Focusing on development

Ross Mingledorff

If good ideas fuel the Aspen Ideas Festival, then the Education Ideas Panel moderated by David Gergen on Thursday, July 5, was two-thirds empty. After listening to the education panel discussion, I gave education secretary Margaret Spelling a D-, Gov. Tommy Thompson a D+ and Bill Gates Sr. an A.Gergen began by asking each panelist why, after four decades of big reform movements, we are still not making progress in education reform. In spite of their long involvement in current and past education reform efforts, neither Spelling nor Thompson offered anything new or compelling. They are both locked in the old paradigm of education driven by curriculum, standards and assessment as exemplified in the current Federal education mandate of the No Child Left Behind Act. Gates, on the other hand, mentioned two fundamental, key ideas for enabling true education reform – one systemic, one developmental.Thompson had three ideas. First, governors need to be innovators and initiators, and legislatures need to participate in setting expectations. Second, he wants parents to have choice of schools through vouchers. Third, he advocates contracts that students sign promising they will attend school and do the work. He admitted that with each election, a new batch of governors and legislatures come into power with their own ideas of how to do things. Vouchers and contracts do nothing to address how children grow, learn and develop and what types of learning environments and experiences they need.Spelling supports standards, assessments and accountability called for in the No Child Left Behind Act she helped author. She was adamant that each state determine standards, curriculum and assessments while being accountable to the federal government. This leads to a confusing, changing mix of curriculum, standards and assessments. And it forces schools to focus on “teaching to the test” so they won’t lose federal dollars. Nothing new here. She said nothing about basing education reform on the universal principles of how children learn, grow and develop or about what types of learning environments and experiences they consequently need.Gates, with a deeper, wider, wiser vision, mentioned the socioeconomic disparities in early childhood enrichment and the systemic obstacles to progressive change because of a parochial system of school boards and conservative, powerful, turf-protecting teachers unions.By mentioning early-childhood enrichment, Gates opened the door to addressing and serving the developmental needs of children. This can lead to education based on how children of all ages learn, grow and develop and to providing them with learning environments and experiences that are appropriate to their levels of development and that accommodate their individual differences. Developmentally based education enables implementation of a curriculum with integrated subject matter and one that has continuity within and across grades. It also allows us to utilize the powerful aspects of human development that are universal to all children.These are the ideas that can lead to meaningful, enlightened, permanent education reform that is universally beneficial to all children for all time. Education based on fragmented curriculum and capricious standards and assessments as mandated in No Child Left Behind will never do it.It is the difference between basing education on the universal principles of how human beings learn, grow and develop as opposed to basing it on what children should know and be tested on as dictated by governors, legislatures and school boards that are here today and gone tomorrow.Thanks to Gates for bringing it up. Developmental education is the most powerful tool we have to efficiently prepare for and meet the portentous challenges facing us socially, politically, environmentally and technologically over the next 50 years. At future Aspen Ideas Festivals, I hope the festival’s organizers will include people capable of filling the tank of meaningful, enlightened ideas on education reform.Ross Mingledorff is a a resident of Carbondale. Editor’s note: “Soapbox” runs on each Sunday’s opinion page. This spot is a forum for valley residents to comment on local topics. If you’d like to contribute, contact Naomi Havlen at The Aspen Times at 925-3414, ext. 17624 or e-mail


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