America 2.0 – Reimagining Public Education

It seems like every week or so I’m being sent another article about another teacher who has quit the profession who details the many reasons for the decision. The stories are all essentially the same, and as I read them I find myself nodding along with them, laughing at times, at other times throwing my hands in the air and screaming “YES!” at my computer. You see, I am a teacher, both college and high school, and I see both the problem and the short-term effects of the problem on students.

Here’s a brief summary of the problem which is present across the board in all of these teacher frustration pieces: Student discipline is out of control, students prefer hanging out in the hall to attending class, when they do attend class it’s nearly impossible to distract them from their personal screens, there are no consequences for the most extreme behavioral issues, school administration has been rendered powerless to address behaviors in any meaningful way, teachers who attempt to give consequences are called on the carpet, ignorant parents are steering the curriculum, and on and on we go.

What all of these articles are missing is the solution to this huge, systemic failure. As with last weeks’ blog about fixing our Democracy, the solutions are really not that hard to see, they merely require a complete reimaging of the system as it currently exists.

First, there is too much administration in school districts. The solution to a problem is never more upper level administration, nor is it paying those administrators more money. It always evolves this way because, well, it is the administrators who make the decisions, and much like Congress, who wouldn’t just give themselves a raise if they could? Why not bring some friends in and pay them lots of money, too? Pretty soon you have a big fancy building full of administrators who keep not solving the problems they were supposedly hired to fix.

Second, school funding is completely out of whack. Schools should not have funding given or taken away based on test scores or attendance, two things which are often largely out of the hands of the school. Doing it this way causes a surprising number of the problems frequently cited by teachers who quit the field. Administrators don’t suspend or expel unruly students because the district gets paid for those kids being in school and the pressure is on to keep them in class no matter what. Schools should be funded because having good neighborhood schools means kids have a great shot at getting a good education that can prepare them for whatever path they choose in life. Will they all take advantage of it? No. So read on.

We have to make failure OK again. There are few things in life that teach us as powerfully and decisively as failure. I had a friend in third grade who failed and had to repeat the grade. I won’t say her name here, but that left such an impression on me that I can remember her name and her face some 40 years later. I knew that there was NO WAY I wanted to fail a grade and be in class with younger kids while all my friends moved on. More important than that, though, is the achievement factor. If a kid can’t read, in particular, on a third grade level, why on earth are we promoting them to fourth grade??? We have set them up to fail, we have set the next teacher up to fail, and we have created a kid who may be embarrassed and become a discipline problem in order to avoid revealing reading at all cost. If a student can’t complete third grade level work, they should not advance to fourth grade. Period.

Let’s take it one step further, though. Not every child is going to be an academic, and we have to stop pretending that school districts can wave some magic wand and make that happen. Yes, parents need babysitting until their children are old enough to be out on their own, but housing them in increasingly overcrowded schools is not the best answer – for the schools or the kids. An apprenticeship system not unlike what European countries utilize is a perfectly legitimate alternative to simply gifting high school diplomas which amount to certificates of attendance. We should stop focusing on student weaknesses and forcing teachers to take on the impossible task of compensating for them. Instead let’s identify strengths and channel students toward those strengths. For some that will mean staying in school and taking advance English, math, etc. For some it will mean taking a more realistic approach towards careers outside of academia. I know there are concerns that students would be prejudicially tracked, but we’re already doing that – it’s called special education.

Instead of making sure struggling kids actually master grade level concepts we cover them with the umbrella of special education and force teachers to dumb down their lessons to the lowest common denominator. Wouldn’t it be better to target those kids, find out what their other strengths are, and guide them towards realistic life paths? Mechanics can make excellent money and they never have to write a 5-page research paper, to give a simplistic example. Not everyone needs to go to college and not everyone needs to take trigonometry and calculus in high school. Some students just need a basic understanding of concepts like interest rates, balancing a budget and predatory lending and that’s plenty.

Next – and this is a big one – we have to stop taking tools out of teachers’ tool boxes. It’s not easy to keep the attention of modern day students, who have been trained to take in information in 30 seconds or less thanks to social media. We have to pull out all of the stops to have a fighting chance at getting a lesson across, and that might mean English teachers using Harry Potter and The Hunger Games (banned in Tennessee), it might mean history teachers targeting the atrocities of the Holocaust or American slavery (forbidden topics in a growing number of districts), and it most certainly means science teachers teaching actual science instead of being forced to teach religious fables as if they were fact. I recently read an article stating that one district was considering banning Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card because it depicts a future without religion. I’ve read the book and its sequels, I’ve taught it more than once, and it had never occurred to me that religion was absent. It’s just not the point of the book. So what?

Kids see through bullshit, to be honest, and they are already being exposed to pornography, graphic violence and horrific imagery and content in ways that parents really have little hope of shielding them from. Pretending we can protect them from such things in schools is just delusional. Far better that they are exposed to some challenging concepts under the influence of an expert in the field who can guide thoughtful discussion than relegate that exposure to any and every random person with a smart phone. Maybe by learning challenging and even unsettling content in a classroom kids will be better equipped to handle it when it pops up elsewhere.

To build upon that, teachers have never had the final say on any given topic. That’s the parents’ job. My daughter went to a Catholic school for several years because it was close to our neighborhood and the early childhood programming was much more advanced than what was offered in local public schools. Our family is not Catholic and our daughter was not converted just because they talked about it a lot (even went to mass on Thursdays) at school. She would often ask me questions about what she was being told at school and it inspired some great conversations about faith, the diversity of religious beliefs, and accepting that other people may believe things we don’t believe. That should be the mission of schools – to get kids thinking, not to tell them what to think.

Finally, let’s talk about smart phones. Why are these allowed in schools? Yes, I know there are tools teachers can use to utilize these devices and integrate them into construction, but let’s be honest – that’s not anything teachers really relish doing. Yes, some of the kids will use the devices for instructional purposes, but it’s also impossible to keep them from using those devices for other purposes that distract from lessons. Have metal detectors at every door, confiscate phones, and put instruction back in the hands of teachers. Yes, parents will be pissed off, but OK. Parents are always upset about something. School districts have got to stop being afraid of standing up to parents.

More than ever before, schools are forced to be the front line in the battle to shape future generations of Americans. Teachers are expected to be mental health experts, health care workers, politicians, role models and, well, even educators. Meanwhile, we’re competing against ignorant cultures, news agencies that have turned away from informing and towards entertaining, attention-consuming electronic devices and mounting external pressures to include or exclude material based on ideological points of view instead of the most current academic studies. We have allowed education to become about telling kids what to think instead of teaching them how to think, which is the most basic explanation for America’s cultural decline. Opinion too often gets mistaken for fact because we are no longer equipped to tell the difference.

America’s current education system is outdated, obsolete, and dying a slow death. Unless we take bold steps to get back to the business of actually educating and preparing students for a realistic future, there won’t be any teachers left who are willing to perpetuate what is currently a farce. What’s worse, we will have failed generations of students who are essentially becoming the sheep of George Orwell’s worst dystopian nightmares.


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