Education reform can easily be represented as a paint-by-number system.

Some schools are well endowed and therefore free from the stifling paint-by-number system. Their subjects retain the freedom to create their paintings as they like, resulting in masterpieces of high “achievement.” These are our private schools.

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Other institutions of education have been placed in the “rigorous” paint-by-number program whether they actually needed it or not, and all will paint by number.  Some of those institutions have the resources to complete their paint-by-number program “effectively.” They have all the correct pre-determined canvas sizes, all of the correct purchased colors, all the paint brushes they need for each paint-by-number  subject and an excellent paint-by-number leader to show them exactly how to achieve the correct mandated level of painting.

This will allow them to continue to be rewarded for producing such high level, rigorous paint-by-number paintings. About 30 percent of paint-by-number schools will pass into this category from within our affluent districts.

Other institutions do not have the right number or the correct size of canvas for each subject. They do not have all of the correct purchased colors, nor have they mastered the correct paint brush strokes of previous mandated lessons.

Their paint-by-number leaders will do all they can to fill in the holes. They will attempt to mix their colors to match the proper color scheme and stretch the canvases to try and reach the “standard” size — all the while knowing ahead of time that their little paint-by-number subjects will not achieve the correct outcome desired by the paint-by-number reformers.

Obviously, not having all of the required items of success to begin with, causing their inability to reach the rigorous paint-by-number standards, is no fault of their own.  Still, they will be punished by failing to achieve the paint-by-number trophy of “proficiency.”

Their paint-by-number leaders, even though they mixed and they encouraged, never leaving any paint-by-number child behind, will not receive their “effective” rating. About 70 percent of paint-by-numberers will fail into this category. These are our districts in need.

Alas, the set up for failure system is well in play. Still, all the little paint-by-number subjects do their very best — until one day they realize they will never paint by numbers as well as those who can who have all the right materials. That’s when they give up and become unhappy, and hate paint-by-number subjects.

Their paint-by-number leaders are heartbroken for them. Still they love their paint-by-number students and would never give up on them, for they know how truly special each paint-by-number student is even if his or her paint-by-number paintings didn’t receive the pre-determined, arbitrarily set score of 3 or 4. They are pre- destined to just be a 1 or 2.

Regardless of pre-set outcome, they must still do their paint-by-number painting so that the reformers may have their “data” to prove the lack of “proficiency” and “effectiveness” and demand that more corporate-led reforms are needed for the little paint-by-number subjects – reforms that result in the need for institutions to purchase more of their products that somehow this time will produce a smaller paint-by-number “achievement gap.”

Other countries who have mastered their paint-by-number system have fared well in creating a society full of wonderful paint-by-numberers. They drill until said proficient paint-by-number  skills are achieved, leaving everything else out. Interested in the whole child they are not.

The reformers would like us to be like those high achieving paint-by-number nations. But alas, truth be told all those little master paint-by-number students have no ability to create anything original. They have no ability to add value other than their “worth” as labor.

Perhaps this paint-by-number system isn’t about education at all, but is directly related to paint-by-number labor? Follow the script, do not add context, read only the manual, do not color outside of the lines and for goodness sake don’t ever learn to create your own painting.

What is the end result of this outcome-based paint-by-number system?  Do we not end up with millions and millions of little paint-by-number paintings that all look pretty much the same?

The corporate education reformers have much to say to our policy makers, our senators and state representatives regarding this outcome-based paint-by-number system. Mostly it ensures that all the paint-by-number institutions will need to buy their canvases, paint colors and paint brushes to be successful under the paint-by-number program they created. If not, it will shut them down and, using public funds, put in their place one of their for-profit schools of “innovation” that will not serve the same percentage of paint-by-number students who have special needs or are learning English as their host cities. They do not paint by numbers as well, and therefore will not achieve on the paint-by-numbers test. These are our charter schools, Jumoke/FUSE and Achievement First, for example.

The state representatives and senators from both sides of the aisle, who I believe have run to serve well their communities and constituents, are under pressure to instill policy that listens to those who back the paint-by-number system. However, I have faith that they will come to see that this paint-by-number reform will lead their states, and in the end their country, to a place that has nothing more than a generation of excellent paint-by-numberers who will not innovate, who will not create, who will learn systematically to follow the scripted format in all that they do, just like the other nations who paint-by-numbers very well but can do little else.

Painting by number can be “rigorous,” but does it lead us anywhere?

We would be far more secure in our future by unleashing our learners’ creativity and their educators’ autonomy, for when handed a blank canvas and the freedom to imagine and create, the outcomes speak for themselves. Just look to all we have created as a nation without a “state longitudinal data system.”

Our policy makers would be very wise indeed to ensure that America continue to be the nation that creates the paintings that belong on the walls of the Guggenheim, and allow for the other nations to continue mimicking our paintings by their paint-by-number system.

Creativity and freedom is our strength. Do not allow them to be destroyed by the attack they are under in the name of corporate-led, policy purchased education reform.

Locking their data back up while unlocking their potential with resources, you will find no bounds to their true “achievement.”

I’m not saying we don’t have serious needs. We do. Those needs are rooted in funding and poverty. The answer to those barriers to achievement will not be changed by this paint-by-number system or a laptop unless you narrow the curriculum and do nothing else except teach to the test to such an extent that they eventually learn how to pass, missing everything else along the way.

Please think about this paint-by-number system of false failure and punishment. Who are truly its benefactors and who will truly suffer in exchange for their “human capital?”

To our elected leaders: what do you think will yield national achievement, little paint-by-numberers or returning to our children and their professionals in education their freedom to learn to color outside of the lines?

What has served us well from the beginning?

  1. A) Freedom and Creativity
  2. B) Mandates and Financial Coercion
  3. C) Government Rule and Intrusion
  4. D) State Sovereignty and Autonomy
  5. E) A, D
  6. F) B, C

The United States of America, all of her children, and the profession of teaching are counting on you to choose the right answer.

Jennifer Jacobsen of Fairfield is a long time educator, school and community volunteer as well as a founding member of Connecticut Unites for Student Privacy.

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