and education altogether.

—from The Education We Need for a Future We Can't Predict

Yet, extraordinary turmoil in education “made visible the fact that many communities already have the capacity to address at least some of these inequities.” Many educators, parents and students have taken extraordinary and innovative steps to try to keep students engaged in learning. Educators were forced to admit that learning could, and does, take place outside of schools. Those efforts, combined with regular reminders of racial inequities in American society at large, could create the conditions — or zeitgeist, as the book calls it — needed to make meaningful, durable change.

Transformation — even reform — is not guaranteed, and it will not take the form of one silver-bullet program or innovation. But “by listening for and addressing key concerns in their own communities, educators can create the foundation for the social movements that can shift our perspectives on learning, schools, and education altogether.” It will require, Hatch writes, a “paradoxical mix of confidence and humility.”