Public Education: Start Again

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

Posts Tagged ‘education reform’

We Are Not Alone!

Posted by Stephen Dill on February 17, 2013

The premise of this site is the idea that the system we call public education is broken. In the years since its launch, I have come to know that the concept of education itself is flawed as it’s perceived by most—that it’s learning that is what we need a new system for. Learning is individual, education is generally seen as a group activity.

As with many ideas that challenge years of status quo, the idea of starting over to build a new system—much less one that puts the responsibility on the individual much earlier than most are comfortable with—there are many who feel this to be ludicrous, ignorant, rash, even anti-social. So when you cross paths with those who feel as you do, you want to make sure that others know – strength in numbers, right? Thus it was a pleasant surprise to find this on Ira Socol’s blog:

If education in the United States of the 21st Century is failing, that failure has been built over a very long time. And I do not think that it can be “fixed” in any meaningful way unless people understand that the failures we see today are our system working exactly as it was intended to.

Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Our American public education system is doing exactly what it was designed to do. It is separating “winners” from “losers” and it is reinforcing our economic gap. The system was designed in the 1840s and at the turn of the 20th Century to separate society into a vast majority of minimally trained industrial workers and a small, educated elite. It was designed to enforce White, Protestant, Middle-Class, “Typically-abled” standards on an increasingly diverse American population. A few blessed children in each generation who met those standards might move up in society. The rest would be consigned to low wage manual labor. It was designed to ensure that the children of the elites had the opportunities they needed to remain the elite. Everything about the system – from the way schools are funded, to the way standards are created, to the system of tests, to our peculiar form of college admissions, to our notions of disability – was created to meet the employment goals of the United States from the mid 19th Century to the mid 20th Century.

Unfortunately we are 50 years past that historic moment, and we are no longer happy with the results.

But if you want different results you will not get there through changing teachers, or changing managers, or expecting more from students. You can only change the results by changing the system itself.

Ira Socol, education technology professor and consultant.This concept of a class-motivated altruism motivation behind public education is found repeatedly in education histories. But those same histories rarely draw the conclusion that the system built upon it is impossible to fix and should be replaced. It’s a key element in the argument for revolution, but it falls on deaf ears when parents hear it. Ira goes on to discuss the debilitating effects of age-based segmentation, grades, and the inadvertent constraints placed on teachers, making it near impossible to adjust curriculum to the individuals they are charged to inspire and guide toward learning. Those are the topics that raise the interest and pulse of parents. Talk about societies and you lose every parent long before they read the punchline. But talk about children being denied their individuality, their independence, their democratic rights, their promising future and more and you have completely engaged those same parents.

For those who have read this site, these are familiar points, some may wonder if there will ever be progress. The good news is there is change afoot. Observing the various homeschooling groups and pages on Facebook, the many listservs for democratic schools, and the rise of unschooling in mainstream press (albeit misunderstood and often with incorrectly characterized methods), there are signs that access to alternatives is being sought by many more students and their parents who have realized that their dissatisfaction with public education is not their fault and can be remedied.

Stay tuned – soon there will be an announcement here of a new site offering knowledge and resources for those who seek to change their circumstances and options for learning.

Many thanks to Ira for being another voice in the growing chorus for revolution.

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Was There Ever Joy In School?

Posted by Stephen Dill on May 14, 2012

Learning is not always going to be about following rules.You might have seen the article in Forbes by Jessica Hagy that recently was shared by the many who would wish for a different learning environment for the world. Her list of 9 things that school taught you that would make no sense if not in the context of memory rang true for most of us, I am sure. But I found the responses to my posting of it in Facebook interesting. Much like my post earlier this year comparing public school failure with the denial of slavery’s inherent evil that frustrated abolitionists, there are some who see no problem with our current system or the system they were in (survived) when they were young—which, of course, resembles in most measures the system we are sending our children through today.

Understanding why people cannot sense the distinct differences between a joyful, empowering, enlightening learning experience and that which the clear majority of adults experienced and the children of the world currently experience is fundamental to what All New Public Education is all about. For every person who agrees with me that there is a need to start from scratch to build a better system, there are 100 who think the system is just fine, or can be fixed with, in essence, a few tweaks and more money.

