Public Education: Start Again

If you could start from zero, what would public education look like?

Current Problem

Let’s for a moment assess the current state of Public Education. The majority of schools work on an annual calendar that was driven by the needs of an agrarian society. The curriculum still largely reflects the needs of the industrial age. The dependence on buildings and multiple layers of management make it hugely expensive per pupil and remarkably inflexible to accommodate the rapid pace of change in the Information Age. As with most things whose quality directly reflects the budget, there is vast inequality across the US and around the world.

But perhaps the most important drawback is the perception such a system perpetrates—that education starts around age 5 (2 years and 9 months for those ‘fortunate enough’ to have parents—or live in communities—able to afford preschool) and ends for some at age 18, others in their early 20’s. The impact of this goes far beyond the propensity of most adults to not read for education, much less recreation. Even more troubling is that parents perceive the responsibility of educating their children to belong to someone else. The affects of this are far-reaching and may be the source of many of societal ills that seem totally unrelated.

Let us start with a few of the more deleterious impacts and add more in discussion:

1) Parent Guilt. Teachers and administrators often see parent involvement in the classroom as an interruption, giving strong hints—if not clear direction—to drop off their child and be there to pick them up on time, but leave the task of making them citizens of the world to the professionals. To some of the more selfish or self-centered, this is fine, leaving more time for their important careers or pastimes. But for those who willingly took on the obligation of child rearing with the birth of their children, they are forced to accumulate daily installments of guilt that they were not able to be there as their child learned to read their first words, became aware of a second language, overcame fear and stood before their class to recite a poem, etc. The result after years of this is parenting behavior often meant in love, but instead resulting in weakening their children. They shower them with gifts, or don’t hold them responsible for chores, often have a hard time disciplining their children, even write their college essays for them.

2) Blame Game. Another unintended consequence of such a system is the budget battles that put the welfare of students and the fate of teachers early in their careers, school nurses, arts instructors, and many others in great uncertainty every year as dwindling tax revenues meet rising costs in meeting rooms and city council chambers everywhere. The extent and quality of public education in small towns and large cities has become dependent on the negotiating skill of superintendents and school boards. This pits the immediacy of next year’s infrastructure against the future of the town, the nation, the world. No one group truly wins in such a scenario.

What other issues are caused by the current public education model?

10 Responses to “Current Problem”

  1. srdill said

    3) Inconsistent Results. One of the indicators of a system that is not efficient, not dependable, not fully optimized, or simply not working is inconsistency in the results of the system. Clearly, the results of the public education system are dependent on so many variables that it would be unfair to use this as the one reason to justify dismantling it. However, it is a major red flag that must drive us on to search for a better way. As so eloquently stated by Professor David Hall of Northeastern University at a 2008 celebration of Martin Luther King Day:

    “So you may feel like this discussion of a King’s dream and a nation’s nightmare is a nice historical journey that has no relevance to you or to the town of Sharon today. There are no signs of segregation in this town, no Bull Connor, no Klu Klux Klan marching. So if there are no nightmares then what is the relevance of Dr. King’s dream, you may ask.

    But I submit to you that if there are children in this state and in this nation who are not living up to their full potential, are not performing adequately in school, and if the cause of this failure has anything at all to do with the circumstances of their birth and not the depth of their character or commitment, then educational nightmares still exist. If crime, drugs and video games are capturing more of our children’s attentions and creativity than education excellence, then we are still allowing nightmares to exist. Some argue that education is the new civil rights movement. For if children of color are left behind as we aim for and achieve educational excellence in this age of technological sophistication, then we have created two Americas. We must do all we can to ensure that all children are reaching their full potential. This is not just a challenge for teachers; this is a challenge for an entire city, state, and nation. When parents don’t create high expectations for our children, but pacify them with false pride and material things, then we are just setting them up to experience the nightmares of failure and underachievement in the future.”

    This struck me: Education is the new civil rights movement. I can only hope that we will gain more support sooner than the civil rights movement did. My thanks for professor Hall’s permission to excerpt his words.

    The complexity of this centralized system of education is staggering. The replacement will be no less complex, however it must be able to provide equal resources and produce similar results, relative to similar levels of commitment.

