We Could Use a Good Myth

This story is posted over at the Huffington Post. Read it here but comment over there. Also, this is not a paid gig. As I told the editors when they invited me, I barely understand politics and I'm Canadian. Yet they still asked me to write. Go figure.

Full disclosure: I'm not an American. I'm Canadian — which isn't all that significant outside of the fact that most, if not all the discussions here on The Huffington Post Education's page are often centered around all that's wrong with American education; most recently around the controversial documentary Waiting for 'Superman' and all the hoopla that ensued.

I've spent enough time reading and interacting with my colleagues to the south to know and sometimes share their deep discontent when it comes to education. The educators I know are passionate, caring people — a few of whom are writing for The Huffington Post. The issue of reform isn't exclusively a U.S. issue by any means. Yet there is a certain angst and polarizing nature to the conversation as Americans seek to figure out what their schools should look like. Well meaning, caring people can be on opposite sides of these debates. Hard to believe, but it's true.

A few years back I attended a conference in Boston where another colleague from Scotland and I were observing this discontent surfacing in nearly every conversation. I had not witnessed this first hand before and was slightly overwhelmed with the intensity of the discourse. Ewan, remarked that he felt that the U.S. needed a positive educational myth. When I asked what he meant, he told me of the Scottish myths of education. Basically, these myths promote Scottish education as highly egalitarian, democratic and among the best in the world. The origins of these myths are often hard to pinpoint, but the perpetuation of these ideas can be very useful, even as schools make decisions of both major and minor proportions. Every family had a story about someone they knew who rose from a lowly place to achieve greatness. These myths become part of the identity and reputation of an institution and buy leaders and innovators an opportunity to make change and move forward without having to justify each and every move along the way. The term myth in this case doesn't mean lie but rather reputation.

These myths build trust. We see this play out in higher education. Stanford and Harvard have built reputations of being great business schools. While I'm sure there are long-standing traditions there, I would also venture to guess that they are given a great degree of latitude when it comes to making changes. I work in a community with four high schools. One school in particular has developed a reputation of academic excellence. Teachers, administrators, parents and students all will tell you that their school is where the "bright kids" go. Working inside this district, I can tell you that if you simply looked at grades and tests, there is very little difference between these schools, and yet one school continues to gain community support and trust because of a longstanding myth. I say more power to them.

So while the challenge of building a myth for education at a national level may take decades or even centuries to establish, it might be worthwhile to consider the myths and reputations of schools and districts in your local community. Do these myths serve to empower schools or are they serving to diminish education even more? I'm not suggesting that we create facades to hide real problems, but I do wonder about enabling our schools to move beyond political pressures and the constant demands for accountability. A myth in many cases can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think we could all stand some new ones about education.

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