What does it take to fix education?
You heard me. Don’t believe it if a political figure says, “I’m going to fix education,” or if they call it “our broken educational system” it’s all the same. Well let me soften it a bit and say don’t believe them unless they give you a well constructed description of what is broken or needs fixing. Then you should insist on a well-constructed, real world, doable, unemotional solution. I know that sounds like a lot, so…
Start by defining the problem.
There are those who say: “Schools are failing our children. The educational system in America is broken.” Those are some really scary and yet very common sound bites. They are full of fear and anger but short on what they mean, and short on solutions. So, why would anyone say that?
Let’s be honest. Despite U.S. leadership in creativity in the world (such as high tech innovations, and entertainment), despite being an economic power house in the world, there are a lot of Americans who are woefully undereducated. A cruel person would say stupid but I’m not that cruel. So, one way our schools are letting us down – we’re putting a lot of people out on the street with diplomas and no ability to think or use facts.
Another way we are letting ourselves down is rigidity in the curriculum. When we do succeed in educating our children within the parameters of the current educational structure, we send students into the world academically educated but unprepared for the complexities of life – can’t cook, can’t live within their means, not prepared for a fulfilling career or a good job. In other words, after 12 or 16 years of schooling many (most) Americans aren’t ready to take on adult responsibilities.
I have written about this before. When making educational/societal/political choices we should always look at the policy and ask, “Does it encourage responsible behavior? Is is overly repressive? Are we just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and preserving the status quo under a different name?”
The reason politicians can’t fix education is because the fix requires too much personal responsibility on everyone’s part. Or… The fix requires a lot of money and some serious repression. Otherwise, it’s just the ‘same old same old’ with a new name. There is no silver bullet. Some examples to guide your thinking:
Insist on High Standards
I’ve heard, “All stakeholders will be held responsible for maintaining high standards.” This is so misguided and false that I want to call it a ‘total crock’ but that would be unkind to the crock.
Ask yourself this: Who are the stakeholders and what do you mean you’ll hold them responsible? Is the politician a stakeholder? Would any politician step down from office if their promise to fix education was unfulfilled? The parents? If little Juan can’t read English well enough what do we do to the parents? I know that’s absurd but think about it. What can you do to the parents of a child who won’t try? I’ve worked with parents who cried their eyes out over their kids. How do we hold those parents responsible?
Teachers can be held responsible.
Don’t believe those graduation rates. Across the country we teachers were told that there were too many Failing grades given. If our class had too many Fails (the figure varied from city to city and with the school administrations) we were told our jobs could be in jeopardy. So guess what happened? More students passed and graduation rates went up. But don’t be deceived. What really happened was more boneheads who didn’t deserve it got diplomas. [Read: Diploma vs. Education and see about the 4/1/15 arrest of Atlanta educators for cheating, See: Freakonomics regarding incentive to cheat]
High School Exit Exams
To prove that we weren’t just turning into a bunch of diploma mills California instituted a policy of giving a comprehensive math and English test to all seniors. If you couldn’t pass the California High School Exit Exam (or CAHSEE) you didn’t get a diploma. Sounds reasonable but it wasn’t. It wasn’t fair but not for the reasons given in court challenges to that policy. It was unfair due to social promotion.
For 12 years students could be passed along with no consequences and then BAM! 12th grade and they couldn’t pass a math test that was mostly 7th grade level of difficulty. This led to me teaching to the test and teaching all kinds of test taking techniques instead of teaching how to simplify a linear equation, or how to get a home loan, or how to cook a roast, or how to avoid diabetes and heart disease when many of my students were already morbidly obese.
What will work but it’s not a silver bullet. Start with attitude.
We as a country and a culture must abandon the notion that stupid is okay, funny, or cool. How many times do we hear people say, “Oh I’m not good at math (or pick any subject).” And then they laugh?
I had a dental hygienist who was an immigrant from Iran and I asked her what people (in her home country) would think of a person who didn’t know their multiplication facts. She laughed and told me that people would know that elementary school stuff because it was a matter of personal pride to know. Later I had a hygienist from Romania and asked her the same question and got the same answer. I’ve had parents from Mexico say they were shocked at the way teachers are disrespected in this country. I’ve even had some say they were going to move back to the old country because they were worried about their child’s behavior and education since being here in America.
Responsibility: It starts in the hut.
As one administrator told me, “It may take a village to raise a child but it starts in the hut.” We can only change attitudes about the intrinsic value of an education if the family values it. I’ve had kids who’s parents seemed totally absent and yet the kid was doing well because he or she decided to value an education. But those kids were/are rare.
