Musings of a (New) Education Insurgent

SHIFT PARADIGM | by Mark E. Weston

The system of schooling to which I have dedicated my life seems incapable of educating all students to high levels of learning  

For the past fifty-five years, I’ve spent most of my waking hours doing education related work. First, I was a student, then subsequently a teacher, counselor, consultant, policy advisor, education department official, strategist, researcher, and author. During this time, I never once doubted the importance of students getting a good education. And never did I doubt, until recently, that our current system of schooling could eventually develop the capacity for all children—regardless of their race, gender, disability, culture, and economic status—to be educated to high levels of learning.

I had no doubts because I believed that at least one of the countless initiatives sent forth by the congress, courts, legislatures, school boards, foundation, reformers, and technology companies would move the current educational system from one that educates some students well to one that educates them all well.

For instance, when federal initiatives—No Child Left Behind, HeadStart, Title IX, and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—sought to afford all students equal access to quality educational programs I supported each initiative by helping my students work within the programs that the initiative created to get the most appropriate services.

Similarly, when the courts established precedents—Brown v. Board of Education, Mills v. Board of Education, Rose vs. Council for Better Education—for adequacy and equity of resources I helped my school districts comply and students benefit. Later, when, in the wake of A Nation at Risk, nearly every state legislature and local school board raised standards, altered governance, increased requirements for students and teachers, and put high-stakes assessments in place, I helped education leaders create, enact, and implement the reforms. Most recently, during the technological build-out of schools—nearly $200 billion spent since 1990—I diligently worked to get every child and teacher a computer to use in school.

Sadly, I now find myself in a situation where—having once believed in my heart-of-hearts that the initiatives mentioned above and others like them would tip the scales in favor of every child getting a world class education—I must accept that the gains I’d hoped for will not happen through the existing approaches. Report after report confirms that widespread educational improvement remains elusive. Despite governments enacting more laws, more challenges being made in the courts, numerous grants being made by philanthropists, and new technologies being brought to the market, education as I’ve known it has terminally flatlined.

Efforts to enhance our current system of education—costing trillions of taxpayer dollars—that once were my passion and source of hope, are now a source of concern for me. I can no longer ignore the facts. Thirty-five percent of the students who start school do not graduate on time. Moreover, of the students who do graduate on time, over 10 percent need some sort of special daily accommodation; five percent are educationally disadvantaged, often needing individualized instruction to attain grade level; and 10 percent report being under-challenged. In sum, more of the same system to which I dedicated most of my life will not solve the problem we face.

Our current educational system is impervious to much needed improvement. And an alternative system—a revolution in thought, practice, and outcome of the truest sense—is desperately needed. An educational revolution that I once dismissed as unnecessary but, given the facts, now think is mandated, vital, and inevitable. But the inevitable revolution won’t occur without rebels.

Since I’ve never been a rebel, I’m not sure what to do. For that reason I’ve been studying the rebels whose insurgency produced the United States, hoping that their stories might inform my rebellious aspirations for education.

So far, I’ve learned that when Great Britain could not meet the needs of its American colonists (much like the current education system can’t meet the needs of its students), some brave souls—Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Paine—rebelled. As they did, they envisioned, agreed upon, and eventually created an alternative to the British ruled colonies. As they worked to make that alternative reality, they spent little time trying to save the British Empire. They picked their fights carefully. They never asked to be shot or hanged for being rebels. Rather, through their writing, speaking, and idea development they quietly and deliberately laid the groundwork for a new country. They systematically sought out likeminded persons who helped fan the flames of the American Revolution. Organizations, structures, and processes were put in place to support and advance the ideals of the new country. In short, they gave voice to a revolution in ways that deliberately produced an entirely new foundation upon which the new country would rest.

Taking those lessons to heart, I hereby declare myself an education rebel who will no longer work to save the educational system for which I’ve long toiled. Further, I vow to work to create, nurture, and give voice to an educational alternative that employs proven educational practices—real and individualized differentiated instruction, real and serious engagement of parents, ubiquitous access to information for all, and consistent and relevant feedback about performance—that will produce aptitude-defying-levels of learning among all students. I will work for new paradigm schools and technological tools. I make this declaration knowing full well that being a rebel will be lots of work because lots of vested interests will work just as hard to maintain the dysfunctional status quo. Join me in this space for regular updates about the education revolution. Your comments, suggestions, feedback and constructive criticism are welcome!


