Warning. This blog post is filled with broad generalizations. However, the point is to spark some dialogue and thinking, so here goes. I stumbled across an excerpt from a George Carlin monologue about education reform. It is amazing what seemingly random things appear on youtube. I was actually looking for an interview by Alfie Kohn about progressive education. At least it wasn’t nude kittens gone wild. Carlin was speaking about why education reform will never happen. In a nutshell, he said that education reform will never happen because the owners of the country (those with the money and power) don’t have an incentive for it to get better. In fact, the opposite is true. They don’t want well-informed well-educated citizens who can critically think about the growing divide between the haves and have-nots. They want obedient workers smart enough to do the work, but just dumb enough to continue to pine for the jobs with increasing hours and responsibilities and decreasing pay, benefits and retirement plans. He used more colorful language. Quite a conspiracy theory I dismissed as the rant of a cantankerous old man. But then I started thinking (which was his point I suppose).
Let’s compare two schools. In the first one, 35 students are quietly listening to the teacher perform a fabulous lecture in front of a Smart™ Board. They take their notes. Some come up and interact with the board and answer a question or two. Eventually they will take an objective test on this material that is organized in scope and sequence to prepare for the state exam on that subject. The teachers use multiple choice tests because they need to prepare their students for the state exams, AP tests, and college entrance exams like the ACT or SAT—and because they couldn’t grade 180 essays.
Many of the students do well on these tests. Many don’t. However, what data we don’t have is how many of these students complete college, love learning, and end up fulfilled with what they end up doing in life. Tough data to collect. In the second school, 18 students are in small groups discussing a topic or working together on an activity. The teacher is moving around, stopping at each table and checking in with each group. At the end of this unit, the students will present the results of their research in a “conference” to their peers. These kids also take AP tests and college entrance exams. Most do well on these. Most go to college. However, what data we don’t have is how many of these students complete college, love learning, and end up fulfilled with what they end up doing in life. Again, tough data to collect. Maybe we should find a way to collect this data?
In case you haven’t guessed, the first one is your average neighborhood public school. The second is your average neighborhood private school. Okay, here begins the broad generalizations. Most people would choose the second school if they could. Many politicians continue to try and pass vouchers to allow public money to allow some students to go to these private schools because, well, they must be better. They must be better because the teachers aren’t teaching to a test, the class size is almost half the public school, the teacher can spend more time with each kid and require more writing and project-work which builds critical thinking skills, multiple teaching days a year aren’t lost to testing, and the teachers don’t have to follow the state curriculum of the state standards. They can be creative. They can be progressive. Here’s the broadest, most sweeping generalization. The “owners” of the country, or the decision makers, are more likely to send their child to a private, progressive school for the reasons I just listed above. However, when in power and they want to improve the public schools, they pass laws to make public schools better that make it ever harder to do the things the same way as in the private schools, which they would prefer for their children. They mandate tests, a national curriculum (standards), and reduce funding (increasing class size). I don’t think it is a conscious conspiracy like George does, but what if the system has evolved to the same result? Does it matter if it was conscious our not?
A few years ago I was at the “Progressive Educators Network” annual conference. Most in attendance were private school teachers and administrators, because the majority of truly progressive schools are private. One of the speakers said that as private school leaders we had a responsibility to help the public schools do the same because not just the wealthy students deserved an education that fostered creativity, love of learning, and critical thinking.
The “owners” of the country have the money and therefore the power and therefore the divide between those with access to resources and those without continues to grow. They have access to a cleaner environment and living situation as the toxic waste dump won’t be in their back yard. They have access to better health care. They have access to ever more and more expensive energy resources. They have access to healthier food instead of processed food. And, they get to send their kids to schools that have smaller classes, require more writing and critical thinking, have academic freedom, etc. which furthers the divide for the next generation. OMG! Are we heading toward a future of The Hunger Games where a majority of the population works to provide resources and goods for the few that live in the Capitol City? Kind of sounds like a return to the time of castles and fiefdoms.
Well, now I’m the cantankerous old man with the rant aren’t I? I do know this; all children deserve an opportunity to be in a place that develops their creativity, their critical-thinking skills, and a teacher with the time and means to focus on them as individual learners, treating them with dignity, compassion, and humanity. I also know that the rush toward standardization is not producing schools that do this, so something must change or I do fear dark times ahead for the generations to come.