How do I convince little Eddie that he has to actually open his book and try to learn some math if his dad says, “I don’t worry about his math. I was never any good at math and I’m doing okay.” Yes I have been told that. But more often the kids I got were a constant vexation to their parents (usually a single parent).
Some parents do check in with their kids. They help with homework and make sure their child is progressing. They DON’T just leave it all up to the school.
And then there are the advocates for the poor and disadvantaged who say that many parents can’t be there for their child because they are working, or don’t speak English themselves. [This brings up another subject too lengthy to go into here but ask yourself this, “If a parent is too busy working to be with their child, why have children if you can’t be with them?”] How can they get the same education as those kids who’s parents are there to give the right amount of care and interest. And who’s to say what the right amount is (even amongst siblings). I constantly preach that what works with one might not work with another.
What if we were to go to a system where after each year a student had to take a standardized test (it hurts me to suggest such a thing) before going on to the next grade? If the student has not mastered the basics of 3rd grade he or she does not move on to 4th grade. Wow – that’s kind of hard. It would end social promotion but it flies in the face of all the research that says retention (failing a kid, holding them back a grade, etc.) doesn’t work.
Of course retention hasn’t worked because in every case (that I have seen – and admittedly there may be exceptions) the students were simply held back. Nothing different was tried or explored. It meant that if you failed Ms. Murphy’s 3rd grade class you’d just be held back and spend another year with Ms. Murphy. This is what linguist Deborah Tannen termed complementary schismogenesis [Look her up – buy her books they’re great, That’s Not What I Meant! Language, Culture, & Meaning]. Simply put, complementary schismogenesis means doing more of what didn’t work the first time and expecting a different outcome (which is also a definition of crazy).
Safety net for those who don’t have prerequisite skills.
There needs to be a special safety net for those who don’t master the prerequisite skills for the next grade or class level. Such a safety net would require more time with the student and time with the parents. More teachers would have to be hired and programs would have to be developed to identify the causes of failure, along with targeted remediation. It doesn’t help a kid to sit thought the stuff he or she knows only to zone out and then miss what they needed to succeed.
There also needs to be a better system of training new teachers by preparing them for the REAL world of teaching [much of which is what my writing is about] and making sure the right person is hired for the job. Currently anyone with the right paper can fill any job opening but the fit isn’t always good. [see: Eye of Eagle – Foot in Mouth]
But the minute you say more time, or more training, or more teachers you are also saying more money at a time when people don’t want to pay for a quality education for all (i.e. fair taxes on the wealthy and corporations to properly fund public schools). Big cities can afford to have professional sports teams with their billion dollar stadiums and their multi million dollar player’s salaries and yet they claim to not have money for education (teacher’s salaries, equipment etc.). That tells you what the American people really value. What politician who says they are going to fix schools would ever say that the increased funding necessary would come from professional athletes by having them take a pay cut and get paid the same as teachers?
Bottom Line: Fix Education in America? Improbable but not Impossible.
Responsibility: Can any politician control the attitudes of Americans so that everyone has a similar vision of the value and nature of education? I doubt it. Can we set up our educational system so that schools and teachers have more freedom of curriculum? Maybe.
Repression: Can we convince corporations and the wealthy that it is in their best interest to fund education (yes I mean through taxes, and higher wages with benefits) as though it were an investment in their business because it is. Probably not. The stumbling block is, America is a large enough place that cream will rise to the top. Maybe not always but as long as there is innovation and a crop of creative hard working individuals to populate corporations, there may be enough to produce wealth for the powerful and indifference to the powerless.
But if we reach a tipping point where the ignorant and disenfranchised outnumber rational or the powerful (of which 2016 was just a taste) then heads will roll. [Read: Gangstas Have Cars]
What do you want me to do?
Status Quo: Value education in your day to day life. When someone boasts about ignorance either ignore it, or encourage them to get educated (I know it sounds intrusive but…). The point is, resist the urge to admit we are all salt of the earth and we are all ignorant of something. Then do what you can to gently discourage the glorification of ignorance.
Parents, love your kids and be there with them. Learn what the school isn’t teaching your kids (we can’t do it all – trust me – we want to but…) and then be sure they learn it from the best qualified source available.
Teachers, survive. Don’t believe everything you are told. Experiment, read and experience for yourself. Fight for autonomy. Know that you can’t do it all, but you can do some good for someone.