The Schools We Need

Photograph: Steven Errico / Corbis
Photograph: Steven Errico / Corbis

IT’S A COLD DECEMBER EVENING in Lexington, Kentucky, and I’m sitting by the fire with a teetering stack of final essays from ENG 104: Freshman Comp. I know what I’m in for. All semester I’ve been hectoring my fifty-odd students to insert commas after introductory phrases, to improve paragraph development, and to remember that the phrase for granted (as in “take for granted”) means “to accept,” whereas for granite, the phrase they often use instead, could only suggest homage to that igneous rock, something akin to W. H. Auden’s poem “In Praise of Limestone.”

It’s been a tough three months. I had been away from full-time teaching for a few years, and away from eighteen-year-olds for longer. From 1995 to 2005, I taught four, sometimes five, sections of Freshman Comp each semester. I read roughly 8,000 essays during that decade — 200,000 pages, 50,000,000 words. After all that, I took a little time off to do some writing of my own. But when my book was finished, the department chair ordered me back to the front line.

And Freshman Comp is the front line. All incoming college students take it, and their numbers are on the rise. Consequently, we are legion as well, we writing teachers, we circlers of the comma splice, we well-intentioned, underpaid masses. Despite what you may have heard, we are not covert operatives, Maoist holdovers who have infiltrated the ranks of higher education. While I do have major concerns about the predatory nature of corporate capitalism, as I imagine many of us do by now, my motives, like those of my colleagues, are mostly pure. Our goals can be simply stated if not easily achieved. Namely, we want to teach your children to think for themselves and to communicate those thoughts through effective use of language.

Of course, unless you are a Dadaist poet, you have to write about something. But after reading thousands of essays (a noun I much prefer to “arguments”) about abortion, gun control, and gay rights — all important issues — I decided that, on my return to Freshman Comp, I would ask my freshmen to essay (a verb I prefer to “argue”) on a topic they all presumably knew something about: high school. I began with a simple prompt for the first essay: evaluate the education you received over the last four years.

Next I asked my students to write profiles of their best or worst teachers. They seemed to like this, largely because it gave them a chance to vent some pent-up spleen and settle some scores, at least on paper. I noticed that most students chose to describe the poor teachers and to enumerate their many flaws. Very few — and these were mostly students from parochial schools — chose to profile a good teacher.

After that exercise, I asked my freshmen to describe assignments, curricula, class discussions, and books they had liked or disliked. I told them that writing is a movement back and forth between observation and insight. I said: first describe a thing in detail — a person, a place, an experience — then let that description lead to some insight, some take-away value. That’s what readers want, I emphasized, to get something out of what they have read. I told my students to try to think of me not as the teacher who would affix grades to their essays, but as an ordinary reader who was interested — which I was, and am — in what goes on these days in American high schools.

What I ended up taking away was pretty grim, both on the content level and with regard to the writing itself. In terms of content, this is the picture that emerged from those fifty essays:

  • Many teachers show no passion for their subjects.
  • Many teachers don’t seem to know their subjects very well.
  • Teachers often have very low expectations for their students and very lax standards (late work is rarely penalized).
  • Many teachers are afraid to engage students in real critical thinking or actual dialogue; they simply rely on handouts and lectures.
  • Assignments don’t seem relevant to students’ “real” lives.
  • Many teachers only “teach to the test.”
  • The majority of the work is far too easy and leads to boredom.
  • Students express an overwhelming feeling that only their attendance and test scores are important to teachers and administrators.

I am obviously drawing these conclusions from wholly anecdotal evidence. But because the uniformity of that evidence was so overwhelming, I think it deserves some serious consideration. There were exceptions. Almost everyone could produce at least one example of a good or great teacher from high school, someone who inspired or stirred intellectual curiosity. But overall, my students described days of endless worksheets, lifeless lectures, and an impenetrable fog of boredom.

After reading all of these existential scenarios, I decided to hand out an essay by John Taylor Gatto called “Against School: How public education cripples our kids, and why.” A career New York City schoolteacher, Gatto argues that students are bored because they are supposed to be. The education system is intentionally designed to shape them into a passive mass who will, in bovine fashion, join the labor force and become unthinking mass producers and mass consumers. Public education, in Gatto’s estimation, is a scheme dreamed up by the captains of industry to incubate servility and ultimately sabotage anything like a real democracy. I don’t think my classes quite bought into Gatto’s conspiracy theory (“yeah . . . maybe . . . whatever”), but they did agree that the American high school classroom is pretty damn dull.

What concerned me as much as my students’ disdain for their teachers, though, was the quality of their writing. Potential ideas lay dormant and undeveloped on the page; basic rules of grammar and punctuation went unheeded; logic was all but absent. After reading that first round of essays, I began annoying my friends with dire, unprovoked brooding on the dismal state of high school education in this country. More than one friend warned me against committing what I have come to call the Breakfast Club fallacy. In that flawed, but seminal, ’80s high school film, the assistant principal is complaining to Janitor Carl that the kids have changed, gone bad, turned on him. “Bullshit,” replies Carl. “The kids haven’t changed. You have.” That’s the Breakfast Club fallacy: the kids aren’t getting worse; I’m just getting older and more cantankerous.

Maybe so. My own high school was hardly a proving ground for intellectual inquiry. Still, I’m concerned, and for the same reasons that led George Orwell to write the essay “Politics and the English Language”: bad writing leads to bad thinking, and vice versa; uncritical acceptance of others’ prejudices can lead to people marching around with signs displaying Hitler mustaches on an African-American president. In fact, the entire faith we put in democracy as a form of governance rests on the fragile assumption that, in the realm of free and open debate, conscientious thought will more often than not carry the day. And that assumption, as Thomas Jefferson saw more clearly than the other founding fathers, rests in turn on a viable system of public education.

Citizen education “was the central, defining moment of [Jefferson’s] political and moral philosophy,” wrote political theorist Benjamin Barber. “Everything else turned on it.” Throughout his correspondence, Jefferson maintained that only an educated citizenry can practice true self-governance, and toward that end he drafted the 1779 Virginia Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, the first piece of legislation in the young country to propose at least three years of primary education for both boys and girls. However, the bill failed, and in many respects, American public education continues to fail the Jeffersonian dream of emancipatory learning. Only now it fails in the face of a climate crisis, unsustainable resource use, and rising world populations. It fails at a time when the stakes concerning public education have never been higher.

Writer and teacher David Orr, author of the environmental education classic Ecological Literacy, has observed that too often in this country, education has only served to make Americans “better vandals,” uncritical consumers and exploiters of the natural world. While pundits like Thomas Friedman lament that American children are falling behind in science and math, rarely do we hear that they are being woefully ill-prepared for the arts of citizenship and stewardship — dispositions that will be every bit as necessary on Friedman’s hot and crowded planet. If we want to preserve democracy in America, radical and widespread changes in the way we educate American children and teenagers must begin at once.