Just how insidious the damage is that can be wrought by the current public education system is the subject of a book by Kirsten Olson I have recently read, Wounded By School. In the remarkable foreword by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, the true value of Kirsten’s work is summarized by this statement:

At this time, when the public discourse about schooling tends to focus on the quantifiable indices of access, achievement, and opportunity, when the measurements of inequality use a rhetoric that is literal and objectifying, when educators and policymakers tend to be preoccupied with “achievement gaps,” with “high-stakes testing,” and with statistically based assessments and accountability, Olson raises up another specter of injustice that is more randomly spread. She speaks about the wounds of schools that cannot be easily classified by race, class, or gender, by the disadvantages of disability or giftedness, by the things visible or countable. … But she also, importantly, underscores the ways in which people who seem to thrive and excel—the perfectionist, the overachiever, the valedictorian, the brilliant athlete—may also be carrying around the pain that dulls curiosity, limits creativity, stifles imagination, and ultimately may one day lead to inertia and depression.

In an equally inspired second foreword by Parker J. Palmer, he adds:

Equally sad and profoundly ironic is the wound that may be the most widespread of all: the eagerness to learn that we all bring to the world as infants is often diminished and even destroyed by our schooling.

The wounds of schooling do not belong to students alone. They are frequently shared by teachers.

Yes, there are teachers and parents who participate in the wounding of children, adults who have grown so numb (and dumb) that they have lost touch with the feeling-life of the child, adults who subject the children in their care to the same kinds of cruelty that led to their own deformation.

And so begins a powerful examination of what so many of us experienced in our public and private schools:

  • Wounds of creativity
  • Wounds of compliance
  • Wounds of rebelliousness
  • Wounds that numb
  • Wounds of underestimation
  • Wounds of perfectionism, and
  • Wounds of the average

Kirsten Olson's powerful book, Wounded By SchoolOlson based this book on interviews to support her own research while a Masters of Education candidate at Harvard. She speaks of how “almost immediately I began hearing stories about educational wounding. Although in this project I was speaking with very “successful” individuals … individuals who felt that learning was at the center of their lives, as I tried to capture their educational biographies, nearly every one of them told me they felt they had a lot to recover from in their school experiences, and that their learning lives had developed primarily outside of, or in opposition to, their experiences in school.”

The stories Kirsten recounts are gripping, and make for engaging reading. But more importantly, there are few aspects of any of them that I could not remember either going through myself or feeling that I had witnessed similar scenarios happen to my friends, or children of friends I know now or have known. I would posit that the depth that Olson goes into would shake a scintilla of recognition from even the most hardened advocate for sustaining the current system. Who can deny that—at the macro level—schools (as represented by teachers and administrators) are “more focused on managing kids’ behaviors than fostering their academic growth”? And even more disturbing, the government-fostered perception that “If you get good grades, test well, and overall do well in school, you are intelligent, but if you do poorly, you are not intelligent.”

This deep dive into the unintended consequences of a system whose affects rob us all of our creativity, flexibility, understanding, higher cognitive ability, and social confidence is critical reading for everyone: educators, administrators, legislators, parents and students. For the many parents who have been suckered into thinking it’s acceptable to hold their public school responsible for taking care of their child from age 5 or earlier to age 18, Wounded By School is a wakeup call. True, there are bright spots, there are the Sudbury Valley Schools that allow for student-centic learning. There are the halfway houses (charter schools) that allow for some individualized programing, though still heavily supervised by an adult. But the clear majority of public and private schools use conformity as a measure of success, testing as a measure of results, and ignore the rights of the individuals trusted in their care to seek, find and express their inner calling, their true passion.

Kirsten Olson is a saint. As a consultant she willingly enters one school district after another to identify and document what is a repetitive and monotonous scenario: these few teachers respect the child and thrive in spite of the environment and system, the rest are here to get through the day without hitting anyone. Olson writes that, “School administrators often function as barriers to parents and “protectors” of the teachers, “doing their job” when they keep parents from intruding into the classroom or the instructional workings of the school.” The more enlightened of these will allow her to walk the halls, observe classes, and speak with their various communities, but to what degree they will agree with her assessments and  recommendations is anyone’s guess. And in the quagmire of a system that is based on an incorrect foundation, one school on stilts above it will not last long, much less make a difference.

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Is There Time For Ed Reform? Or Is It Time For Revolution?

Posted by Stephen Dill on March 8, 2011

The President is asking for your advice. In a program called Advise The Advisor, Melody Barnes, Director of the Domestic Policy Council and one of President Obama’s senior advisors on education policy, is asking for feedback from parents, teachers and students about what’s working in their communities and what needs to change when it comes to education. There is a promise within her video that all responses submitted before end of the day Friday (3/11/11) will be read by White House staffers and compiled into a summary document for review by the President and his advisors.

