The Pianist – What A Young Prodigy Tells Us About The Key Challenge Facing Public Education

Customization. At its core that’s what the public education challenge is about. Customization encompasses issues that get more attention such as better academic quality, teacher effectiveness, safety, choice, and meeting parents where they are in life. But when you scratch beneath the surface with parents the frustrations they voice all come down to aspects of a “system” rather than an institution that works for whatever their child’s unique needs are. Of course, at some level, every child is unique and so universal accommodation for uniqueness is neither possible nor even desirable in education. But within the realm of the reasonable parents rightly expect more customization and schools can provide it.

So when you read a story like this one in this morning’s Washington Post about a family battling the school system over truancy rules it highlights the problem. No one is for truancy but the student profiled in the story is not spending her day on a couch watching TV. She’s a piano prodigy and travels some to play at various events. The school system is unaccommodating. Her parents can’t afford to go private in Washington’s market. (This is how private school choice advocates are created, by the way). They’re stuck.

If public schools want to be a provider of first choice rather than last resort for parents in the future their leaders have to find ways to offer parents more customization. In this case it would involve more work for teachers and some reciprocal accountability from the parents but is hardly an insurmountable challenge. And in the process they’d create an ambassador for the public schools rather than a story in the paper that leaves people shaking their heads.

More generally, the fight against allowing homeschoolers to take some classes or play sports, much of the debate about public charter schools, and the resistance to productivity enhancing reforms that can customize the in-classroom experience for students more highlight how public schools are alienating their base of support. The political price for that will be high.

Give the people what they want!

Update: DCPS responds – it’s not us, it’s the bureaucracy!  Probably should have just talked to the columnist in the first place? They’d be on stronger ground saying she didn’t “collect the facts…”

Update II: More good strategy, DCPS response triggers second column from the columnist.

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