Save America, save the schools

Save America, save the schools

Summary: Public education drives me nuts, but it is the best possible solution for teaching people in a free society.

TOPICS: Government

I am feeling brainless, sapped of energy and intellect. I've been dealing with the public schools for a couple days.

My son has been bullied by several kids in his class. What the experience has reinforced for me is the utter hopelessness of the educationalSchools have become bureaucratic machines, where everyone is treated the same, receiving the same limited resources to meet the requirements of standardized tests.. system we hauled into the 21st century. It is all about equal performance, not equal opportunity. The rise of standardized testing and the introduction of "mainstreaming," a movement born in the 1980s that calls for the placement all students of similar ages into the same classroom regardless of very real differences in needs, has produced an educational system that stands in stark contrast to the way work is actually done in a networked society.

Moreover, the schools are oblivious to the difference between their processes and those of the economy, because they've taken the positive notion of including students with disabilities in regular classes and applied it to all students who might have real disdain for learning and other kids. As any adult knows, anyone can make extraordinary contributions to a team. But they also know that active destroyers of value are better given their own rooms, where they don't drag down the team doing real work.

John Dewey, whose ideas about public education ignited the knowledge explosion that created the historic lower- and middle-class social mobility in the 1900s, said that bringing all different kinds of students together was valuable because it produced "continuous  readjustment through meeting the new situations produced by varied intercourse." Today, the schools have become a fixed bureaucratic machine, where everyone, regardless of performance, is treated the same, receiving the same limited resources to meet the requirements of standardized tests. It's the antithesis of Dewey's vision of a democratic society that creates opportunity for all. It's a lid slammed on the bin where we keep students until they are old enough to be held to adult standards, particularly, in the case of troubled kids, adult legal standards.

In business, great people get more resources. That's why Google's policy of giving engineers a significant portion of their time to work on what inspires them is so attractive—it's a democratic opportunity to get access to corporate resources that might propel an individual business idea. It's a little slice of the American dream you don't find many places anymore, and certainly not in the schools.

The schools today, even those lucky enough to get additional funding for technology and non-traditional teaching, are unaware that there is transformation of power, with control flowing from the center to the edges of the network. The idea that the school itself is an edge is missing the essential lesson of our time, that everyone should be empowered to do the craziest things they can think of, because out of that rampant experimentation comes extraordinary reservoirs of new value. Dewey continuous readjustment should have obliterated the school building as the locus of learning about 30 years ago, but Ronald Reagan got in the way.

Many of the problems with schools today are the result of determined conservative efforts to strangle the schools by limiting funding and demanding simplistic standards of students rather than treating the schools as the place where children grow into the rich minds that make society a better place.

Mainstreaming was supported by conservatives as part of their "starve the beast" strategy to alienate people from their government by reducing what government can do through lack of funding. Putting everyone together, including the psychopaths who will hurt others for fun was a ticket to create dissatisfaction with public education, even if it was thought of by liberals. The repeated calls for "competition" in education, through school vouchers, is an attempt to make education elite, as it was in earlier centuries—that is, where the wealthy get their kids onto a separate inaccessible and incredibly well-funded track that is unavailable to anyone else. We need better schools, which means we need more teachers—all of us need to be contributing, instead of treating schools as daycares or places for which people with children should pay—because the result would be the kind of flowering the United States enjoyed following the rise of public education.

I don't want the bullies picking on my kid to be tossed out, I want them in programs that awaken what make them thrive. I want kids who love music to have unlimited opportunities. Literature, science, history, art, all of it: Open our kids minds to enusre they are able to thrive in the world and continue the dream that is America. Instead, this week, across my state, kids are taking almost 40 hours of tests to measure only their ability to read, write and do math. The whole year comes down to this test, and it is, thanks to our president, the measure that determines whether they schools will get less money or a lot less money next year.

If you want your company to live on. If you want your kids to have happy successful lives. If you want to see the United States remain the competitive giant it has been. If you want a future full of choices for everyone fortunate enough to live in this country, in this world at this time... Let's change the schools. 