Here is what I submitted. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts of what you would have said (or did) in the “under 2,500 characters” they asked for.

Our system is antiquated, built on foundations that could not scale with America and have not provided consistent results for decades. When a system is broken it is a waste of time to focus on bandages if no one is developing a cure for the cause. Can we entertain a two-pronged approach that maintains buildings and programs for a little while longer while another team starts from square one? The smartest investment would be a new system that is in tune with the future: distributed, decentralized and individual. A system that is not based on capital-intense administration and buildings. One that affords every citizen the same opportunity, not just what their community can afford. We need to put a team together to rethink education from scratch.

And with a new system, we need to accept that success will not be determined by test scores. Not all those individuals are going to want to study languages, math, science, engineering or art—at least not at the exact same time as everyone else born the year they were born. They may not test with their peers, ever. They may outshine their peers, or lag behind, but they will be creative individuals, leaders, innovators guiding their own lives at their own pace.

I have a dream for my kid’s kids to live in a world where education starts at conception: parents are taught how to parent and raise a world citizen. Education is a daily occurrence for everyone in this world, for everyone is a student and a teacher, as soon as they have something to teach. Classes are local or worldwide, alone with a teacher or hundreds of students working one-on-one with a teacher in a hub-and-spoke topology aided by technology and managed by the student. In such a world, nations do not measure their success by how many hoops they can teach their children to jump through.

Let us all hope that we can begin the process of revolutionizing education in our lifetimes for the benefit of our progeny, and of the world.

(and then I pointed them to this site)

Bottom line: is there really anyone out there who thinks that Ed Reform is going to direct the system we have to any semblance of stability? Consistency? Humanity? And isn’t there still that messy issue of mass testing to determine “success” (whatever that means)? How did we ever buy the idea that our child was the same as any child their age? On every continent!?!?

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Sir Ken on Why Education Kills Divergent Learning Skills

Posted by Stephen Dill on October 15, 2010

Here is a very compelling presentation by Sir Ken Robinson, of TED Talk fame, animated on a whiteboard as he delivers it to a live audience. The presentation is just under 12 minutes long and it sets the stage for the premise of this website and its fundamental question: why does the world continue to invest in a public education system based on old and outdated precepts that are ineffectual and misguided? If we could start all over, what would we base our new system on and how different would it appear to us today?

Grab a snack or drink, commit to not looking at email and sit back for the 11 minutes to watch this and the 5 minutes your head will be swimming after watching it:

For those readers here for the first time (welcome!), there are some ideas elsewhere on the site on how to fix this predicament we find ourselves in, I would encourage you to read and ponder them. And if anyone has access to Sir Ken, would you suggest that he ring me up so we can stop agreeing on what is wrong and begin figuring out how to build a new system, test it, refine it, then launch it? Thank you!

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The Slow Awakening

Posted by Stephen Dill on August 5, 2010

The total reboot of global public education (which will no longer be public, by the way, but personal—what we call private now) is going to take time. Lots of time. I call it my 150-year project because I suspect it will take at least that long to bring about. However, every day there are more and more small signs that thinking individuals are coming to the conclusion that the foundations of the current education system are no longer appropriate, as indicated by the poor results of the system built upon them.

My childhood neighbor, Judith Scacco Pack—another Facebook reconnection success story, linked to an article from EducationNews.Org and the title caught my eye: Valedictorian Speaks Out Against Schooling in Graduation Speech. Unique as much for its message as the age of the presenter of that message, Erica Goldson politely and respectfully expressed her frustration with the education system to the audience at the graduation ceremony at Coxsackie-Athens High School. In her estimation:

We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective. Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something?” Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

Ms. Goldson touches on a concordant theme stated elsewhere here on All New Public Education: that “education” is not about standardization, but freedom of expression and lifelong learning. While many may nod their heads and agree to the words, few realize that this means no buildings where all children enter and are sorted by age. This means “classes” unlike any we know now, for classes will be associated by interest, not age or geography, connected by the Internet, unmeasured by tests unless decided by the pupils to have some value to help them learn the topic. Few I speak with can grasp the idea that a child may not begin learning from someone else until they are 12 or older, while other children may become teachers at age 10 without ever having taken formal training from anyone else, either in the topic they are now teaching, or the process of teaching. Throughout time the young mind, unfettered by adult constraints, consistently confounds adult’s preconceived correlations between age and mental acuity and capacity.

