This was written by Sam Chaltain, a D.C.-based educator, strategies and book author. He was the national director of the Forum for Education & Democracy, an education advocacy organization, and the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, which helps educators create democratic learning communities. His website is

By Sam Chaltain

You know there’s a dearth of creative thinking in education when an article trumpeting cutting-edge teaching quotes somebody, without irony, saying the following:

 “Get a computer, please! Log on . . . and go to your textbook.”

 Yet that’s what The Washington Post did in this story this morning – and they’re not alone. Despite ubiquitous calls for innovation and paradigm shifts, most would-be reformers are little more than well-intentioned people perfecting our ability to succeed in a system that no longer serves our interests.

 Compounding the problem, even the best new ideas face a minefield of the same old obstacles that, left unaddressed, will lead to nothing new.

For example, there’s a growing push to make homework more passive (i.e., watching a lecture at home, something that in the past would have taken up a class period), so that the school day can become more active (i.e., venturing outside to leverage community resources, something that in the past would have required a field trip).

Yet the early-adopter schools are finding a familiar nemesis — inflexible definitions of “seat-time” and strict requirements associated with course credits that inhibit teachers from letting different kids proceed at different paces and in different ways.

They are, in short, the intractable rules of the Industrial Era, which was about standardization and scale, being applied to the flexible needs of the Democratic Era, which is about individualization and customization.

Instead of installing Smart Boards, and then using them as Blackboards, how can we think more imaginatively about the opportunities and obstacles in our field?

In the spirit of Bill Maher, I’d like to suggest three “new rules:”


1.  Name your non-negotiables — I’m not expecting everyone to agree on these, but we should at least be clear as individuals about what our efforts are designed to accomplish. For example, do you think 3rd and 8th grade reading and math scores are a sufficient metric, by themselves, for evaluating whether or not schools and teachers are successful? If so, fire away with any and every study that supports your claim. But if not, stop cherry-picking the studies that benefit your argument (i.e., “schools that add art classes show a XX% rise in achievement.”) Either these tests are a valid stand-alone metric or they aren’t. Decide what you believe, and be consistent.

2.      Begin with the end in mind — Thanks to Stephen Covey (author of books including “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” ), this mantra has been with us for a while now. Yet I rarely encounter schools or school reformers that clearly understand what they’re looking for, and why it’s different in a transformational way. If we let current policies answer this question for us, we’re back to test scores; after all, nothing else matters in an era of high-stakes accountability. But what if we seek a more balanced learning environment, and a more balanced set of skills and competencies in young people? What would we need to do in order to bring that environment about, and how would we know if we were successful?

This goes beyond merely a new organizational mission statement – although for many places that would be a good start. Instead, it gets to the core questions we as a field must grapple with: What should be the primary context for learning – the classroom, the school, or the larger community? Will our goals be evaluated by test results, by curricular goals, or by individual learner aspirations? And does the responsibility for learning rest primarily with the student, the teacher, or a learning team that includes both?

Until we ask and answer these questions, both as a field and as individuals seeking to contribute something meaningful, the structural dysfunctions of the Industrial model we’ve worked within for nearly a century will remain invisible to us, and we’ll do things like get rid of textbooks  . . . so students can read them online. Or renovate old schools  . . . without also asking what new schools should look like. Or celebrate our increased efficiency in the old system . . . rather than create a truly disruptive new set of values and models

At least one organization has clearly thought this through – check out the QED Foundation’s change model, in which they break out the primary components of a learning environment and then characterize reforms in each area as traditional, transitional, or transformational. QED has decided it will commit no less than 80% of its efforts in the transformational space. What have the rest of us decided? Have we even though our work through to this degree?

3.      Stop waiting for the planets to align –- Too many educators feel as though the current test-obsessed system has been imposed upon us. This has led too many of us to spend too much time complaining about what’s wrong, and not enough time actively amplifying what’s right. We are all complicit in the current system, and we all have a responsibility to change it for the better. So if you’re a teacher or a principal, what are you waiting for? Be more proactive in demonstrating a better way to equip young people with the skills and self-confidence they need to be successful in school and in life – and show us how you did it. Band together with others to generate your own sense of political cover if the current policy environment continues to hinder your capacity to create a balanced, healthy learning environment. And define, and then maintain fidelity to, your own non-negotiables and end-goals.


In the end, transformational change really is that simple — and that difficult.