Topic: Government

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  • "J"-s in charge

    [Many of the problems with schools today are the result of determined conservative efforts to strangle the schools by limiting funding and demanding simplistic standards of students rather than treating the schools as the place where children grow into the rich minds that make society a better place]

    [The model is MBTI (Meyers-Briggs)]

    Ah yes, another example of J-type people ("conservatives") enforcing patterns (control). J-types are great at creating patterns and "running " them, but the MOST PAINFUL THING IN THE WORLD to a J-type, is CHANGE! They invest much time and effort into their patterns, and any change requires that much more time/effort. Of course, P-type people ("liberals") live with change constantly - and have trouble creating patterns . . .

    The trend of the world is that since J-types are organized and P-types are not, J-types tend to dominate. Only after much "strife" do the P-types FINALLY rally, and change bursts on the scene (1960's "hippie" movement).

    Don't like the arrangement? Go ahead and take on 50% of the population - with no help - and THEY are in charge . . .
    Roger Ramjet
  • On using tests.

    Suppose that you were in charge of K-12 educational policy for the US.

    If there were one fact that would immediately become clear to you, it's that people in some schools are failing to learn. Even those who endure through high school finally graduate substantially far from acceptable levels in the skills needed to do well in an economy that puts little premium on a strong back.

    You would want to improve that situation.

    Then you look at what authority you have to make changes in the situation. You have no control over methods of instruction, but by putting conditions on the money you're supplying, you can demand that other, specific actions be taken.

    What you want is people to come out of high school at least able to read, write, and do arithmetic. Maybe you can add a bit of information to that list.

    So you can make the money be conditional on people learning to read, write, and do arithmetic. Which you can confiorm not by BS narratives, but with real tests. Tests are outside the bureaucratic process, so you don't have to worry (in advance) about them being warped to make incumbents look good or at least like acceptable performers.

    Hence the current situation, which makes sense in the context of the observations and attitudes described.

    You discuss the complaint about all the time taken teaching to the test.

    Think of the admission of failure that represents. For hundreds of years, teaching, even in one room schoolhouses, was able to communicate that information and more.

    Now the most limited part of the curriculum is a full time project for months.

    Something is definitely wrong. And it's not the use of tests.
    Anton Philidor
    • I'd argue it is the way tests are used

      Anton, I agree that testing in and of itself is not the problem. My
      wife, who is an excellent 9th grade teacher, is a big fan of
      standardized tests for the reasons you cite. But the tests have
      become the be-all and end-all for many schools, districts and,
      unfortunately, individual educators.

      The "lavish" spending of the early and middle 20th century on
      education in the United States yielded spectacular and
      measurable results so, while we may want to use testing in many
      circumstances to measure our progress, history suggests that a
      broader curriculum succeeds better in putting the information
      imparted in the classroom into some context that activates
      student's enthusiasm.

      I'm against treating education like it's a one-size-fits-all system.
      Mitch Ratcliffe
    • Using Tests

      Standardized tests are minimum requirements. I once heard a description of one test as "Requiring high school seniors to read at a ninth grade level".

      I am over 50 so I encountered public education when it was different but I was in four different school systems because of the family moving. In one public school system we had spelling workbooks that we took home to study, in another system we looked at a list of words on a page for ten minutes then turned the spelling book back in for use in another classroom.
      In one system we had full class days in high school. In another the school day was split with the upper classes in school in the morning, the lower classes in the afternoon.
      In the good school systems the level of education was higher than what standardized test would require so there passing these tests woulb be a byproduct of the education. Targeting a curriculum towards the tests is only required if the education is so inferior that people cannot pass the tests.
  • On mainstreaming.

    For some people who intend to gain and keep control over the lives of others, if reality does not contribute to the campaign it must be ignored. Preferably by law.

    It is an unfortunate but incontrovertible fact that some people are incapable of being in a regular classroom because of either physical or behavioral factors.

    This is the reality which a great deal of effort has been expended ignoring. The only useful facts in the campaign are that sometimes people were classified as handicapped without sufficient effort to see whether the handicap could be overcome, and that people who grow up seeing at least some people with handicaps more frequently tend to be less afraid.

    From these two facts, "advocates" have managed to make ignoring reality into a matter of law. They have often overcome the resistence of the parents of the children being manipulated, who often have sensible ideas about what should happen to their children.

