Lisa Cooley, a Maine school board member and blogger, has been posting for a while now about how public education needs an overhaul. Her most recent post, found at the Innovative Educator, is entitled “I Am No Longer Willing to Let Traditional Schooling Hurt Our Children“. I believe she equates traditional education with public education and vice versa. Her post has received a lot of positive comments; since I disagree, I’m using this venue to cross-post my own responses.
Cooley: If we agree that schools are built on a foundation that is shaky at best, what would happen instead if we did things differently?
I almost completely disagree. The purpose of public education is not to cater to individual kids’ [parents’] needs or wants, but to create an informed and literate populace. That means that there needs to be a general understanding of what’s important for people to know: literature, writing, math, science, etc. Allowing individual students to determine their own learning plans based on what they [think they] care about [for now] is not going to help.
The statement that schools alone are hurting students is itself harmful. Schools and teachers do not go out of their way to create problems for students. Students come to school with their own sets of problems that then play out again throughout the day without any help from the school itself. As several researchers have recently pointed out, the primary problem for American schools is poverty.
As Mr. Bartan says, some kids have the opportunities to pursue their passions. Others don’t. Schools have to level the playing field as much as possible with limited resources (financial, personnel, time and otherwise) available to them. It’s illogical to demand the complete reform/transform/overhaul of traditional education based on anecdote.
The responses to the above were almost completely negative. I was accused of not understanding that schools are oppressive places designed simply for an out-dated industrial model. So, here’s what I wrote:
I understand the thinking behind “the education system was designed for the industrial age and that doesn’t fit our current times”. I just believe it’s erroneous.
Starting with Maria Montessori and moving through John Holt and others, many educators have theorized that public education needs an overhaul because it doesn’t meet the individual needs of kids. On the other hand, public education hasn’t changed a lot probably because meeting the individual needs of individual kids is time-consuming and expensive as evidenced by special education (PL 94-142 passed in 1972) which is based on the Individual Education Plan (IEP). Each identified special education student is guaranteed a “free and appropriate (not perfect) public education” (FAPE) through whatever accommodations and modifications are required in his/her case. It’s a valuable but costly process that has created a specialized bureaucracy in schools and towns across the country.
I am retired and currently working as an Educational Technician with at-risk kids. These students do not have the type of home life that provides opportunities for pursuing their passions and interests (except video games and hanging around town). They don’t even have the type of home life that encourages reading or cooking (so as to learn fractions, for example) or building (geometry) with Mom and Dad or grandparents.
One purpose of public education is to level that playing field as much as possible. That’s a reason Maine provides laptops for all middle-school students. Another purpose is to provide a foundation in basic skills and knowledge. Kids are kids, no matter what era they live in. They need guidance. They need help. They aren’t in a position – yet – make their own decisions because the don’t have the experience to know what they need.
The idea of a free day is lovely, but schools run 9-10 months of the year. Show me how this works for an entire year. And then another entire year. I doubt you can. And even if you could, the resources required to make it happen would be astounding.
Blaming schools for society’s ills is pointless. 6 hours per day (give or take) for 175 days (or so) is all schools see of kids. The rest of the time is spent at home or out-and-about. Kids who are on the edge of homelessness, or searching for a sexual identity, or living with grandparents because Mom and Dad are in drug rehab are unlikely candidates for appropriately pursuing their passions – in or out of a school building. Help schools, stop blaming them.
I know that my lone voice won’t make a lot of difference in defending traditional public education but it’s important for someone to try: there’s a lot of good in public education today and it does not require a complete reinvention. Tweaking, yes. Truly heeding the voices of teachers and other educators, yes. Acknowledging the needs of kids, yes. Letting them run the show? No.