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It is now less than a month before Barack Obama’s administration takes office.  One of the items high on the administration’s agenda is making a serious effort at educational reform.  The President-elect has appointed Arne Duncan to head up this effort.  According to the Christian Science Monitor, Mr. Duncan will have a difficult task managing groups with differing view and strategies for how to accomplish reform.

The focus of the debate on education reform has centered around accountability and innovation in school administration.  The Obama team has talked about more teacher training, pay for performance and charter schools.  The success of programs would still be measured by student scores on standardized tests. But this debate still leaves the basic purpose, structure and substance of school unchallenged.

The structural model and curriculum we base our public schools on were essentially developed during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.  The model developed by Horace Mann and other reformers of this era was created for a society that was undergoing rapid industrialization; America needed a workforce with a basic, consistent education sufficient for employment in industrial firms.  Today we live in a global, knowledge based economy – driven by rapidly changing technology.  There have been many vocal advocates for change – e.g. John Taylor Gatto, recognized as New York City’s Teacher of the Year several times during the early 1990′s, who wrote Dumbing Us Down, an influential critique of the country’s creaking public education system.

But some of the most influential voices in the debate may lie outside both politics and education:

Friedman has painted a very clear picture of what the new global economy looks like and what it may means to the future hegemony of American economic power.  Each American worker now potentially faces competition from skilled labor in other parts of the world.

Dan Pink has focused on the kind of thinking that living in Friedman’s flat world requires.  In his book, he discusses what he sees as six essential aptitudes on which professional success and personal fulfillment now depend.  As he says on his website:

The era of “left brain” dominance, and the Information Age that it engendered, are giving way to a new world in which “right brain” qualities-inventiveness, empathy, meaning-predominate.

To thrive in this hyper-competitive global economy, perhaps the most important knowledge a person must have is knowledge of themselves and their own strengths; how to discover them, develop them and leverage them to the fullest extent.  Some of the pioneering work in this area for businesses, has been research conducted by the Gallup organization.  Over the years, they have performed detailed surveys of hundreds of thousands of individuals in an attempt to distill key strengths.  One of the strongest advocates of focusing on strengths in business is Marcus Buckingham.  In his book The Truth About You, he defines strengths this way:

Your strengths aren’t what you’re good at and your weaknesses aren’t what you’re bad at.” There are things that you are good at, but they drain you, even bore you. Strengths are not activities you’re necessarily good at, they’re activities that strengthen you. A strength is an activity that before you’re doing it you look forward to doing it; while you’re doing it, time goes by quickly and you can concentrate; after you’ve done it; it feels good to do it. A weakness is an activity that drains you or weakens you, even if you’re good at it.

This approach is now being applied to schools, as well as businesses, albeit with some differences in the types of strengths that are examined.  Jenifer Fox, the head of the Purnell school for girls has been a leader in the strengths movement in schools (seevideo).

Whatever struggles with education reform we may have in the coming years, we can draw strength from the wealth of new voices and innovative ideas available to apply to the task.