    And then, just as mentally ill people were tossed from institutions intended to care for them with no provision for alternative support, so the schools have been left with the problem of dealing with demanding and possibly disruptive students with no more than hard and fast requirements to help.

    At least until the Court cases further restrict what can be done and mandate money be moved from other purposes to the implementation of the advocates' grand dream.

    Mainstreaming doesn't always fail. But it can have victims.
    Anton Philidor
    • On mainstreaming

      The problem is not in mainstreaming but rather in the inability to be creative. I have heard too many excuses that "we can't do this because ...". There should be no room for excuses in education. There should be no room for excuses period. I think that once you give an excuse, you feel that you have fulfilled you role and you are off the hook.

      You know, we try to teach our children to think and be creative. Yet the beauracy doesn't have to play by the same rules. They don't have to be creative. They just have to live within their budget. It is really a shame that everything comes down to the almighty buck. Maybe they are creative but if they are, it doesn't get communicated to we parents.

      My daughter has special needs and did quite well in an included environment in our school district. When attitudes changed and excuses were made, this enriched environment fell apart (at least for my daughter). If they would have tried to solve the problems instead of giving excuses why they couldn't, we all would have won.
    • Complete agreement

      You just saved me a few paragraphs of typing - well stated.

      The people who favor mainstreaming probably do in large part because they have no experience with a specialized program of any quality and/or longevity. Unfortunately, it gives them a bit of a flat-earth mindset when it comes to discussing the pros and cons of mainstreaming.

      The whole education debate is classic chicken-and-egg with respect to money, tests, teaching methods etc. However, it's obvious to all - and admitted by most - that intensive instruction in basic language and math skills has given way to hours of ultimately meaningless self-esteem candyfloss. Esteem - internal and external - comes from achievement. Runners aren't given medals before the race just for showing up.
      • You don't understand real mainstreaming

        "However, it's obvious to all - and admitted by most - that intensive instruction in basic language and math skills has given way to hours of ultimately meaningless self-esteem candyfloss. Esteem - internal and external - comes from achievement. Runners aren't given medals before the race just for showing up."

        My sons are just in 3rd and 4th grade now, but I see no evidence yet of the "hours of ultimately meaningless self-esteem candyfloss" in their education. In fact, the schools are not given the resources (money, personnel in particular) to make accomodations for children with disabilities to succeed - UNLESS the child in question has already failed in some aspect. This is not right. You don't put a batter up to the plate with one or two strikes against him before the first pitch.

        Telling Johnny that it's all right *not to try* just to keep his self-esteem up (which is what does not work, it only teaches him how to work the system) is not right, certainly. But if Johnny *does* try and he cannot reach the accepted standard, then you had better first do something to help his self-esteem, and then do something different to help his progress. Repeated failure only leads to apathy and opposition. And then we get the behavior problems in school, not the other way around.

        Mainstreaming is not just putting all students in the same classroom, to sink (not allowed) or swim (with artificially inflated grades), but putting the students with academic difficulties into the classroom with appropriate help to give them enough of a boost to succeed. This isn't "unfair," it isn't going to topple your student as valedictorian, it is a lifejacket, raising the needy student's head above water to survive or flippers to move, not a motorized kickboard to swim the fastest 100 meters.

        Achievement doesn't always mean winning, it can also mean having the courage to race, even if you cannot beat the fastest. Sometimes medals are due all the participants, because that courage (persistence) can be harder to develop than any amount of talent (inate intelligence). Sometimes just showing up itself shows that courage.

        And as for the A-students or traditional achievers, it is just as much a crime against them to ignore them and pacify parents with woefully inadequate "gifted and talented" programs. If we are going to keep these students motivated, we need to recognize them and get them going on a fast-track (or more correctly, a high-level track) as soon as possible. Waiting until high school (or sometimes as late as 11th grade) is too late - we've lost a lot of them already. We can't afford that at all. It will be a lot more expensive when all is said and done than the cost to do it right.
  • Good Liberal Spin

    Show me where more money equals better education.
    • Private schools

      Take a look at the results of private schools and state schools. The private schools with the money do a lot better than the poorer state schools.
      • Could you point to the evidence?

        I'd like to see the results you refer to. Where is the data?
        Mitch Ratcliffe
      • Is it really about the money?

