School reform: Change the culture!

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Nearly a month ago Tom Whitby called for educational bloggers to take back the (mostly U.S.) debate over school reform by posting reform ideas simultaneously on October 17th. Here’s my contribution to the cause.

Most problems faced by schools are not educational, but cultural. Once a positive culture of learning is in place, needed improvements can be made. On the other hand, so long as the culture—whether it’s local, regional, or national—remains toxic to education, no efforts at school reform will succeed.

How can culture be changed? For the answer, look to advertisers. They create desires and values all the time. Their techniques are not mysterious, and their success is undeniable. Let’s use the same techniques to promote education, especially in communities where it is not highly valued.

The national government could do this with an ongoing campaign of public-service advertisements. State and local governments could contribute by naming streets, bridges, and public squares after great thinkers, writers, and artists, as is done in France. School districts (with financial assistance from the feds) could do it by increasing adult education offerings, by naming schools, hallways, and other parts of school campuses after great writers, thinkers, and artists. Etc.

Such efforts would be relatively inexpensive, but if they succeed in creating a culture that values learning, their benefits would be enormous. How can we know that? Easy. Look at communities where schools are successful, and think—what do they all have in common? Answer: a culture that values learning.

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