POLITICIANS IN WASHINGTON have spent decades disparaging American public schools as too far gone, too decrepit to bother resuscitating. But as I look back over my students’ list of grievances concerning their own high school educations, it strikes me that none of these problems seems at all intractable. As with other American crises, such as energy policy, tax reform, and drug sentencing, the problem doesn’t seem to be a lack of solutions, but rather an absence of will. My students’ complaints, largely about the classroom environment and the content of the curriculum, can be clustered into three groups: quality of teaching, expectations placed on students, and relevance of subject matter to that much-contested realm they call “real life.”

As someone who has spent nearly twenty years in writing classrooms with late-adolescent Americans, I’d like to take a crack at this list. But before I do, it’s necessary to say a few words about the students themselves. At the risk of generalizing, it seems to me that two of the more serious problems afflicting American adolescents today are the fear of not fitting in and an astonishing lack of curiosity about the world beyond their cell phones. Popular culture instills high levels of passivity among its most vulnerable targets, the young. There is, to take one pervasive example, not a single item for sale at my local mall that asks the consumer to do something, make something, or master a skill (the store that sold telescopes and chess sets recently closed). Yet American teenagers have on average one hundred dollars a week of disposable income, which they typically spend at the mall. What they consume helps them adopt an easy, off-the-rack persona, but it does little to cultivate real self-invention, the unfolding of one’s nature that Emerson called the “chief end of man.” This passive shaping of the self leads, I think, to a flimsy narcissism that results in a lack of curiosity about the world outside the self: real life.

A neighbor who is a longtime high school English teacher told me recently, “When these kids get to you, they won’t have learned a damn thing about writing. All I do in class is police.” Like my neighbor, many of us assume that the American youth have become captive to popular culture. Certainly this makes teaching much harder today — probably harder than it’s ever been — but it also seems like an opportunity to contest the ground we as educators have yielded too quickly to the entertainment industry. Instead of allowing the practice of accumulation to replace authentic experience, we should be creating opportunities for our students to learn how to more fully inhabit their own lives and the larger world.

Which brings me back to the teachers. The first charge: teachers show no passion for their subjects and they don’t seem to know their subjects very well. I would wager, along with my students, that many teachers show little passion for their subjects precisely because they don’t know them very well, or as well as they might. For this reason, some critics have proposed abolishing entirely the education departments at all American universities. I understand this sentiment. About half of my writing students are education majors, and I hear endless complaints about busywork and irrelevant assignments. One student stayed in school an extra year to earn a minor in Appalachian studies so, she told me, “I would actually know something worth teaching.”

But if we do not take on the rather cumbersome task of dismantling ed schools, we should at least insist that prospective teachers major in the subjects they plan to teach. That would be the most immediate and dramatic way to increase teachers’ knowledge of their subject and, presumably, their passion for it. Nothing I have found, or have observed while mentoring new teachers, inspires more confidence in front of a class than mastery of the material. Teenagers are like hyenas in their ability to sniff out uncertainty and fear in an instructor; quickly they can turn into an unruly pack, and it becomes almost impossible to regain their respect or decorum. Knowledge of and passion for one’s subject represents the surest way for teachers to keep students interested and engaged. Conversely, someone with no passion for a subject should simply not be teaching it.

When I was a freshman in college, I took a foreign film class that was way over my head. One day, after watching Fellini’s The Clowns, the professor — a tall Cuban-American of some bearing — fell back against the chalkboard and said, “If you don’t cry at the end of The Clowns, you are not a human being!” I hadn’t cried. In fact, I hadn’t really understood the film. But I wanted to feel — about anything — what my professor felt about The Clowns. It wasn’t Fellini, but the teacher’s passion for Fellini, that moved and inspired me and that I recall to this day.

Now for the charge that teachers have low expectations and the work is too easy. Anyone who has ever hosted a European exchange student knows this to be true, relative to expectations placed on students overseas. The logical solution is to assign work that is more challenging and treat students more like adults who have to navigate a world of ethical uncertainty and information overload.

If the popular culture is cajoling adolescents to be unthinking, passive consumers, teachers must meet that message with an active, critical response. For instance, we might ask the girls to bring to class a magazine they read and the boys to do likewise. We might ask: What are the messages in every ad in your magazine? How are the messages to girls different from the messages to boys? Can the products deliver on their promises? What percentage of those promises seem true? Do those percentages differ according to gender? All are basic questions. But they will yield crucial information about gender and identity in this country, and teenage students will gain that knowledge through the use of analytical skills that can be applied in other fields.

I suspect the hesitancy by many high school teachers to hold active class discussions about real moral and ethical dilemmas may be a byproduct of how contested and politicized the word values has become. No one wants to talk about them because someone might become offended, or someone might say the wrong thing, or the messiness of open debate might get exposed.

A few years ago, on the first day of my Freshman Comp class, an argument broke out over whether or not “Redskins” was a racist name for a professional football team. I hadn’t expected or planned this debate, but I let it rage for half the class, trying to direct and redirect the lines of argument as best I could. It seemed like productive chaos, and afterward, the class did not emerge from the debate divided, but rather heartened, it seemed, that everyone had been given a chance to voice diverse opinions. Something important happened that day: the students created a democratic space in which to debate and consider ideas. It wasn’t because of anything I did, but simply because I didn’t get in the way of the students’ own grappling over questions of perspective, personal background, and the ability of words to both empower and harm.

And with that, I have already veered into my students’ third charge, that high school subject matter isn’t relevant to real life. This sentiment seems to be grounded in the suspicion that, because school budgets and salaries are determined by test scores, many teachers are simply “covering the material” in a perfunctory way, or, even more insidiously, “teaching to the test.” Neither exercise seems like real learning to adolescents, who immediately sense its contrived nature and, as a result, retain little of that knowledge from year to year. Many progressive educators have responded by pushing for a curriculum that encourages more depth than breadth. That is to say, cover less material, but examine it in ways that promote real inquiry and understanding on the part of the students.

Deborah Meier, a senior scholar at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education and a founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, suggests that we replace the cover-the-material mode of teaching by cultivating a “habit of mind” that can be applied to all material. Such a habit nurtures the intellectual skills students need to make decisions on complex matters and is based on such things as: quality of evidence (how do we know it’s true?), consideration of various viewpoints (how would it look through someone else’s eyes?), the search for patterns and causes (what are the consequences?), and relevance (who cares?). These criteria will serve students well on any standardized test because they will have been taught how to evaluate the evidence before them, regardless of what it may be. And Meier’s last question, “who cares?” speaks directly to my students’ complaint about the relevancy of subject matter, because their demand for assignments that are relevant to real life does have merit. In the year 2011, real life can be quite scary, and helping students to navigate it requires a much more challenging curriculum.