        If what you state is true (and my admittedly limited experience bears this out) is the cause of the disparity between private and state schools a result of more funding (via tuition) or because the private school has the ability to directly control how the money is spent (no teachers unions for one thing), has the ability to pick and choose students and lastly has to produce a better product (educated student) in order to survive and collect those tuition dollars?

        In my opinion as the father of two small children (one school aged) if any student randomly picked from any public school class can pass the standardized test appropriate for that grade level without previous preparation, then the school system is doing it's job. If the system has to spend 9 months playing "catch up" so that a student who has been in the system for years can exhibit basic skills that they were supposed to be acquiring all along, then the school system is derelict in its duties to the children and those of us who support it through our tax dollars.
    • Okay, I'll assume you flunked math

      Schools with more money don't have to have 35-50 children per classroom, so that the teacher spends almost all of his/her time keeping order and babysitting.

      Schools with more money can be more selective in who they hire as teachers, instead of desperately settling for anybody who can pass the collegiate requirements and will accept the lousy wages they offer. (My home town back in Tennessee pays starting teachers less than the janitors make up here in Wisconsin; which is why my child is being raised in Wisconsin.)

      Schools with more money can offer arts, music, drama, languages, advanced studies: all the things that make life worth living.
  • What's the objective?

    The primary objective of public schools is to provide adults with taxpayer funded daycare for their children. They don't even do that good of a job in this.

    But what should the goal be?

    Economically I would say the goal should be to raise the top performers as high as they can go in the subjects deemed must necesssary to economic development.

    Socially I would say it should be for students to all meet a minimum competency level.

    So how do you do both?

    A three-phased system. The first two phases publicly funded, the third privately. The first phase requiring a test to exit, the final two requiring tests/admissions to enter. Public funding ends when the student is 19. All public funding should be distributed through vouchers, which can be supplemente through private funds. Phase 1 schools require certification. A student may drop out after phase 1 with his parents' permission.

    The first phase is for minimum competency. Students should be taught as quickly as they can learn. They exit as soon as they pass a test. This should cover all the practical skills required for high-school graduation.

    Phase 2 should be parents' and students' choice. The student already has basic skills, so phase 2 could potentially be entirely vocational.

    Phase 3 should be entirely the students' choice, although parents will obviously use those private funds in order to gain influence.
    Erik Engbrecht
    • Daycare?

      I think it's clear from my posting that we don't agree about the
      purpose of public education. Interesting idea you suggest, but it
      subverts the intention of public education, to create an informed
      and prosperous people. The benefit of a broad-based liberal
      education was that it put those basic skills into a context that
      the students could use to apply math, reading, and other
      "basics" to explore their talents and, most importantly, create
      opportunities that their parents might not have been able to
      afford in your Phase 3.

      Do you think the social mobility that characterized the 20th
      century in the United States was bad or a misallocation of
      Mitch Ratcliffe
      • Sarcasm and Upward Mobility

        The daycare remark was somewhat sarcastic, but that's certainly what public schools appear to be sometimes.

        How does my idea subvert the idea of an "informed and prosperous people?"

        Phase 3 is currently (and probably would remain) "college." The difference is, I think many students could receive the equivalent of a decent college education before they are 18, which would be state funded. Phase 3 funding (and supplementary funding) could be obtained through loans.

        I believe in education, but I do not believe in education for education's sake.

        There are two major problems with a "broad based" liberal education:
        1. Most of it has very little direct practical application
        2. Many people aren't broad. Failing demotivates people. The thing is, people don't have to succeed at everything, they just have to succeed at something. There's no point in a future engineer or scientist or construction worker sitting in a literature class if they don't want to be there.

        Notice I said don't want to be there. There is a point if they want to be there.

        Under my system people are given much, much more choice. Under the current system many children never receive basic skills. Far worse, many who could become productive (and happy) members of society are alienated by subjects in which they have no interest and have no practical application.

        I thought of my system because the current system fails almost everyone. The most acedemically inclinded kids waste years of their lives being bored. The academically dis-inclined waste years of their lives struggling to learn skills that they do not need. The challenged ones just end up failing.

        So I say let the kids and their parents sort themselves out into schools where they can thrive.

