that were part of this diary, posted in late 2006, intended to start a discussion on rethinking American education.
As I reread them this evening, it saddens me to think how relevant still the questions and challenges I raised remain, now more than 6 years later.
I thought about taking the words and reworking them, but decided to offer them exactly as I did then, typos and all.
As I continue the process of looking for a situation that will put me back into the classroom - having taught a sample lesson at one school this afternoon and meeting with the administration of another to discuss a possibly very exciting opportunity - I find it relevant to look back at how I have been concerned about educational policy, especially in light of the continued wrongheadedness of what has been being imposed upon American schools for far too many years.
Make of this what you will.
I will read any comments that are offered.
I always do.
I believe that we must totally redesign our entire approach to education in this nation. If we do not do so, we will not survive as a democratic republic. We will continue to move in the direction of stratification by class, by wealth, by social mobility or the lack thereof.
Some of the questions we must address include the following:
What does it mean to be educated?
How do we measure learning?
What are the purposes of schools?
How do we balance the real conflict between efficiency and meeting the needs of unique individuals?
How should schools and colleges be structured?
How should we fund education at all level?
What if any minimal common knowledge should we expect as an outcome of our educational processes?
How can we have some assurance of common knowledge and still ensure that there is sufficient diversity of educational choices to meet the needs and the preferences of Americans that we provide the greatest opportunity to learn for ALL of our residents?
How much of education should be a discrete and separate process and how much should be more broadly integrated with life outside of formal educational structures?
Should some level of education be a Constitutionally guaranteed right a the national level?
What should be the role of the different levels of government with respect to education, and to one another?
How will we determine whether our efforts are working, or need to be modified?
The foregoing list is not intended to be exhaustive. As we begin to attempt to answer these questions, many more will arise, and will also need to be addressed.
Let me offer a few, not particularly well organized, thoughts that underlie this process. They are the product of several years of intense reflection on my part, and my own participation in a number of efforts to examine education with an eye to making it something more meaningful.
American education is in large part broken, although I don’t think for usual reasons offered. This may be because of conflicting visions about what education should do / accomplish.
Education is a major economic issue. There are huge amounts of money spent directly on educational process: salaries & benefits, books, transportation, physical plant, supplies. In order to proceed we will need to have some sense of the scope, which I can outline somewhat as follows:
- K-12 public
- K-12 private
- Post secondary degree granting
- post secondary other
- early childhood
There are also many indirect costs of education, such as
- high level of functional illiteracy among many
- lack of basic economic understanding
- lack of understanding of our history and system of government
- lack of understanding of mathematics beyond basics
- total lack of scientific understanding (problem not limited to biology
- lack of historic awareness or of other cultures, even among many
in the leadership.
All of this leads to mistakes both by individual citizen and by leaders of public and private organizations. One can argue that our current imbroglio in Iraq is an example of this. Then Number 2 in the Department of Defense Paul Wolfowitz opined that one advantage of fighting in Iraq was that unlike Saudi Arabia there were no Muslim holy places ab out which needed to be concerned, thus demonstrating total ignorance of the history of Shi’a Islam, which is the dominant orientation of the Iraqi population.
I have said that the task before us is impossible. Let me outline some of the difficulties we face in addressing it.
- most people think they know something about education having undergone some themselves. There is a tendency to extrapolate from one’s own experience and observation
- there are large capital investments in physical plants that might actually be part of the problem: the capital plant of our schools is worth billions and there is a natural tendency to want to continue to utilize something in which so much treasure has been invested
- many jobs are tied to how we currently do the system. Thus many constituencies have vested interests in not totally reshaping the structure of education, because such reshaping potentially threatens their jobs and other economic interests. Here I note that we have millions of teachers who have in recent years been buffeted about by one proposal for educational renewal after another, who are often blamed for perceived failure of students when they have relatively little control over content, decreasing control over pedagogy, and no control over the many hours that shape learning or inhibit it that take place outside of their classroom. If each teacher is individually evaluated at the secondary level, in our current structure it leads to cross conflicted students, as each teacher emphasizes his/her curriculum without regard to how it fits with those of others. We cannot succeed in meaningful educational reform if we attempt to impose it top down on those upon whom we must rely to accomplish it. Unfortunately too much of our approach has been one that is effectively that the beatings will continue until the moral improves.
- education is a convenient political football - everyone has some experience of it, and many parents are rightly concerned that their children get the best education possible. This unfortunately can lead to some silly and destructive things, such as
..... playing a zero sum game, that resources going elsewhere
are viewed as taking resources from my child / community
this makes it difficult to change how we finance education
....seeking advantage for my child. Often done by decision
of where to live / purchase a residence. Also seen in parents
registering newborns for the prestigious preschool / nursery to
get on the escalator of preschool, primary, prep, college, etc.
This is compounded by how many colleges / universities
in part market themselves, which feeds this kind of thinking
- we do not agree on the purpose of education. For some, they view
the purpose of school as socializing people to something common. Certainly such was part of the basis for the expansion of public schooling beginning in 1890’s with the Committee of Ten. There was a need to “americanize” the large number of people coming from differing backgrounds, a point with currency today in light of the high number of non native born children and children of immigrants.