When deregulated corporations destroy entire ecosystems and the Supreme Court grants those same corporations more “rights” to express themselves as “persons” (very rich persons), the need for a more Jeffersonian form of schooling — one that emphasizes serious critical inquiry in the service of citizenship — is imperative to the future of democracy. We need schools, as novelist Mark Slouka recently wrote, that produce “men and women capable of furthering what’s best about us and forestalling what’s worst.”

THE GOOD NEWS is we can begin revitalizing both education and democracy by implementing a curriculum that incubates what I will call the “citizen-self.” As teachers, I believe our purpose should be twofold: 1) to provide the opportunity for individual self-invention among students, and 2) to create a space where that individual takes on the role and the responsibility of the social citizen. The pedagogy I have in mind combines the Romantic idea of the bildung, the cultivation of one’s own intellectual and psychological nature, with the Pragmatist view that such individuality must be vigorously protected by acts of citizenship. That is to say, it encourages Deborah Meier’s “habit of mind” toward the goal of helping each student determine what she or he truly thinks and feels about an issue or an idea, and it encourages what psychologist and philosopher William James called a “habit of action,” a way of translating such thinking into citizenship. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that the first part cultivates the inner self, while the second shapes the outer self. But these two selves cannot be separated; each depends upon and strengthens the other.

Thomas Jefferson believed that the fundamental American impulse of this citizen-self should be anti-industrial, anti-corporation, and should cultivate a generalist approach to education and work. Jefferson also believed that both politics and education best succeed at the local level. This has proven true time and again in my own experience. In the Kentucky River watershed, at the headwaters of this ecosystem in the central Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky, some of the most fascinating chapters of this country’s history have been written, often in blood. Here, Aunt Molly Jackson (the “Pistol Packin’ Mama”) held up a coal company store and stole flour to feed starving children, here men and women stood up to strip miners whose bulldozers threatened their own land, and here country music got invented. Central Appalachia also happens to be the most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America. Yet most adolescents (and most adults) in my watershed know little or nothing about the ecosystem, the coal camps, or the blasting apart of the east Kentucky mountains; they listen to Brad Paisley and Taylor Swift instead of native singers like Loretta Lynn and Jean Ritchie.

My point isn’t necessarily that Jean Ritchie’s music is better than Brad Paisley’s (though it is), but that when students learn about artists from their particular watersheds, they begin to feel their own home place legitimated, validated. Localizing knowledge makes the curriculum more relevant to students’ own experience, and it can instill a sense of pride about the places where our students live. “When I was growing up in these mountains,” wrote Kentucky novelist Lee Smith, “I was always taught that culture was someplace else, and that when the time came, I’d be sent off to get some. Now everybody here realizes that we don’t have to go anyplace else to ‘get culture’ — we’ve got our own, and we’ve had it all along.”

Taking pride in one’s place can also lead to a desire to take responsibility for that place, which is, after all, the crux of citizenship. Teachers can foster this impulse by focusing assignments on local issues, allowing chemistry, biology, English, and civics classes to be driven by a problem-solving impulse. Such learning is inevitably interdisciplinary because real problems, and real learning, rarely break down along clear disciplinary lines. If a strip mine is polluting a local source of drinking water, that is clearly a biological and chemical problem, but it is also an ethical problem grounded in lessons of history. To solve it, many fields of knowledge must be brought to bear. And to articulate the solution will require some skilled rhetoric indeed. Working to solve that problem becomes at once an experiment in stewardship (the opposite of vandalism) and citizenship (participatory democracy).

It also goes some distance toward breaking down the artificial, but very real, wall between school and life, between learning and doing. The rejection of this false dichotomy was one of the primary goals of the American Pragmatist educators like John Dewey and Jane Addams. Of the turn-of-the-century settlement school movement, Addams wrote that it “stands for application as opposed to research, for emotion as opposed to abstraction, for universal interest as opposed to specialization.” Specialization has, too often, been the enemy of educating the citizen-self. It encourages careerism as the only goal of education, and its narrowness can result in an abdication of responsibility concerning problems that lie outside of one’s specialty. These narrowly focused specialists can cause problems. Financial specialists caused the economic collapse, genetic specialists have created crops that require far more pesticide application, and we don’t yet know the full havoc caused by deep-water drilling specialists. But as we saw with BP’s cagey initial reaction to the Gulf disaster, as well as Monsanto’s outrageous contempt for farmers and seed-savers, specialization also seems to create a troubling loss of empathy.

Empathy, what Jane Addams called emotion, has largely disappeared from American public life. Our politics and punditry are too divisive, the gap between rich and poor too wide, the messages from the media too preoccupied with what William James called “the bitch-goddess SUCCESS.” We think of public life as a playing field of winners and losers, when we should be thinking about it, to borrow from Dewey, as a single organism made up of thousands of single but interconnected cells — a whole that needs all of its parts, working cooperatively. In other words, we should be thinking about how our educational institutions can be geared less toward competitiveness and more toward turning out graduates who feel a responsibility toward their places and their peers.

Here is the crux of the matter: As we enter an era of dwindling resources and potential mass migration due to climate change, we are going to need much more empathy — perhaps more than ever before — if we hope to retain our humanity. Empathy must be the measure of our students’, and our own, emotional and ethical maturity.

If my English-teaching neighbor is right, and she is simply policing student behavior until graduation, then John Taylor Gatto is also right that we are simply warehousing students in public schools until they are old enough, as the Steve Earle song goes, to “walk into the county bank and sign away your life.” That might have been Alexander Hamilton’s idea of the American Dream — making bankers rich — but it’s not what Thomas Jefferson envisioned for the country. Nor is it in the best interest of its citizens.

When someone asked Benjamin Franklin what type of government he and the other founders had birthed on this country, he famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” The truth is that we have not kept it. We have relinquished it to Wall Street bankers and corporations that spend $6 billion a year to ensure that political hirelings do their bidding. As a result, the United States has the largest income gap of any country in the Northern Hemisphere (it is also, according to the 2009 census, the largest income gap in this country’s history). The problem with this, as epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket have found, is that every single societal problem, with no exceptions, can be tied directly to income inequality. As a result, the U.S. has higher levels of mental illness, infant mortality, obesity, violence, incarceration, and substance abuse than any other country north of the equator. And we have the worst environmental record on the planet. If this is a republic, you can have it.

How do we recover, how do we reinvent, the country that Jefferson and Franklin envisioned? We must become better citizens, and that transformation must begin — and really can only begin — in better public schools.

PUTTING MY STUDENTS in situations where they might learn and practice the art of real democracy has become a large part of my own teaching, and it is with these goals in mind that I often take them to a place in eastern Kentucky called Robinson Forest. It is a brilliant remnant of the mixed mesophytic ecosystem, and it is home to the cleanest streams in the state. Yet only a short walk away from our base camp you can watch those streams die, literally turn lifeless, because of the mountaintop removal strip mining that is happening all around Robinson Forest.