        Just to add fuel to the fire:
        I think student loans should be like business loans. The fact that people can borrow >$100k to study things like theater at Ivy League schools with no plan for earning money and end up making <$30k a year is ridiculus. No one should have loaned them the money. It would have been better spent on an engineer or electician or accountant or mechanic.
        Erik Engbrecht
        • Phase 3 isn't college, it's the rest of your life

          You describe minimum competency as the primary goal of an
          educational system. After that, your phases 2 and 3 are where
          knowledge gets applied and that used to be college or
          vocational school after high school, where you learned
          something about the world you lived in, even if it was boring.

          Real application of critical thinking requires more than minimum
          competency, and that critical faculty is essential to two things:
          1.) democratic decision-making, which requires an informed
          public, and ; 2.) social mobility, which is essential to the
          "American dream" of making a better life. By minimizing
          education, making it only competency in basics and ignoring the
          need for application of ideas until a "private" phase 3,
          discourages the development of an informed and prosperous
          people. For my generation, which did benefit from the value our
          parents and grandparents put on education, phase 3 was a
          lifelong love of learning and ability to learn.

          So, you then turn to the "we shouldn't discourage people by
          offering too many options at which they may fail" argument. I
          can't imagine you take this seriously. Failure and learning to
          cope with it, to overcome challenges rather than never be
          challenged in the first place is the essence of success. Maybe
          your definition of "happy people" is drooling television-obsessed
          idiots, but the rest of us want to know that there is a path open
          to our children to investigate their ideas, no matter how
          impractical, because that is why America is what it is today.

          What practical use was electricity when it was isolated by
          Franklin? None. What possible use could we find for petroleum,
          which used to ooze out of the ground, though no one thought it
          valuable until it was refined using chemical processes that
          probably seemed challenging for the average Joe.

          "The challenged ones just end up failing" is the most pathetic
          and indifferent phrase I've read in a long time. And if you can't
          appreciate the value of diverse courses of study, including those
          that give us playwrights and special effects artists along with
          engineers and plumbers, you've really missed the better part of
          life. It was your fuel....

          My point is that the economic value of the investment in public
          education is unassailable. For the past 25 years we've been
          trying to narrow education down to something "affordable" to no
          positive end. Time for a change.
          Mitch Ratcliffe
          • You're making too many assumptions

            1. Democratic Decision Making
            Most of my friends have undergraduate and/or graduate degrees from top-tier universities. I don't trust them to make intelligent political decisions (I'm sure the feeling in reciprocated). How will I ever trust the general population?

            2. Social Mobility
            My scheme focuses on economic mobility. Social mobility is subjective, but I'm sure being economically upwardly mobile would help with being socially mobile in most directions an individual would desire.

            3. Offering options vs. forcing
            I have no objection to offering all sorts of options. I object to forcing them. If people choose to study a subject, they are much more likely to learn. If they don't choose to study it, they probably won't learn it.

            4. Just end up failing
            Why should I care if people who don't want to learn "academic" subjects fail at learning it? What I care about is when they go on welfare or worse commit crimes because that's their most economically appealing option. I say dump the academics, teach them skills they'll use and hopefully are interested in.

            5. Happy people
            My definition of happy people is people who are happy. If someone is happy drooling over television, who am I to tell them that's wrong? Personally, I don't have cable TV. I don't have a DVD player. My one television set is 17 years old. I have a large and growing library. I have a pile of computer equipment and a broadband connection. But that's what I want, and I respect people enough to not tell them what they should want. So long as they aren't stealing or on welfare.

            I appreciate a diverse course of study, but there are certainly subjects I'm don't like. I can tell you I disliked reading fiction until I was about 23. That was the first time I read a book because I wanted to and not because someone told me to. I've been a avid reader ever since.

            6. economic value
            What economic value is there in making someone do something they don't want to do?
            Erik Engbrecht
  • As a parent, I thank you for this intelligent and well-reasoned entry

    I've watched the public schools being starved into weakness for thirty years now. Sadly, my home town of Milwaukee is at particular risk because the voucher scam is being pushed by heavily-funded rightwing thinktanks at places like Marquette University, to the detriment of my daughter's school and all the others in the district.
    • So, what are you going to do?

      Is there any counter-movement in Milwaukee?
      Mitch Ratcliffe