Mark E. Weston is the co-author of The Learning Edge: What Technology Can Do to Educate All Children. He has served in key positions in the education, policy, and technology arenas. For more details please see his biography. Write to: Twitter: @shiftparadigm 


  1. Mark, I completely agree with you, but like you, am not really sure how to be a rebel. It seems insurmountable with all the money that’s been invested, all the current systems in place, to truly make a complete change and start with a blank slate. Like Aaryn said, we need to strip away the educational hierarchy, laws and policies and get down to truly educating. I feel the home-school and charter school ideas are trying to do that, but how do we really make that systemic throughout a much larger populations of the U.S.?

    Anyway, if you figure it out or need fellow rebels, count me in!

  2. I was never a rebel, either. I always stood for public education. I believed it would eventually work. And then I had a child and he was wholly misunderstood and underserved in kindergarten. I opted out. I guess am a rebel now too!

  3. Thank you for your strength, support, and commitment, Mark. I just reread the Declaration of Independence, and was struck by how many actions were tried with regard to making change before the Declaration was written. As you write here, many efforts have been tried in the United States too. I think one big problem is that most of these initiatives are top heavy putting all the money and power at the decision making level and much less if any real power at the working level–the level that makes a difference for children. We need more people on the ground who care and who have the voice and choice to make a difference. Also, I really don’t think most Americans believe that a system of “haves” rather than a system of “haves and have-nots” can work–I think many don’t believe that by bringing everyone up, our whole country will be stronger and better. It seems like people are afraid to support all, and are working hard to protect their own homes, families, situations rather than coming together to build a strong educational system for all. How can this happen? How can we build a better education system for all–it starts small in every community and it starts with adequate funding, good tools, dedicated, qualified educators, basic needs for children and family members, and a collective dedication and belief about what matters when it comes to teaching children well, and serving their needs with strength. I continue to have hope, but as I have written so often I work in a system of privilege–we have so much of what it takes to do a good job. It’s not perfect, and we have room for growth, but in so many ways I’d like to see what we have replicated throughout the country. The key ingredients are enough money for basic needs (and some fun too), a value for holistic education, community support and service, inviting facilities and open spaces for play, sports, and exercise, cultural events and support for the arts, and educators who are highly qualified and fairly compensated. Thanks again for spurring these ideals and efforts. I look forward to your continued work in this area.

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  5. Mark’s point of dumping dollars is well taken. His book certainly validates the need for systemic change.

    • Well stated, but what are you doing to realize this–or a similar–dream? it is not enough to criticize, you must stake your own claim to realize the dream of systemic change!

  6. So glad, Mark, to see these words and thoughts coming from you. You’ve articulated what many, including me, have been saying and feeling for quite awhile. I wonder what it was that finally tipped the scales for you?
    I look forward to re-connecting with you and moving ahead on building new models and telling new stories about the education we need…not just in the US, but worldwide. In nearly every country, there is great disquiet and struggle among those who are committed to educating youth. We will find new, and better, ways.

  7. Mark – I commend your commitment to find ways that work, programs that will ‘stick around’ and have impact. I think that one of the problems with our failing educational systems is that the “end game” is poorly defined (aka outcomes). For instance, in your message you mention that today “Thirty-five percent of the students who start school do not graduate on time. Moreover, of the students who do graduate on time” … So I ask do we have the right measures in place. i.e, ‘finish school in time’… Does everyone learn and grow at the same pace? If you don’t graduate after 13 years in school have you failed? What if you spend the first 10 years of life learning how to communicate and relate because of something (like autism) and then when you finally ‘click’ you now need 13 years? Are you a failure? Even if you have reached your own personal best? Maybe this is the child who will be the next Einstein and discover a cure to cancer or poverty? Maybe that is just their pace for growth and development? The concept of an educational system for all connotes ‘sameness = success’ . Everyone should score at or above x percentile, otherwise they are ‘at risk’. Perhaps the system doesn’t work because we are inherently trying to take a diverse group of students and fit them into pre-defined categories which penalize individuals for their individuality? The new paradigm needs to be fluid and accommodate and even celebrate diversity in learning style and strengths. Power to the pupil!

  8. Weston makes a clear distinction in this post between complaining about the status quo and hoping it changes and forging out ahead and putting a line in the sand. His four components, “real and individualized differentiated instruction, real and serious engagement of parents, ubiquitous access to information for all, and consistent and relevant feedback about performance”. are the foundations upon which successful disruptive innovations (to borrow from Christensen and Horn) have been built upon. If we strip away all the trappings of educational hierarchy, laws and policies you can see in these four elements the revolution that must occur. We have to make the systems match the needs of the learners, not make the learners need the system.

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