A few years ago, I had one student (I’ll call him Brian) who had only signed up for one of my classes because it fit his schedule. He was, in his own words, “a right-wing nut job,” and he disagreed with virtually everything I said in class. But he was funny and respectful and I liked having him around. On our class trip to Robinson Forest, we all hiked up out of the forest to a fairly typical mountaintop removal site. The hard-packed dirt and rock was completely barren, save for a few non-native, scrubby grasses. To call this post-mined land a “moonscape,” as many do, is an insult to the moon.

Brian was quiet as we walked, and then he asked, “When are they going to reclaim this land?”

“It has been reclaimed,” I said. “They sprayed hydro-seed, so now this qualifies as wildlife habitat.”

“This is it?”

“This is all the law requires.”

Brian went quiet again, until finally he said, “This is awful.”

Then he asked, “What do you think would happen if every University of Kentucky student came to see this?”

I pulled the old teacher trick and turned the question back on him: “What do you think would happen?”

Brian paused, and then said, “I think mountaintop removal would end.”

This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about education, are collected in a new anthology, Leave No Child Inside. Order your copy here.

Erik Reece is the author of Lost Mountain and the recipient of Columbia University’s John B. Oakes Award for environmental journalism. He teaches at the University of Kentucky.

Comments

  1. Oh…where to begin in response to this fantastic article—with a compliment: it is my anecdotal experience, after sending three daughters through the public school system, that a student is lucky if he or she encounters one shining light of a teacher, and I suspect that there are many students for whom Eric will be that light. Since each of mine had one, I know that its power is unfathomable—one such light can keep a kid sane through high school, help find the student’s true life’s interest, can pass on the wonder and change the world. What if every teacher shone like this?

    Thank you for pointing out that education is the foundation of democracy. It seems to me that democracy is built upon a three-legged stool: the right government structure, a robust public education for all potential voters, and the satisfaction of basic human needs (food, shelter, health and security) so that the voters have time to think about things outside of survival. We seem to be losing, rapidly, two of the legs. How long can a stool balance on one leg?

    About 9 years ago, I home-schooled my 8th grade daughter. At the same time, I happened to be a local elected official. While I taught my daughter Earth Science at home, I was trying to get some zoning language adopted, which would provide protection of riparian buffers along waterways in our Township—a rather crucial need, then and now. It became apparent to me that many of my constituents did not have the basic knowledge that I was teaching my daughter. These were my friends (mostly, except for the ones who put the dead woodchuck in my driveway and the milkshake in my mailbox), intelligent, likeable people. I remember thinking “I need to start way back at the beginning.” Not to influence them so they’d make the decision I wanted them to make (I do believe in democracy)—but to offer the background needed to make any kind of decision that would come from an informed analysis. Fast-forward to now: just a few months ago, I promoted a voluntary riparian buffer protection program in a neighboring township. After my presentation, one of the officials said “you probably believe in global warming, too, don’t you?”

    This is why we need teachers in the trenches. Thank you for this article, which I wish could be written across the sky. I’m not sure that if every University of Kentucky student saw the mountaintop removal, it would end. There are still the woodchuck people. But it might.

  2. This article was so perfectly timed for me in my current thinking about everything. The ideas you put forth here are the exact reasons that I founded a Science Cafe in my town several years ago, and the reason that I push for well roundedness in my own children. It’s the reason that we discuss everything from math and science to literature and politics at our dinner table every night. Thanks for putting this down with such elegant concepts and language!

  3. Great essay! It’s an important point that many overlook. Not only does a faulty education system threaten our economy, and our abilities to sustain ourselves, but the very structure of self-governance. We aren’t being properly equipped to engage in the debate, but worse, we aren’t even aware of our deficiencies, or that there is a debate.

    We will be discussing this essay in the next episode of our podcast The Midwest Peace Process. Thanks for providing some grist for the mill!

  4. The author makes a great connection between the disconnect public ed. corporate “Reformers”have between their reforms and a true educated public. Basically they have no use for a truly educated populace trained in critical thinking with the ability to question authority. These corporate educational reformers simply want what Gatto discusses…a compliant workforce with some profit motive mixed in for good measure.

    Unfortunately, the author falls into the corporate reformer trap of ridiculing the teaching profession without thoroughly teasing out the important causes for any perceived problems in the teaching profession. Corporate reformers want to use all teachers as scapegoats for a system that may be failing thanks in large part because of the public policy their politicians have supported. After all, these same reformers want to take over higher ed as well as public ed.

  5. Just a correction: Lee Smith isn’t a Kentucky novelist; she was born in Grundy, Va., and now lives in North Carolina.

  6. Very nice essay ! All of it is so very true. We need to take some positive action but the system is so vast where can we even begain ?

  7. Extraordinary essay touching on so many crucially pertinent issues that one reels from the task of addressing the here-in clarified social, political, corporate/capitalist, moral, psychological forces that shape contemporary American education. My father, born in 1898, had only an 8th grade education and was never in his life taken for less than a well-educated man. Times are very different, as we read.
    And there, it seems to me, is the one element not clarified. How can one write well if one does not read? If one’s textual input is Tweets and video games, well then, shallow, unfocused, consumerist/conformist slave mind develops. I have friends who are teachers who will tell you that after years observing the system being “fixed” and dismantled they now believe that is precisely the plan.
    Thank you, sir, for your patient, caring, high-minded and deeply felt analysis. I will share it widely.

  8. This is a great essay, among many over time, that point to the threat and the opportunity. I appreciate the depth and personality of your analysis.

    We’d love to make use of this article at IDEA – and would love to invite anyone not familiar with our emerging effort to put action to the ideas raised here, to check us out.

  9. A thoughtful, balanced, and generally perceptive article. My only question is why the author chose to omit any discussion of the influence, both for good, but unfortunately mostly for ill, of the teacher’s unions.

  10. Thank you for a well written provocative essay. Whether by design or not, educators have had to pick up many pieces dropped by parents, families and communities for the overall health and well-being of students. This, combined with a defunct system of federal funding linked to test scores, has created a less than optimal environment for students or teachers to thrive in. Involved parents and families and caring communities need to also be a part of the picture of reform. This is a broad generalization, but needs to also be a part of the conversation. Thank you.

  11. A very well-written and provocative essay. As I am sure the author would agree, the connection between good education and democracy is not a new concept. He cites Jefferson as an early proponent. It is a self-reinforcing cycle. Unfortunately, it works in both directions. Poor education leads to poorer governance, and that leads to worsening education. I believe we are already caught in the negative feedback loop. One need only follow what currently passes for political discourse now to see the evidence.

