Kathleen Porter-Magee, in the Fordham Foundation’s Flypaper blog, has a thoughtful post on “embracing the mess” in education.  She’s not taking about the unholy mess presently found in too many segments of the education system, but rather the “messy” nature of ed reform.  She, like many others, takes issue with Davis Guggenheim as a “naive Johnny-come-lately to ed reform” because of his assertion that “we’ve cracked the code” on education and “we know what works”, statements she believes are “at best overly simplistic and at worst incredibly damaging to the education reform movement for lots of reasons”.  She asserts instead that there is no cookie cutter, magic bullet, cure-all, panacea solution for education.

I would agree that, in making those assertions, Guggenheim is over-simplifying the issue, and the diversity among successful schools — public, private, and charter — illustrates pretty clearly Porter-Magee’s point that there’s no one right way to educate children.  Still, suggesting we don’t really know “what works” is about as misleading as saying we’ve discovered education penicillin is simplistic (not my metaphor; I wish it was, though).  Those successful schools have certain key features in common; among others, high expectations, consistent and authentic support for students and families, and accountability for students, teachers, and parents.  Porter-Magee even names a few “what works” solutions while she’s trying to cinch up her argument (my emphasis):

Of course, it’s easier to look to high-performing schools and to try to simply copy what they’ve done and assume you’ll get the same results. But by doing so, we’re losing sight of the fact that high performing schools earn their results not because they’ve adopted a particular model for curriculum, instruction, management, teacher pay, etc., but rather because those school leaders have brought together a group of smart, dedicated individuals who own their students’ achievement results and who will do whatever it takes to ensure that their students achieve at the highest levels.

Of course, she’s right that we can’t Xerox great schools and expect the same results.  I’m also inclined to agree that the single most important factor in a school’s success or lack thereof is the human element — if the adults in a school don’t get it or don’t care or just can’t teach well, no model is going to work, and we need gifted professionals.  But what makes gifted professionals, in any field, the rock stars they are?  They draw on their particular gifts to solve their particular set of problems.  It’s what Catholic schools have done and continue to do around the world.  No two Catholic schools are exactly alike, and the variance between Guadalupe Regional Middle School in Brownsville, Texas, and St. Joseph Vocational Training Center in Sudan could hardly be greater, but both are distinctively, definitively Catholic and really good at what they do.

This is no small part of what has made Catholic schools a foundation for success for so many individuals and communities.  Because they are Catholic (the Church), they share an identity and a Faith that not only unify those involved, but also give life a purpose and meaning that drives individuals –students and teachers alike — to strive for the good of others.  Because they are catholic (little “c”; universal), they welcome, serve, and see the dignity and potential of every student who comes to them, and they are flexible enough to adapt and succeed in any community while maintaining their identity as Catholic schools.  Are there any high-performing schools that aren’t endeavoring to do the same?

The one-size-fits-all solution for education doesn’t exist; that’s doesn’t mean we don’t know elements and principles that work.  Porter-Magee is spot on when she says innovative educators need to be free to adapt and combine the parts to make a whole that meets the needs they’re out to address.  I think “mess” is the wrong metaphor.  Instead, I humbly submit this one: we’re not after a one line melody in education, rather a more symphonic solution.