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Learning Matters: Public educational reforms can sometimes lead to unintended outcomes

December 26, 2013|By Joylene Wagner | By Joylene Wagner

Most Christmas seasons since I was a child, I’ve sat down to watch “Miracle on 34th Street,” one of my all-time favorite movies. To me, it’s a story about people doing the “right” things for the “wrong” reasons: acts of generosity or kindness undertaken for profit or personal benefit.

For example, the human resources director of Macy’s (played by Maureen O’Hara) hires the kindly Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwynn) — without looking closely at his job application — to replace the Santa who’s falling-down drunk on the Thanksgiving Day Parade float.

An attorney offers to let Kringle stay in his apartment primarily to improve his own chances of becoming better acquainted with the Maureen O’Hara character. Mr. Macy decides to replicate Kris Kringle’s customer-first approach (like sending customers to rival stores) when he sees its positive impact on Macy’s image and sales.

The judge who presides over Kringle’s sanity trial is motivated by his own desire for reelection. Throughout the movie, generous-seeming behaviors prevail among some of the most self-interested characters.

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Public education reforms occasionally seem to work in the opposite way, with good intentions resulting in unintended or even peculiar outcomes. Two reforms come to mind.

One is the gradual demise in many districts of electives such as metal shop and wood shop. As educators rightly began attending more closely to the needs of academically struggling students, they noticed that many electives had become credit-recovery programs for students not considered “college bound.”

Those classes, though often popular among students, were not seen as helping them succeed academically in a global economy that increasingly requires higher levels of academic proficiency. Counselors began scheduling students into double doses of English or math, and “vocational education” electives began to disappear from master schedules. Machines and equipment were scrapped and classrooms repurposed.

Now, as academics and industry representatives alike see the benefit of preparing all students for college and career, schools are trying to rebuild school-to-career classes that link to the core curriculum.

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