    I fear we are past a point where the curriculum Dr. Reece recommends could be implemented on a wide scale through change in national policies. He states in the essay “there doesn’t seem to be a lack of solutions, but rather an absence of will.” Here I disagree. There is a very strong will, and it has pushed rather poor solutions. It has not been that we have no will to address problems, but that we address them poorly. A failure to act would be evidence of lack of will. The examples, energy policy, tax reform, and drug sentencing are problems because of willful actions, not our lack of will. True, we’ve lacked the will to act on climate change, but that is because it is a relatively new issue. With time we’ll get it wrong.

    It is not a lack of solutions or a lack of will. It is an inability to acknowledge when something we’ve tried has failed. Today’s government would not repeal Prohibition, it would expand it and make mandatory jail time for tipplers. Government has already implemented “solutions” to improve public education: more testing, No Child Left Behind, and voucher programs that damage public schools. We will have to seek different avenues and mechanisms to improve public schools. Before any real progress can be made on a national level, someone is first going to have to acknowledge some mistakes. If we rely on action at the national level before acknowledging failure, we just might end up with “No Child Left Behind v2.1.0.2″

  12. Wow! This has been a draining experience. Reading the article and the readers’ comments forced me to relive some of my 40+ years in public (government) education in the US. Being unable to continue participating in what I then considered a monsterous fraud, I abandoned my $66,000 a year high school teaching position in 2004. No longer allowed to actually teach in the militarized anti-intellectual enviornment, I fled; too many lost battles and too many scars.

  13. This essay fits in perfectly with a prolonged discussion my brothers and I have been having via email. Thank you. I’ll be sending the address.

  14. I enjoyed the article; yet it is heavy on pointing the finger, and exposing a public education system and country that is failing its children. To be sure, we must remember that for every disillusioned, cynical teacher and student there are enthusiastic, competent teachers and students doing amazing work. For every example of struggling freshmen, there are young men and women who are bright, engaged and passionate about their world. So I take this jeremiad on public education for what it is.

    And then, predictably, on the possible solutions to the dismal state of public education, the essay is a little thin – outside of some age-old wisdom about connecting kids with the places they live through authentic, relevant and engaging educational opportunities facilitated by passionate,scholars in their fields dedicated to the young people they serve, there is not much…oh yes,except for dismantling university schools of education, (the only concrete action on offer) We want better teachers so do away with teacher education mmmm…

    The essay is a rant and understandably with the economic, political, cultural and environmental morass into which the US has sunk in the last two decades it is easy to look for scapegoats and find them. Teachers and schools are easy targets- I have seen it before when times get tough and no doubt I’ll see it again. But rather than another diatribe on the failed education system our energies should be better placed at looking at a culture based on values that precipitate a race to the bottom – schools area reflection of the culture writ large. Bigger questions must be posed than are asked by this essay.

  15. You stated that we now have the largest income differential of any country in the “northern hemisphere” and that Ben Franklin’s admonition about keeping our country a republic has not been heeded. When did education end up unable to turn out educated students? I didn’t see any date, approximate or exactly.

    I think that the date when this purposely gauged educational inadaquacy began would coincidentally be the same date that the Brown v. Board of Education came down, and now Black children would have to be given an education that makes them more than drawers of water and hewers of firewood. Private schools multiplied, and home schooling became popular and the funding for public school went down the toilet.

    Racism is not able to be exhibited like it was during the Jim Crow days, but there is a subrosa vein of racism that is in back of the degradation of public education.

    Meanwhile, production is going overseas because even the unskilled workers in the U.S. are outbid by the Chinese and other venues where poverty is more accepted by its workers. And we no longer have a need for drawers of water and hewers of firewood, and too many of our public school children of all races leave school equipped to do no more than that.

    We are very much like that frog who, sitting in a pot, is slowly allowing itself to be boiled alive.

  16. Our modern school system developed in Europe.Mainly in France. Intention to train the youngster for civil and military service.That is why they ,made it compalsary teach all subject to all student, same discipline grade system.This education system adopted by whole world Now this system is out of date. Unfortunately we have not change the education system appropriately with the time.Now we want new education to erect such a student who can develop his talent with his natural instinct.If some body interested in art we must encourage him.Every child is unique,teacher must find out his uniqueness and develop his talent that way.Stop giving grade and don’t judge everyone on same level.There must be revolution in education system.

  17. You walk into a classroom with twenty or thirty students, sitting in chairs bolted to the floor or defiantly not sitting in them. What is the most important fact here and now? Engagement: not of or in a “group” (for that word inevitably means “individuals”) but in a “living and genuine We” (M. Buber). The substance of schooling is meeting, a phenomenon that occurs not in curricula, not in systems, not in cultures, but between persons. Where are teachers taught to attend to the phenomena of engagement?

  18. I am not signing on to quibble–that is about as useful as the endless blaming, moaning and groaning that has shadowed so many efforts to change teaching and learning. This essay doesn’t sink into that mindset completely—but I felt disheartened after reading it. My feeling is that the best thing we can do is celebrate what works and give teachers and students the support they need to move forward.
    There are AMAZING things going on. Check out Helen Beattie’s work with YATST, Education for Sustainability, National Writing Project, City High School in Tucson, Michael Umphreys in Montana, Expeditionary Learning. IDEA was mentioned in an earlier post. Read anything Greg Smith and David Gruenewald write about place-based education. Despite the heavy weight of high-stakes testing and the inhumane demands put on teachers, many are moving forward with a wonderful spirit and open heart—-discovering amazing instances of democracy and authentic partnerships when they steer the work towards the community. They are working with students—not at students. Like the conversation Reece has with “Brian” at the end of the article. It’s opening up space for these conversations that will move us forward.
    Let’s spend more time exploring the power of these conversations (or as McHenry just posted—in MEETING)–and less time on blaming past practices that haven’t gotten us anywhere. Celebrate student voice and support your local teacher!

  19. This is a great article and one of the few Orion articles I have found meaningful, but I disagree with Reece that the American institution of secondary education can be fixed.

    After my son had graduated from college he said, “The Fairfax County Public School System should be renamed, ‘The Fairfax County Public Penal System’, because that is what they run, a jail.” The Fairfax School System is now well known for its severe punishments for petty offenses that lead to suicides, for which indifference was put on display in the name of defending the enforcement of “rules”.

    The familiar line about the best two days in a boat owner’s life are the day the boat is bought and the day it is sold or sunk, has meaning for secondary education. For many secondary school students, the best day is graduation or the drop-out day when the pain and suffering of education tyranny is over.

    I also liked how Reece tied into his narration a range of sources that added substantially to the message.

  20. Thank you Erik. I hope your essay enables the space for deep and sustaining discussion. The importance of language cannot be overstated. Every living cell uses symbols to survive and procreated. The flawed use of a symbol can be fatal for the user and humans are no exception. Both the Buddha and Confucius gave us extraordinary insights into the psychology and physics of our situation. For instance:
    Tzu Lu said: “The ruler of Wei wants you to become a member of his government. What will you work on first?” Confucius said: “The correction of language use [rectification of names].”…
    (see rest of quote at http://www.thesustainabilityprinciple.org/ )
    We ignore that wisdom at our great peril.