Others have argued for the need to provide marketable skills so that people can be employed (a valid concern), and employers want people who have the skills to do the jobs they have, but often do not wish to incur the expenses of the specific training. There are other approaches as well, of course. The conflicts between advocates of different purposes underlie many of the battles over educational policy: if you cannot agree on the purpose of what you are doing, it is unlikely you will agree on the steps to be taken.
Let me stop for a moment. We will need to understand how we arrived at the place in which we now find ourselves. I have tentative agreement from a prominent historian of education to help with this process. We cannot propose radical changes without being able to explain the history that has gone before now.
There are some basic conflicts in understanding about education and school. Some argue that the best way to help people become Americans as they conceive of that role is by training them to emulate examples of what they consider good Americans. This attitude leads to the idea that we study what is best about our national past, and looks askance at the idea of critically examining the weaknesses of our forebears and the missteps of our history, at least while students are still in K-12. This tends to foster an attitude that is far more accepting of authority and less likely to be critical. Examples of this kind of approach can be seen in things like former Secretary of Education William Bennett’s Book of Virtues Others, perhaps driven by the idea of Santayana that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, believe it important to fully examine all of history, including the flaws of our Founders and the weaknesses of the system they established and led. They believe that this should start at the earliest possible age, in order that our student develop the capability of thinking critically and not being bound by what has gone before.
It is important to note that this fundamental difference can very much drive the structure of how schooling is accomplished. One mode is that the idea that knowledge is best obtained by what Paolo Freire pejoratively called the banking model: an authority presents the information, depositing it into the consciousness of the students. On the other end of the spectrum is the belief that learning is more meaningful, retained better, and better able to be applied if one helps students construct their own understanding. This constructivist approach, derived at least in part from the work of Lev Vygotsky, is very much in conflict with a traditionalist approach of recitation. And of course these are not the only possible approaches.
It is impossible in one piece, even were it of book length, to fully explore even the issues already described. And yet there are even more that we must consider:
- Is the current structure of our educational system even relevant nowadays from an educational perspective? After all, despite all our attempts to use education to remove children from the workforce, an increasing number of our secondary students work, either because the income is needed by them or their families, or because they want independent money whose use is up to them. Should our educational framework be redesigned to consider this?
- Is the model of going to college for 4 straight years now obsolete?
I- Is taking children and confining them to a building for 6+ hours a day beginning when they are 4 or 5 years old the best way to help them learn?
- Is our division of material into discrete subject areas in fact counterproductive to real learning?
- Given that the evidence is overwhelming of the diversity of learning styles among students, do we not have an obligation to provide learning opportunities that maximizes the chances for success for those of differing styles?
- How do we determine that someone is educated, competent to move to the next level?
Even attempting to discuss thoroughly the future of education is complicated by ongoing conflicts in education. I would like to see us step back and totally rethink how we do education. My current occupation as a social studies teacher, who instructs in a self-contained classroom the subject of government in discrete 45 minutes periods, one of 8 during the course of the day (or 9 for those students who take a zero period), is not something I think conducive to real learning. What role would there be for someone like me in a different system? How do we involve the experience of teachers in rethinking what we are doing with schools and education and teaching and learning?
And yet while we attempt to step back to examine this topic, education inevitably is changing, with even more resources being committed to a structure that may have no chance of succeeding in its espoused goal of educating, whatever meaning we may ascribed to that term. In the forthcoming session of Congress the issue of reauthorization of No Child Left Behind is a major topic. Already battle plans are being formed, from those who want the basic structure maintained, but more money applied, to those who want no Federal role whatsoever in education, andperhaps no local government role, who want to use the sanctions of NCLB as a means of delegitimizing public education, to those who are dedicated to opposing reauthorization in anything like the current format in the hopes of forcing some serious reexamination of how we do education. This last group are in some manner natural allies of the process I am attempting to stimulate in our preparation for Yearlykos 2007, and I am a participant in some of these efforts. But many of these natural allies believe that unless reauthorization is stopped the chance of rethinking what we are doing will disappear. I have heard it described as a Vietnam or Iraq syndrome - we have put so much money and so many lives into what we have been doing that to walk away without achieving “success” would be to betray those who have given so much to the effort. Here I am reminded of the most powerful words John Kerry ever spoke, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when he inquired how you asked someone to be the last man to die for a mistake. Each day we allow our current system of miseducation to continue another child ‘dies” - the natural interest in learning gets suppressed by the mandates of tests and more “rigor.” We have at least 23 years since A Nation at Risk, and probably many more, going back to “Why Johnny Can’t Read” in the 1950’s, that our solution has been to throw more and more at children, to demand that our schools and teachers do more and more, that the bar for ‘success’ be raised ever higher, even as we complain that we are not reaching the goals we have already established. I fail to see how if someone cannot vault over a bar set at 10 feet we accomplish anything by raising that standard to 12 feet. All it will mean is that even more will be marked by ‘failure’ whether these be schools or students.