One Size Doesn’t Fit All

This morning’s news included a report that the IPS school board had extended the contract of Superintendent Eugene White–by a 4-3 vote. Given the lockstep voting that has characterized the Board in prior years, the close vote was a notable signal that White should (but probably won’t) heed. In fact, his high-handed and arbitrary leadership style has landed IPS in hot water with our equally high-handed and people-skills-deficient State Superintendent, who evidently subscribes to the belief that privatization of school management is “the answer” to whatever ails education.

The current ego-driven arguments about who knows best how to educate all children is depressing in the extreme, so a morning discussion with Michael Durnil, Executive Director of the Simon Youth Foundation was a welcome respite.

I’ll admit that I didn’t know very much about SYF except that it existed, so I was impressed to learn that they operate 20+ alternative schools spread across several states, devoted to working with high school students at high risk of dropping out. Their success rate–in excess of 90% of their students graduate, and a significant number go on to college–is impressive.  What accounts for it? From what I was able to glean from our conversation, it is their focus on the individual needs of the students they admit. No rigid ideological framework that students must fit within, no “secret formula” that must be imposed. Just a recognition that students are people, and people are most likely to flower and achieve when they feel valued and listened to.

American political figures (and make no mistake, Superintendents these days are first and foremost political figures) are increasingly focused on the search for a magic bullet that will allow them to apply a favored approach to all students. It’s understandable, since recognizing and addressing the diversity of learning styles and personal attributes of every student requires much more work and is much more costly than “one size fits all.” But just because something is understandable doesn’t make it successful.

In the real world, one size doesn’t fit all.