    I hesitate to comment. I have always struggled to write comprehensible sentences and risk my message being destroyed by my poor grammar. This struggle is now compounded by my diplopia. I trust my convoluted observations will be received with the kindness in which I offer them.
    I am the proverbial school janitor these last seven years and I tend the rubbish bins, smashed vegetation, overloaded electrical circuits, broken equipment and get to commiserate with the teachers weeping from overwork, curriculum stress and “troublesome students/parents”. Previously for two decades I was a meter reader visiting tens of thousands of homes in all sectors of society. I was thus uniquely privileged to observe what had actually been learned in our education system. In particular I witnessed first hand the devastating impacts of our elite education centres such as Harvard University.
    I only speak English and it is clear our Anglo-American education systems are again increasingly designed to disempower people and make them cannon fodder. The first act in 2008 of our new Prime Minister of New Zealand, a multimillionaire ex-Merrill Lynch executive, was to stop all Government funding for general adult education and instead invest in military-based education for our unemployed youth.

    Erik, I am unclear what you mean with your use of the “public education” symbol. I am assuming you mean “education of the public”, including both private and public education/schools.

    I endorse your call for greater empathy. Without empathy our communication propagates misery. And our education system is specifically designed to destroy empathy. Four centuries ago people like Descartes stripped “science” symbol of its associations with compassion, thereby enabling the escalating excesses of the Industrial Revolution. Our education system will become an increasing menace to us all until our education system is reframed so science is understood to be primarily a state of being, as well as a way of thinking. (See sample framework at http://www.thesustainabilityprinciple.org/).

    My various roles have provided me with a unique experience of the birth and emergence of the now very potent Environmental Education industry. For instance I see its products on our school walls in the form of children’s posters urging others students to “Save our planet – be electricity wise”, “Save energy – use renewable energy” and “Save power – turn off the lights”.

    The “energy” symbol both reflects and generates our worldview. So I ask, “What is this energy that you speak of, Erik?” Could it be your use of the symbol is dangerous Corporate Speak? The essay usefully reminds us of the psychopathic nature of the modern corporation. These institutions now dominate our education system and determine the curriculum. We see this in their redefining of our most vital symbols in the following fatally flawed equation: Energy = fossil fuels = power = electricity = Bulk-generated electrical products. In this insane equation we find the complete denial of change/stewardship and the recipe for continuous increasing consumption, debt growth and risk of war.

    Every one is vitally intimate with energy and everything unravels in unsustainable ways if our notion of energy is flawed. We have great guides in the principles of energy, especially the Conservation Principle of Energy. However it’s great wisdom is rarely unpacked in our schools. There is even less discussion of how the ego is ingenious at denying this wisdom and the practical ways we can transcend the limitations of the ego and thought.

    I suggest we begin our rectification of our language by re-imagining science as a product of compassion. Thus we will better understand how we develop skills, which will in turn enable us to experience civics and the great principles of physics most fully.

    In kindness

  21. Thank you Erik. I hope your essay enables the space for deep and sustaining discussion. The importance of language cannot be overstated. Every living cell uses symbols to survive and procreated. The flawed use of a symbol can be fatal for the user and humans are no exception. Both the Buddha and Confucius gave us extraordinary insights into the psychology and physics of our situation. For instance:
    Tzu Lu said “The ruler of Wei wants you to become a member of his government. What will you work on first?” Confucius said: “The correction of language use [rectification of names].”…
    (see remainer of quote at thesustainabilityprinciple.org)
    We ignore that wisdom at our great peril.

    I hesitate to comment. I have always struggled to write comprehensible sentences and risk my message being destroyed by my poor grammar. This struggle is now compounded by my diplopia. I trust my convoluted observations will be received with the kindness in which I offer them.
    I am the proverbial school janitor these last seven years and I tend the rubbish bins, smashed vegetation, overloaded electrical circuits, broken equipment and get to commiserate with the teachers weeping from overwork, curriculum stress and “troublesome students/parents”. Previously for two decades I was a meter reader visiting tens of thousands of homes in all sectors of society. I was thus uniquely privileged to observe what had actually been learned in our education system. In particular I witnessed first hand the devastating impacts of our elite education centres such as Harvard University.
    I only speak English and it is clear our Anglo-American education systems are again increasingly designed to disempower people and make them cannon fodder. The first act in 2008 of our new Prime Minister of New Zealand, a multimillionaire ex-Merrill Lynch executive, was to stop all Government funding for general adult education and instead invest in military-based education for our unemployed youth.

    Erik, I am unclear what you mean with your use of the “public education” symbol. I am assuming you mean “education of the public”, including both private and public education/schools.

    I endorse your call for greater empathy. Without empathy our communication propagates misery. And our education system is specifically designed to destroy empathy. Four centuries ago people like Descartes stripped “science” symbol of its associations with compassion, thereby enabling the escalating excesses of the Industrial Revolution. Our education system will become an increasing menace to us all until our education system is reframed so science is understood to be primarily a state of being, as well as a way of thinking. (See sample framework at thesustainabilityprinciple.org)

    My various roles have provided me with a unique experience of the birth and emergence of the now very potent Environmental Education industry. For instance I see its products on our school walls in the form of children’s posters urging others students to “Save our planet – be electricity wise”, “Save energy – use renewable energy” and “Save power – turn off the lights”.

    The “energy” symbol both reflects and generates our worldview. So I ask, “What is this energy that you speak of, Erik?” Could it be your use of the symbol is dangerous Corporate Speak? The essay usefully reminds us of the psychopathic nature of the modern corporation. These institutions now dominate our education system and determine the curriculum. We see this in their redefining of our most vital symbols in the following fatally flawed equation: Energy = fossil fuels = power = electricity = Bulk-generated electrical products. In this insane equation we find the complete denial of change/stewardship and the recipe for continuous increasing consumption, debt growth and risk of war.

    Every one is vitally intimate with energy and everything unravels in unsustainable ways if our notion of energy is flawed. We have great guides in the principles of energy, especially the Conservation Principle of Energy. However it’s great wisdom is rarely unpacked in our schools. There is even less discussion of how the ego is ingenious at denying this wisdom and the practical ways we can transcend the limitations of the ego and thought.

    I suggest we begin our rectification of our language by re-imagining science as a product of compassion. Thus we will better understand how we develop skills, which will in turn enable us to experience civics and the great principles of physics most fully.

    In kindness

  22. Got so much from your article entitled, “The Schools We Need.” Thank you for synthesizing this need through an historical mentioning, application of the early intent of education… Also reflecting the interdisciplinary benefits of a proactive educational philosohy paired with empathy, an ideal end for each learner.

