Start off by leaving politics out of it.
This has been my endless rant since the beginning of time; inserting politics into the debate over education squeezes out what really matters in the whole shebang: the student. An article in Open Salon this morning agrees with me, parsing the political into two opposing camps: privatizers, like Bill Gates, who is, scarily, focusing research on practices which solely improve test scores, and anti-privatizers, like Diane Ravitch, who has given up on discussing what actually happens in schools and classrooms to rail against privatization in any form.
They are both wrong. Hideously, dangerously, disastrously wrong.
Education is not dealing with numbers and production. Education is dealing with human beings: live, changing, frivolous, infuriating, challenging, wonderful, crazy, complex humans beings (parents, students and teachers alike). There is no one approach that helps everyone.
Picture this: a ten-year-old with dyslexia and dysgraphia who also happens to have an IQ of 172 (this is a real example from a parent I spoke with recently. This child exists, and I have taught several just like him in my career). Put in a test-heavy environment, this child would fail miserably and be labeled as learning disabled. His gifts would languish. Place him in the environment Diane Ravitch is extolling right now (which is what, exactly? Preserved teachers unions and public schools intact is all she talks about lately), and the same would happen.
There is too much ego in education; too many people "know" the one right answer and are unwilling to compromise and meet in the middle. Sound familiar? It mirrors the American political landscape for the past ten years.
We have lost our way; we no longer consider what is best for each child, and the only thing we can agree on is that public schools are threatened - not even "broken" in the case of Ravitch anymore, who is unbelievably annoying in her single-minded ranting against privatization. She seeks to preserve teachers' unions at all costs and in every situation. I have benefited from a union in the past and agree that they do offer protection and respect for a profession that is increasingly under fire, but Ravitch continually fails to recognize or address those situations in which a union has failed egregiously (New Yor's rubber rooms, anyone?). Likewise Gates, who would not recognize a poorly-performing, money-grubbing charter if it hit him in the face, and his laser focus on test scores reflect his pragmatic programmer's background, not an understanding of how people learn (Gates himself is a college dropout who is believed to have Asperger's which does explain the laser focus at least).
If we want to do well by students then we need to acknowledge their individual natures and complex needs; we need to address the vagaries of life outside the classroom as well as the challenges within, for all parties. Public schools will never be all things to all people; there is no institution that can function that way. If we want to truly reform education, though, we need to start by refining the mission and vision of public schools away from the factory education model toward a more flexible, sustainable, successful practice that understands what is needed to support students, teachers and parents in the 21st century and beyond. Society has changed, and our schools do not reflect that change.
To properly reform a school, remove the politics and revise the mission/vision. Once those things happens, the rest of the necessary reforms will become clear and make sense. Until that happens, any changes made are like a Band-aid on a sucking chest wound: futile, ineffective and pointless.