“Anarchy!” I hear all the time. If only a few did it, such as the relatively small number pursuing unschooling today, perhaps. But not when everyone does it, the world over. “Utopian,” is another response. Perhaps so, but we once knew the value of teaching by doing; letting children play and work alongside their peers and parents in order to identify their personal interests. But we are talking centuries ago. The last vestige of that culture is still seen in the traditional school year calendar, scheduled originally to allow children to assist the family farm. By 1854 Thoreau wrote in “Walden,”

I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? Methinks this would exercise their minds as much as mathematics. If I wished a boy to know something about the arts and sciences, for instance, I would not pursue the common course, which is merely to send him into the neighborhood of some professor, where anything is professed and practised but the art of life; — to survey the world through a telescope or a microscope, and never with his natural eye; to study chemistry, and not learn how his bread is made, or mechanics, and not learn how it is earned; to discover new satellites to Neptune, and not detect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself; or to be devoured by the monsters that swarm all around him, while contemplating the monsters in a drop of vinegar. Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month — the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this — or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rodgers’ penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?

I applaud Ms. Goldson’s bravery in challenging the status quo and in taking to task the system that almost convinced her that chasing the goal of better grades than anyone else in her class was in her best interests. Erica has joined the many who shake their heads in baffled wonder at how such methods can persist so long after so much conclusive evidence has been accumulated to disprove its validity. Howard Gardner, John Taylor Gatto and all the many others who have paved the way to understanding the need for educational revolution must be very, very patient people.

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The new President’s challenge: Take a Number!

Posted by Stephen Dill on January 25, 2009

People are lining up with ideas for the new President. If you look at the change.org site you will see the overwhelming response to the new administration’s request for public input. Countless corporate executives, recognized experts in every field, and a huge percentage of the blogosphere’s brightest are weighing in on what the next priorities should  be and what to do about them. 

Not to be outdone, Jim Goodnight, CEO of SAS Institute, spoke to Steve Hamm at Businessweek about how “If Obama’s in favor of improving education, let’s do it right. It’s got to involve a curriculum. We have the most complete set of curricula available, so let’s not reinvent the wheel.” Convenient, but that’s not my point. What we see in this and most recommendations is yet another bandage. I find myself unable to consider spending time and money on the system that has gotten us where we are. Others must, this is true. But I wonder why it is that there seems to be so few gathering to consider the way out of this mess, the only true way out: reboot from scratch. This is the time to be distilling down the fundamentals for a life-long learning program. Change will not happen overnight!

My wife, an early childhood educator, alerted me to the wonderful work of Richard Louv in his book “Last Child In The Woods, Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” and the organization he co-founded, Children & Nature Network. I made a comment on his blog congratulating him on his work and suggesting that, “The inexorable decline of the role of in-situ exposure as a key part of educating anyone, not just children, in the natural sciences–or physics, or accounting, or most any topic–is one of the many negative unintended consequences of the otherwise noble quest to provide basic education for every child that began as an incredible dream in the 18th Century.” Clearly we are staying inside, relying more and more on digital representations of nature in order to maximize “learning” while minimizing the expenditure of costly resources, such as teachers and time. I recommend you read more of Richard Louv.

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Mission: Gather the best minds, ponder the responses to starting over, decide a course, begin.

Posted by Stephen Dill on December 23, 2007

The idea for this forum has been a long time in coming. It began with an observation from the spouse of a preschool director. After hearing so many stories of what some parents called parenting, the following goal was penned in a journal: “to teach people to parent as well as we teach them to give birth.”

That spark began to smolder when I learned that 75% of our town’s budget belonged to the School Department. Nothing against our School Department, a similar number was everywhere I looked. At that point I began asking educators my question, “If you could start over, what would it look like?” and took note of the reactions. No one dismissed the question, and no one had a ready answer. After an appropriate pause I would run my idea of a new public education by them and again, no one shut me down. As with most concepts, the challenges appeared in everyone’s mind long before the solutions, so most conversations never progressed to tangible benefit. I knew I needed a different scenario. But not being known to the world of education theorists and visionaries, at best I could assemble two or three – not enough to yield the weight and momentum I know such change will need behind it to get the flywheel moving. The idea of a blog only recently dawned on me.

Invitations are being extended to those who have established their expertise in public education strategy. The structure of the site will evolve to address the needs of those who want to contribute. For now, let us begin with answers to the primary question: if you could start a new public education system from square one – with no preconceived ideas of what it used to look like, what it has to conform to, even what its metrics of success are – what would it look like?

Stephen Dill

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