  23. You could not have said it better in “The Schools We Need”. In the end it is the idea of the need for empathy that enables a citizen to think outside of their own narrow “me” world. As an early intervention (0-3years) SLP I also focus on developing “empathy” in a child. It is the basis for all communication, what Simon Baron-Cohen calls “theory of mind”. What I notice, with just a little horror, is that often, within the families I see, day in and day out, an incredible lack of engagement and real empathetic communication. My career spans 35 years and I see young parents, and even young colleagues, spending more and more time with their faces buried in their smart phones, with little time for real discourse, both verbal and non-verbal. It is this ability to converse, understanding someone else’s mind, that builds higher level functional-emotional development; the kind of higher level critical thinking needed to make rational choices and good political decisions. I fear for our future.

  24. Jerry Blaz asserts obliquely some causality between declining education and Brown vs Topeka Board of Education. I think this is a gratuituous assertion lackling any evidence, so can just as gratuituou9sly be denied. In any case, I’m not sure what the point of the comment is.

  25. Taking students to Robinson Forest is an excellent example of problem based learning where students become involved in a given environment or context and then write to it, about it, from it, in it, and out of it.
    Two of our professors are planning to take a cohort of students to a place where they will live with poverty stricken people, sleeping on the floor, trying to find something to eat, etc. We need to incoporate this kind of visceral experience in our teaching if we expect studets to have any informed idea about the real realities that surround them beyond their own narrow universe.

    Suellen Alfred

  26. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments! Orion invites you to join us as we discuss these ‘future of education’ issues live with the author and an expert panel, next Wednesday, 9/21. More info and registration here:

    https://cc.readytalk.com/cc/schedule/display.do?udc=7tncwa38f70v

    It’s free, and special guests Deborah Meier (Coalition of Essential Schools) and Dr. Leon Botstein (Bard College President) will share their views with Erik Reece and respond to your thoughts and questions.

    Hope you can join us,

    Erik
    Orion

  27. I was asserting correlationship and not ‘causality’ because if certain events happen after a specific variable such as school integration, and then there is a proliferation of private schools and home schooling, then the atmosphere for the abandonment of the public school by many becomes quite evident. This is not a claim of causality, but this coincidence of occurrences in this timeline is correlational.

  28. To Jerry #28.
    Even if you assert correlation as opposed to causality, as I said earlier, it is an assertion with no evidence to support it – just your “observation”. My “observation” is that one could find other correlations with as much explanatory value.

  29. If Richard Sumpter has evidence and not just an assertion that my correlational observations are incorrect, he should please show them. Noting that certain phenomena occurred after school integration became the law of the land is evidential in and of itself. Newspaper items at the time noted this proliferation of private schools after integration and tied it to the ending of “separate but equal.” It is easy to say, “you’re wrong,” because one doesn’t like the idea that racial prejudice still exists or whatever reason anyone might have to pick a bone with my observation.

  30. Thanks a million for this article! I’m from Manila and I teach History to non-majors. I have to confess I almost yielded to the temptation of not raising my standards so as not to get frustrated. In my first year of teaching I got too tired of checking “mind-boggling” essays. Mind boggling because I couldn’t figure out what the students really wanted to say. Anyway, this article will forever inspire me to keep on teaching and engaging my students to make their years in the university as meaningful as possible. Thanks again!

  31. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful and important article. I’d like to add my own anecdotal experience from several years ago, described more fully in “Green Teacher” magazine, issue 79. My comment specifically addresses the points made about teaching students “real world” issues and democracy.

    As a volunteer at a Portland, Oregon public school, I proposed that students study and then testify at a public comment hearing on how the state should respond to the return of wild wolves. Students were fully engaged in the project, grilled each other on the facts, and succesfully presented testimony. Their families were also supportive and provided books and information on the subject. Then came the media and political backlash.

    Constituents of rural Oregon wrote their legislators, complaining about urban students testifying. The legislators wrote the superintendent of Portland schools, who investigated and apparently found a balanced presenation of the issues in the curriculum, but nevertheless found ways to pressure the school. A rural newspaper blasted the students, whose job, it explained, was to be quiet and listen to the adults, rather than speak and participate. The Oregonian newspaper wrote, as its lead editorial, something similar, if not as outspoken.

    The backlash heightened the students education with lessons on politics and media not anticipated when the project began. Unfortunately, it also sent a clear message to the school that there were repercussions for allowing the students to engage in the democratic process.

    As for me, I obtained my teaching degree and license, but could not find a job in Portland or the Chicago suburbs and returned to practicing environmental law. I got the distinct impression and was later advised by others that by highlighting my passion for engaging students in the real life issues around them, I was scaring administrators away from hiring me. I was also advised that there is a disconnect between what are considered “best practices” and the realities of what hiring officials are looking for.

  32. Thank you for your eloquent presentation of these critical issues and opinions that I spend many hours pondering. I am a pre-service high school chemistry teacher and this article both solidifies my own thoughts and inspires me to see that others share them. Having just started my time in the classroom I am seeing first hand the challenges facing our education system I have to believe that one day enough of us who care will be in positions to affect change. I believe that you are absolutely correct, public education is the foundation for any true change in this world. I am striving to become one of those teachers that students will remember fondly and that will help them to grow and learn to become thinking caring citizens of the world. Again, thank you.

  33. This is a great essay. I’ve read almost all of John Taylor Gatto’s writings, and it seems to me that, in addition to the points you make, he also stressed, rather forcefully, that the main problem with public education (See his Underground History of American Education) was not that it exists, but that it is compulsory. Forcing humans through an externally imposed system for 12, formative years is utterly inconsistent with any notion participatory democracy. That alone precludes critical thinking about citizenship. The most inspiring school I know of (also from Gatto) is The Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. Among its many attributes – it is a real life democracy lab.

  34. i can’t even begin to put into words my response to this fabulous, accurate, overdue summary of what’s gone wrong in America. thanks to the author!!

  35. Coming upon this article this morning was synchronicity at work for sure. I just started teaching again (composition and literature) and have been grappling with many of the questions/issues that Reece entertains. In fact, we’ve just been having a conversation in both of my classes about intellectual authenticity and creative curiosity; and needless to say, I’m paying very close attention to their responses. I can always appreciate an Erik Reece article in Orion.

