We asked a dozen experts what reforms they think are most necessary and promising to improve American education. We also asked them to identify the biggest obstacles to positive change.
Some folks give predictable answers (vouchers are the solution, teachers' unions are the biggest obstacles), but other comments are more interesting.
For example, John Taylor Gatto says,
People don’t learn anything the way schools teach except reflexive obedience, so their behavior can be predicted by statistical tools.
This was built into the original design. The idea was that we had to convert a nation where 75 percent of the population had independent livelihoods—and this was their dream in childhood—in order to serve a highly concentrated corporate economy in which only a few people could call the shots for everyone else...We didn’t have a country like that...we were well on our way to being the most dynamically inventive nation in the history of the planet. We had 90 percent of the patents in the world. That changed because in order to have westward expansion, we needed genuinely massive investment. There was only one place that investment could come from: Great Britain, which was an intensely class-based society, sent the senior sons of the people with the money over to make sure that our economy was slowly but systematically regulated the same way the British economy was regulated through class.
Historians with a less conspiratorial bent will argue the point differently. They say that the industrial economy needed a different type of worker, and mass education helped transition people out of agriculture.
Here is how I might have answered the symposium's questions, although I am not sure which of these to label as "biggest need for reform" or "biggest obstacle."
I think that a major structural problem that has emerged in the past thirty years is the large school district. The stranglehold that teachers unions and other status-quo defenders have on schools reflects the fact that school districts are too big for parents or other stakeholders to challenge. Large school districts favor rent-seeking over accountability.
I think that the key to school reform is to change the belief system in which government is viewed as a parent. As long as people instinctively think that government is analogous to a parent, rather than an institutional agreement among consenting adults, they are unlikely to think outside of the box of the current system.