Public Education: Start Again

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

Posts Tagged ‘education system’

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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Will Public Education Remain Public?

Posted by Stephen Dill on November 7, 2010

As already established under the Current Problem tab: “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.” But there’s more! I posit that the roadblock to developing anyone’s individualized education plan is the very funding mechanism of public education: the public! Inherent in the school laws from the very start of this nation is the concept that the collected opinion of the residents of any town, state or nation—otherwise known as government—would know what you the individual would need to know throughout your life. And while that mandate to provide teachers for small communities and grammar schools for larger communities was a great step forward for the progress of mankind, there was never an assessment process put in place to make sure the system was relevant and in step with the times.

The colonial classroomWhile appropriate for its day (and the three centuries afterward), the inexorable inertia of that concept has burdened society with a financial commitment the founders could never have foreseen and put those who are aware of poor results of the “one size fits all” education system in a rather daunting predicament. How DO we alter our education system to address the needs of the individual?

Try this on for size: what if education of the public was a private matter? Not privatizing public education, but disassembling public education and turning it over to every citizen. What if the only “public” piece was the online infrastructure that allowed every parent, child, young adult, and adult to research, find, and schedule learning experiences?

While I have been thinking about this for years, a Facebook note from Chris Brogan pushed me to get this out to the rest of you. Lifelong learning, a core concept behind All New Public Education, is a highly individual experience. As Sugata Mitra has proven, when given the chance, every single person is going to follow a unique path to learning. What the current system institutes beyond grade 12 and age 18 (two archaic frames of reference) could actually occur much earlier (or later), and should be encouraged to happen throughout life: we each are willing to find and pay for our individual education. We are long past the mass education that Frank Feather speaks of elsewhere in this blog. It’s time to put in place a system that allows for the changes in course that all of us go through in our lives.

Recent discussions with Michelle Rhee and other educators on this topic reveal that most people in public education feel strongly that there are core subjects that everyone must be taught at an early age. For example, from Ms. Rhee:

I agree that not every child learns in the same way, and great teachers are able to individualize instruction to address those differences. We also need to make sure kids have real world skills when they exit the system, and should definitely be ensuring that children get outside the classroom and take advantage of all kinds of learning environments throughout their years in public school. But I also believe in teaching the core skills you mention below [I had cited history, arts, language, and science], and believe they can be taught in the classroom.

Is it just me, or do others hear this as the response of someone convinced that government must pay for education, and as a result, must test and grade as proof of money well spent? If education is about learning what a person is passionate about, and that changes throughout their lifetime, then the only one who determines if they have learned enough is the student. Eliminate the government funding and you return the responsibility for personal education to the person. If every course cost you money, would you have bought some of the topics you were forced to (presumably, temporarily) learn throughout your public school years (or private school, for that matter)?

I hear the exclamations now: “You’d let a child decide what they want to learn and when?!?” Yes, and no. Children will be part of a team; no one should have to operate in a vacuum. That team will be a fabric made up of parents, relatives, neighbors, and teachers the parents have learned from themselves or otherwise identified as being well suited to facilitate in children the realization of how to learn. This is society as humans once knew it, extended ‘families’ of mutual support, the trappings of which are still practiced in some of the least modernized nations. Imagine bringing the technology of interconnection into such a social fabric! Now the fabric includes people in locations dispersed throughout the world, relationships forged by mutual interests and experiences. There is the best spend for public funds: the network of resources and the process to take advantage of those resources. Can you imagine how different life would be if our property taxes didn’t have to support education?

As Ms. Rhee and a few others have pointed out, this sounds more like a philosophical discussion than education reform. Not being clairvoyant, I cannot say what the future holds, but I can only hope that other dramatic cultural and societal change has come to the world from asking a similar question: if we could start all over from scratch, what would it look like? If so, that means there is hope that such history will repeat itself and we will see a world of lifelong learners. Until then—or at least for the next 70 years or so—I will keep asking the question. Will you?

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