  2. I think a large part of the Current Problem is caused by the nature of the education system itself. Schooling itself divides us into two Americas by classifying (i.e. tracking) each of us into types of workers from an early age based on our performance in school. Pitting students against each other and schools against each other in a race for grades and achievement awards fails because the meritocratic basis of the system is skewed not only against the poor, but against anyone who does not fit the mold of our survival of the fittest education system. Further, the oft-noted, but rarely addressed, socio-economic gap is why students in Brookline MA receive a better education than students in Roxbury MA, and no amount of testing, high expectations, and teacher training will ameliorate this. Those things may raise test scores, but they do not raise many children out of poverty. Quality of life, for parents and children, affects our abilities to learn, but this is neglected in all school reform talk. If a child has a secure neighborhood, caring adults who are not depressed about the lives their educations have prepared them for, friends, and access to work and play he or she is interested in, then, to me, there is hope that true learning can take root and propel a child to greater things. Let’s start spending on social projects like community centers, better housing and communities, universal health care and better job opportunities for students and their parents instead of high-tech school buildings, laptops, and the latest reading programs. I’ll bet we see educational attainment and personal satisfaction levels increase in those neighborhoods where money is directed to improve the lives of people instead of directly to schools.

  3. srdill said

    Patrick, there is a wonderful blog entry by Clay Burell on his site beyond-school.org where he talks about the advent of grades at the turn of the 19th Century and the resulting mess we have been forced to live with ever since based on one man’s efforts to hide his mediocre teaching results. The research is pretty damning:
    Without grades, the assembly-line-classroom would not be possible. With grades, whole categories of children were discovered who didn’t fit onto the conveyer belt, providing an entire new realm of employment for’ adults who would diagnose, treat, and remediate these newly-discovered “learning disabled” children.

    Responsibility for the success of learning shifted from teachers to students: when kids failed, it was their own fault, because they obviously had a defect or disorder of some sort.

    A process of sorting and discarding the misfits began (just like in the shoe factory) which, to this day, rewards the “standard” and wounds the “different.”

    Patrick, you are a homeschooling advocate, how does homeschooling satisfy a PE system that looks for grades to determine competency?

  4. srdill said

    David Marain, in a post in his blog MathNotations, brought my attention to a piece in the 1 Dec. 2008 issue of the WSJ written by Louis Gerstner calling for “national standards for a core curriculum [in] four subjects: reading, math, science and social studies” and a variety of increases in testing, school day, and teacher’s salaries. All bandages on the same system that does not, and can never again, support educating the public–the whole public, not just the young–of the future. As a result, another issue comes to light.

    4) Sustained Disassociation of Parents. For the majority of human history on the planet, parents and adults have had the responsibility to pass on to the young the history and lessons learned from their parents and other adults. For a small period of less than 300 years humans set up a different system of educating the young. The first “public schools” were formed to share the vast quantities of newly discovered information that parents could not be expected to learn while they labored, much less teach. Then industrialists added to the requirements of these rudimentary schools to serve their needs for skilled workers, further distancing parents from the role of teaching their young.

    The system we came to call public education slowly evolved into the cumbersome machine that now dominates our budget, psyche and belief system. Even the most well-educated parents feel inadequate in the task of educating their children. The impact is not only felt in the family, but the community and the world as well. The nuclear family disolved as the effect of generations of parents being separated from their children for the majority of their waking hours allowed them to be comfortable with missing meals, not knowing what their children were doing in school, not even knowing what their children were thinking or concerned about.

  5. Karen in Maine said

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could turn back the clock? I am not a trained educator, nor do I have any advanced degrees that would make anyone hold my opinions in high regard. I do, however, read. I respect the history of this country, and I feel blessed to be an American.

    What is striking to me is the brilliance of our Founding Fathers. Many of the deepest thinkers of the past did not have the benefit of higher education. Instead, they augmented their basic education by reading throughout their lives.

    In a perfect world, our education system would be as envisioned by our Founding Fathers. Schools would be locally controlled. There would be no state or federal bureaucracy mandating what and how students would learn. The only requirement at elementary level would be, in addition to learning how to read, write, and do basic math, students be schooled in American history, with emphasis on the Constitution and the duties and obligations of citizens. There would be no School Boards. Parents would choose the curriculum and the textbooks. Teachers would not need an “education” degree. They would be hired by the parents. There would be no unions. Unions only benefit the union organization itself and bad teachers, at the expense of children. Judeo-Christian values would be taught and enforced. Secular humanism and relative morality would be banned. Neighborhood schools would blend grade levels, so that students could learn at their own pace. This would result in a slashing of education costs. There would be no education money going to bloated bureaucracies.

    After a basic elementary education, secondary schools would put an emphasis on critical thinking and more advanced math and science studies. For those who chose not to go on to college, there would be opportunities to learn a trade, taught by those who would offer future employment.

    When I look back on the great minds that were instrumental in the formation of this country, and read the eloquent writing put forth by self-educated people, it clearly shows the failure of our present education system. It is evident that we are putting more emphasis on the process, and not the desired result. The bloated bureaucracy harms the very people for which it ostensibly exists…. the children!

