Robert E. Simon Jr.,  the founder of Reston, Va., who recently passed away at the age of 101, was also very interested in public education and spent the last years of his life pursuing holistic reform efforts. In 2014, he had a conversation about education reform with William Berkson, a philosopher and authors whose writings include “Learning from Error: Karl Popper’s Psychology of Larning” (Open Court), “Pirke Avot: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life” and a book in progress on how to thrive in a competitive world which will include a chapter on education.  Here is the conversation. (Berkson thanks Patricia Hersch, author of a forthcoming biography of Robert Simon, for her help.)

By William Berkson

Many people have the fantasy of changing the world, but very few do. Robert E. Simon, Jr., who died today at 101, was one of them. After owning and managing Carnegie Hall for 25 years, he sold it to New York City, and with the proceeds created a uniquely transformative kind of planned community outside Washington DC: Reston, Virginia—the name uses Simon’s initials. Its innovative features have since been imitated around the world. What has not been known is that he devoted his last years applying to education reform the same distinctive “whole system” thinking that created the successful and influential new town. His is a philosophy of educational goals with immediate practical consequences—ones at odds with many current corporate education reformers. I had a chance to speak with him last year, shortly after his 100th birthday.

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Q) How did you get interested in education reform?

A) Developing early childhood education right along with our school programs was part of Reston’s beginnings, so I have always been involved with the schools. But issues over the last decade have me really steamed.

Q) What do you think has gone wrong?

A) No Child Left Behind from President Bush and Race to the Top from President Obama are both one-size-fits-all solutions. But it’s a critical fact that students have a huge diversity of talents and interests. Education must address the needs of the individual student, not groups. All policies which try to fit one size to everybody will fail for many students, no matter what single size you pick. The purpose of our education system should not be fitting all students into a common mold, but, to the extent possible, molding each student’s education to his inherent capability and interests.

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Q) Well put. Actually, I have been long advocating that we should have more diverse goals and programs after age 15. But I have found that as soon as you start to talk about tailoring education to individual talents, you face people who accuse you of unfairly “tracking” students, of locking them into an inferior status. They will say you are being defeatist about achieving excellence for all.

A)  Not true. This is about each person achieving their own personal excellence. Those folks who insist that everyone must rise to college level are labeling every student who doesn’t achieve it as a failure. And then the education system is failing to serve all these students.

Q) That’s interesting. You’re saying that the push for equal results, instead of opportunities, is just elitism masquerading as egalitarianism. I know that here in Reston, thanks to you, we have housing for all income levels, including subsidized housing. That is public policy valuing and honoring people at every income level—not a false pretense that everyone is the same.

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A) Yes, and originally Reston had diverse income levels within the same town house block; furthermore, we had racially integrated housing and schools for the very first settlers, and that was just a few years after Virginia’s “massive resistance” to school integration. And fifty years later we are still among the most diverse communities.

Q) The challenge of tailoring the system to the individual is: How do you design the school system to effectively serve individuals with very diverse talents, skill levels and interests?

A) You have to break from focusing only on the process of education, as reformers do now, and look at the goals: where each student should be on graduation day.

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Q) Oh, do you have seven guiding goals for the school system, as you did for Reston’s development?

A) No, I have just two, but neglecting those two is why our education system is not doing better by our students and our country. The first goal is self-awareness: the high school senior should have a pretty good notion of her or his preferences and potential capabilities. This can be fostered in school by having provided every high school senior with enough experiences, accumulated in and out of the classroom over all the school years so as to make it possible for him to plan his or her next steps intelligently. To achieve this result students should be exposed to as broad a variety of subject matter as practicable, from humanities to sciences, from crafts and arts to sports. Schools can lead graduates to realistic planning for their future if there is sufficient variety of educational experiences.

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Q) Okay, I love your idea that helping students find themselves should be a central goal of schooling. My old professor Karl Popper always said that in designing social institutions, you have to look to the incentives that people in the system will have. If the incentives don’t align with the purpose of the institution, nothing will work as intended. I believe student motivation is the big thing neglected in current reform thinking, and why it has failed.

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 The beauty of your proposal is that it aligns perfectly with current research on motivation. The most powerful motivation comes from autonomy, mastery, and purpose, as Daniel Pink summarizes it in his book Drive. If you have chosen a life goal that you find meaningful, and are gaining a sense of mastery progressing toward it, there is nothing more powerful to get you to do sustained effort over the long term. The opportunities to search for and find such life goals is what will inspire in all students the passion to work hard on their studies.

 Your perspective also implies that high stakes testing can be very counter-productive. Students need to be protected as much as practicable from high penalties for failure; only then will they feel free to try every subject area, to succeed and fail, and to find out what they can develop best at and what they love.

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Are you also suggesting that children should choose their own curriculum as they do in some radical schools like Sudbury Valley?

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A) No, I think that’s like having a restaurant without a menu; children know very little about education or about the world. They need to be led, exposed to the wide range of subjects for learning. This is where a curriculum is required.

The curriculum also needs to serve my second goal: education for citizenship. The full curriculum should by all means include a solid grounding in the “three R’s,” but must also provide rich experiences in the humanities—including the arts—to prepare them for citizenship and for a fulfilling life. After such experiences in elementary school, the students should continue with diverse subjects in secondary school, including a wide variety of choice among electives, so they can start developing along the life path that they are discovering best suits their interests and talents.

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Q) Your call for a rich variety in the curriculum, few high-stakes tests, and more diverse programs in secondary schooling would require significant new investment in the schools. It is also very different from what a lot of school reformers have been advocating. The private schools they usually choose for their own children, though, look a lot like what you are advocating! To me that is confirmation you are on the right track.  

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A) By educating the individual student so as to achieve the self-awareness whereby he or she is prepared for the next steps as continuing student or potential member of the workforce, along with being educated as a citizen in a democracy, the educational system will have served its students and the country well. The most important thing is that each student will graduate with a sense of satisfaction that he or she has become the best of who they are.

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