Those who pay attention to the confused jumble that is the "education reform" movement often hear this cry: that the result of a failing school system is a lack of competitiveness of the U.S. compared with that of other nations. A slipping-away of the supremacy of our country.
You know, okay, whatever. If that's what gets people to lose faith in the current way we do school, I'll take it. But success is all in how you define your goals. The focus of educational change won't be good enough if the improvement of the mental and emotional health of children is a side effect to the great purpose of "being competitive again."
I don't say it's a bad purpose. I say it's the wrong focus. We can achieve the same ends if we focus on creating healthier and happier children, and in the end, we'll have economic competitiveness AND healthier and happier children.
We don't need to reform education. We need to reinvent it entirely. The only recognizable thing I see remaining is the buildings, and the public commitment to education in the form of public funding.
The reason we need to pack it in and start over: kids are being harmed.
Too melodramatic? No, I don't believe it is.
We know that high school graduates are, more and more, ill-prepared for either college or the working world. We know that there is an epidemic of student disengagement. We know that kids weigh more and have more health problems than they ever did. We know that the sleep requirements of teenagers are ignored in most middle and high schools. We know this and more by observing schools and kids and teachers, and we draw our own conclusions about problems and solutions
I don't accept the more popular targets of blame, like teacher tenure, or solutions, like more charter schools. Let's take it a step farther, and question everything about what we know as school. I promise you can go back to your homes afterward and are under no obligation to take on these opinions permanently.
We require that children change themselves in order to fit into school. The result of this can be plainly seen in some children, in the anxiety that school causes, but it can also be under the surface for quite a long time before a parent can see any ill effects, if they are ever seen at all. Nevertheless, a child undergoes a wearing away of identity.
When we don't accept and value small children for who they are, they don't turn their resentment outward. When a parent rejects a child, the rejection turns inward and wears away at their self-respect and confidence, often turning into depression. We have the same responsibility, and if we fall short, we have to accept that there will be similar consequences.
We require kids to learn what WE want them to learn. From birth to age five, children explore, play, discover, manipulate, run, jump. Then suddenly, they sit in kindergarten, told what to learn. Kindergarten is now a training ground for the rest of kids' educational careers, and the message is: "What you want to learn isn't important. Empty your minds of your own passions and interests. Learn what I tell you to learn."
What better way to teach kids that what is inside them is not important? Is there really a question as to why, by fifth or sixth grades, kids have tuned out of school, march from class to class with no expectation of the joy of discovery?
We make kids learn stuff they don't care about. We do it every day, in every age group. Don't be fooled by the appearance of compliance, even cheerfulness. Kids want to be happy; they tend to look on the bright side and eventually separate their passions and strengths from anything to do with school.
This takes a cumulative toll on kids, and results in a detachment between students and the adults in their lives.
Add to this rules they have no say in and make no sense, and authority figures who don't have the time to learn their needs. Sometimes this is turned outward, in rebellious behavior, acting out, bullying. But I believe we also ought to worry about those kids who do not display the negative effects of this educational coercion.
They go along and get along, do their homework, get decent average grades, and feel disconnected from the flow of school. Do these kids put the blame in the right place? No. Not often. They don't know there is anyone to blame other than themselves.
We don't think enough about the loss of self-respect, sense of alienation, even depression, that this system engenders.
The purpose of learning is to get good grades. I sometimes hear the complaints of teachers about kids that care about grades more than they do about learning. "They say, 'Will this be on the test?' And when I say no, they tune out. What is with these kids?"
When kids are told to learn something they don't care about, why should they work to achieve more than minimally required?
Since we structure our system around grades and test scores, we send a clear signal: this is what's important. When kids try to skate along doing as little as required, they are responding: message received.
We see this most clearly in the "high-achievers," who try to accomplish a lot, take four AP courses and have lots of extra-curricular activities and hope to get into the "right" college.
My son once told me of a school assembly where one of his teachers stood on a stage and gave the students this message: "Do your homework! Study! Get good grades!" He wanted to yell, “Yeah but, like, what's my motivation?”
The getting of good grades – something that every parent wants their kids to do – is not a simple issue. There has been a mountain of research that demonstrated the adverse affect on learning that grades impose. If you have two groups of kids, and you tell one of them, "We're going to study this subject. There will be no test. Would you like the hard version or the easy version?" The answer is: The hard version. The second group is told. "We're going to study this subject. There will be a test. Would you like the hard version or the easy one?"
This little experiment has been repeated often in educational research. Group Two always chooses the easy version.
We think when we want kids to get good grades, that they will work, learn, reach, and grow. Turns out the quest for good grades means none of those things. It makes kids value a carrot instead of learning. They get a hard lesson when the leave school, get a job, or go to college.
I know that we all can point to those instances where kids worked hard at something for school, put themselves into it fully, and were happy to receive as their reward a big fat A, front and center, which is the mark of approval by the person in authority.
Chances are the project or paper is something the student really found enjoyable. There was something of intrinsic value about the work. It is also more than likely that the teacher was someone the student respects and wants approval from. This happens; a stopped clock is right twice a day, after all. Sometimes the conditions a student needs in order to produce good work converge.
I don't question the value of a good teacher-student relationship. Teachers should want to inspire kids to work hard, after all. What would happen if kids got to pick their teachers? Their topics of study? The ways in which they pursued their learning of that topic? I'd be ever so happy with a big A on top of a paper, in those circumstances. And how much greater would the happiness be if this paper, into which was put so much hard work, was put on a blog where it could be read and receive the feedback from a larger audience?
Students are not often given the time and resources to follow their own passions. They have only the carrot of the possible grade to get them through the stifling indifference of studying without heart. I have often heard the counter-argument: “I only learned so-and-so because they made me, and I loved it.” Fine and dandy, but if they make you and you don't love it you should feel free to drop it like a hot potato.
Forget everything you have ever heard about tough love, and the school of hard knocks, and not everything is supposed to be fun, and kids have to learn. Yes, adults have to do things they don't want to do. Sometimes the hit is mitigated by a paycheck, but sometimes it isn't. The ability to do that which is unpleasant happens over time; the older kids grow, the more of the world they come to understand. I contend that training courses for kids on the merits of suffering borders on cruelty.
However, the pursuit of knowledge and skills through their passions and strengths increases the possibility that they will come to a more solid understanding of the real world than if coercion continues to rule over those who have absolutely no power or voice or control over what happens to them.
When kids leave the land of high school, sometimes they get to college. Then they are exposed to the kind of rigorous work deserving of the name, and their unpreparedness for the work can be a bit of a shock.
And who did this to them? Who did this to the kids unable to perform well in the work world? We did. Adults. Those of us who work to perpetuate an unhealthy, harmful system of education.
We structure school in such a way that students have to contort themselves, body and mind, to fit into its tight spaces. We ignore the drive to learn that exists inside every child. We make them chase after carrots, as though they had real value, until they find out that the world that waits for them has no use for carrots, and would prefer students and employees who innovate, make connections, ask good questions, think independently and work well with others.
The results of the damaging practices of public school on the kids we are turning out into the world are clear.
Why are we so stumped at how to respond to the sinking of the U.S. in the global scale of competitiveness? Why do we subject our kids to more tests, more grades, less flexibility, and no lattitude for the innate differences between kids?
We're going from bad to worse. We need to insist on schools that value children for what is inside them. We need to stop planning, processing, talking, arguing and hashing it out. School is harming our children. We need the transformation to be big, and we need it to happen now.