    I realize that my suggestions are going to be dismissed as backward-thinking and simplistic. But think it through. The historical purpose of education has been to give students the tools to continue educating themselves throughout their lives. It is not a process that is supposed to end with a diploma. The level of mediocrity in our schools is breathtaking. Students are being graduated who cannot read, write, or do basic math. Yet they can proudly show their “diploma” when they go looking for a job. Social promotion is a disgrace. It serves neither the student nor society. It only serves to move through the system those that the system has failed.

    That’s my start-again plan for education. Let’s really start at the beginning…. with the students and their parents…. those who have the most to gain from a quality education.

  6. […] Current Problem […]

  7. In UK, we have similar problems. Our education system is based on a Victorian model, which is absolutely useless in the modern age.

    I know this is far out, but I don’t understand why we continue to have irrelevant teacher centred systems. Kids sitting in a class, most of them bored.

    I think the bricks and mortar approach will disappear in the next decade or so and be replaced by social education models where young children learn to play and socialise with each other. In Sweden they don’t start formal education until they’re 9.

    After that I think children will be far more social, they will learn from home with online mentoring systems and develop the skill sets they want through intelligent gaming and contacts with peers throughout the world

    We already live in this village, but we haven’t woken up to its potential.

    • Please forgive my slow response, Nathan! I agree with you wholeheartedly!! Through the eyes of Peter Gray I have seen the students of The Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, MA, USA do just that: they learn from 4 years to whenever they see fit to leave by play. Day-in, day-out they interact with each other across acres of meadow and woods with only a farmhouse and a barn for their “school.” And yet for 37 years they have graduated students on to higher ed and life with consummate success, thereby disproving the claim that children cannot teach themselves, that children left alone will waster their time, and that only adults know how to teach a child what they need to know. Hog wash!

      Alvin Toffler said it well in 1970 in Future Shock:

      Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kinds of adults it needed … the solution was an educational system that, in its very structure, simulated this new world … the regimentation, lack of individualization, the rigid systems of seating, grouping, grading and marking, the authoritarian style of the teacher—are precisely those that made mass public education so effective as an instrument of adaptation for its time and place.

      If you look over at the Solutions page you may see much of what you envision. The technology of today, combined with the growing transparency of borders the world over, make for a rich opportunity to learn according to your passion and interests. In the end, every person alive can learn as they need and want information, putting to full use all of their cognitive skills and in the process building a truly global network of co-learners.

  8. Politics has a lot to do with what’s wrong with education nowadays. Schools have become a battleground in the war between conservative and progressive social agendas and world views. Each wants to exert top-down control over how children are educated. This has innumerable bad effects on the education system, most notably watering down the content and methods so as not to offend either side.

    It also encourages a risk-averse atmosphere in teaching and administration, where experimentation and creativity are quashed for fear of offending a parent on one side or the other.

    I’d like to think that if we got government out of the education business, and let parents decide what kind of school they wanted their children to attend, that most would choose a school that taught their children HOW to think not WHAT to think. While I understand the point of view of those who decry competition, I just don’t see how, in a country as large and diverse as the US that it’s avoidable. If not between schools, then it will occur between districts or counties or states.

    You want a radical reboot? Ok, how about we stop taxing people for public schools and just let them spend their money on what they think is a good school? Perhaps government’s only role would be to require schools to be non-profit and require that all schools not discriminate among applicants and take a certain number of low-income students. Will some people choose religious schools that indoctrinate rather than educate? Yes. But as I said above, I think most people, regardless of what they profess as their political and religious beliefs, actually do realize that a real education is not learning what to think, but rather how to think and how to learn. Plenty of conservatives send their kids to supposedly “liberal sewers” like Harvard and Brown as opposed to Liberty Bible College.

    Maybe it’s time we progressives took (you’ll pardon the expression) that leap of faith. It would, I’d hope, shut up both the left and the right wing and let educators get on with educating.

    • Joe, you are right that politics is using education as a tool to grab the attention of voters. Promise all you want, these candidates are not going to change the status quo on inch, I predict.

      But do you think that there is something deeper at work here? Ever notice that no one speaks of the inherent mindset of adults with regard to children these days? For decades it has seemed very confrontational.

      Does anyone you know ask you if you think children are born with intelligence? Who among our networks is reassessing their roles as adults in raising children and thinking they could do more good to stand aside than to keep them tied to their hips? Why is it children do not play away from adults for hours at a time?

      Much as I would like to think it’s the system and politics and pay scales, I am thinking we need to go to a more fundamental level of change before we will see progress. What do you think?

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