  36. I am a public education teacher, and I applaud Mr. Reece’s efforts here, at least in part. I think the reforms he suggests are valid and would certainly be vastly beneficial, but I am rather surprised that he didn’t deduce the correct causes of the flaws in public education, which I see as twofold.
    I teach eleventh grade English and AP Language and Composition (also to eleventh graders), and the two classes are almost nothing alike. My regular classes are watered down to an alarming degree- I know it and the brighter kids I teach know it. In fact, by the eleventh grade, I think most kids realize there are two choices that you can make when scheduling classes : AP or ridiculously easy. Now, I know that my statements here may prompt some of you to say “Well that is your responsibility- if your class is easy, make it harder”. But, I love my job and I need it- I have two little kids who I need to support financially but, beyond that, I love going to work every day: that may seem like a non-sequitor, but my point is the class has to be easy or I risk catching static from the higher ups. The reason the administration might start jumping on me is because of “No Child Left Behind”. The notion that all students can, or should, pass and achieve is inane and dangerous: tying school accreditation to test scores and pressuring teachers to teach to the lowest kids (so they can pass the standardized tests that determine accreditation and thereby determine which schools are run “well”) is ludicrous: what happens is the standard adjusts so abominable work passes, making capable students have to do marginal work to look excellent by comparison. Until schools become a competitive environment again, and we drop all this mamby-pamby handholding that has gotten the education system to where it is, expectations of student work will continue to lower as more and more students who have been exposed to this flawed ideology march through the grade levels.
    A second reason for the failing public education system is, quite honestly, that it is too hard to fire teachers who don’t do their jobs, don’t care, and take their paychecks secure in the knowledge that they will be safe to continue their “work” as long as they don’t do something completely idiotic (molest a kid, beat a kid, etc). In fact , many bad teachers are held up as role models- why you ask? They have figured out that giving students good grades alleviates parental hassles and pleases admins- they hand out grades that are not earned, the parents never complain of course, the kids don’t care because they know colleges will ultimately look at the grade on their transcript and not the veracity of their knowledge as criteria for admittance, and the attitude from administration is often “Why can’t YOU get your kids to achieve”- achieve my ass.

    There will need to me myriad changes in education if we are to keep up with the rest of the world, or to make up ground. I would love to see merit pay for teachers but not if it is tied to performance on test scores because good teachers are often given the weakest students so they can get them through the tests- the result is too often good teachers have students fail the standardized tests not because of their shortcomings but because of the students in front of them. A hasty merit pay system may result in bad teachers getting rewarded as a consequence, and a thorough merit pay system would probably be blocked by teachers’ unions whose lazy members would rise up against the eradication of their meal ticket.
    The solution, as I see it , is to make teaching a competitive profession somehow (although I don’t bitch about the pay – I knew I wouldn’t be rich coming in) and put more pressure on students to actually perform. We may lose a few yes, but that’s life right?

  37. I, too, would like to add my compliments and admiration to Erik Peece’s essay “The Schools That We Need”, It is as eloquent and inclusive as I have seen in a long time. Good on you Erik!
    I have an expanded take on why schools are failing which is in complete compliance to the idea that our democracy and our nation as a republic is in peril. I acknowledge this a version of finger-pointing but I’m also one who thinks there needs to be some of that because there cannot be an honest debate without it.
    My first year in graduate school, way back in the summer of 1985, Dixie Goswami nearly drove me crazy with “Yes, Don, but what’s your theory?” Every time I opened my mouth it was, “What’s your theory?”
    At that time my only response was “What do you mean what’s my theory? I don’t have a theory. What the hell for?”
    It was not until Thanksgiving time that fall that the light went on. i owe Dixie more apologies and respect than I can ever hope to give.
    We cannot teach without a theory. Even when we deny we have any theoretical footing we are expressing our theory. So I would argue we need to be up front about it and demand that our teachers have a theory/ies and that they can speak about and write about those theories.
    And YES, it is dangerous to do this as one commentator, Steve Siegal, so eloquently explained. But that controversy and the harm it did to Steve should be a red flag showing the undemocratic injustice pervasive in American public education. I wonder what kind of pressure Erik Peece is feeling after publishing his piece?
    With fidelity to Dixie I want to contribute this piece of theory about public education.
    I think public education makes and is forced to maintain 4 false assumptions about education (learning)
    1. Public Education confuses CONTROL for CHANGE. The examples are endless but just consider NCLB and Race to the Top. What’s actually happening is inappropriate, anti-intellectual rules are clamped onto public education and we are told this will fix the problem.
    2.Public Education confuses EMPLOYMENT for CITIZENSHIP. This goes directly to one of Erik’s point and to several examples given in the comments. For me, one of the first classes I was required to teach was Business English. Everyone knew, especially the kids, that was code for dumb-dumb English.
    3. Public Education confuses INFORMATION for LEARNING. If the futurists are right (and I think they are) information is doubling every school year. How in the world can anyone teach content when it is obsolete before the school year ends? Yet high stakes tests are essentially content information tests. Yes, I know there are writing prompts and cultural adjustments but I know first hand how bogus the writing prompt evaluations are.
    4. Public Education confuses BREADTH for DEPTH. Again Erik alluded to this as a problem. Children entering kindergarten today will be competing for jobs that don’t exist yet. Yes, I’m contradicting myself somewhat. Education for employment and education for learning are not the same thing today nor have they the same thing for roughly 400 years. The basic model for public education was created by Metternich and Bismarck which was the beginning of the military/industrial complex; which still controls education today. Traditional public education does not know how to do in-depth learning because of its insistance on isolation of content areas. Traditional education does not understand the fundamental connection between language and learning.A fatal disconnect we’ve been living with for a long time but cannot any longer.
    If we rank 17th in the world in education, given the speed and power of technology where will we be in another decade.
    Why has every great civiliaztion in the history of the world declined and fallen?

  38. Posted by Orion on behalf of LOUISE GORDON:

    There are other things wrong with US public schools. How are students supposed to become critical thinkers when K-12 is designed for obedience training – to teacher authority and grades? Peter Gray offers some good alternatives to conventional classrooms where learning is student directed.

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201108/is-real-educational-reform-possible-if-so-how

    It is also shocking to realize that 19 states in the United States still permit teachers and others in authority to hit students with wooden paddles. McCarthy, of New York, has introduced a bill to ban this practice. The ACLU also has information on how students with disabilities are “disciplined” in such a manner. Rather barbaric for the 21st century, no?

    Noam Chomsky has some interesting things to say about education as a system of indoctrination:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xq6lFOhLJ0c

  39. The free schools are supposed to be non-selective, all-ability, and help disadvantaged children particularly. Why, then, did the head of West London Free School say that the curriculum there will not suit all children? Why is Langley Hall Primary Academy giving priority to children who attend the attached independent fee-paying nursery? Why is the proposed Bristol Free School giving 80% of its places to those in the affluent suburbs if it’s oversubscribed?

    State schools already have considerable freedom to innovate since local management of schools was brought in. There is no need for this expensive and divisive policy. If freedom from the national curriculum is so desirable, then why not extend it to all schools. That wouldn’t cost a penny.

    And as for setting pay and conditions – is offering free private health care for teachers a valid use of taxpayers’ money? Yet that’s what the Harris academy chain offers.

    All schools want their pupils to achieve their full potential. But the free schoolers seem to think that GCSEs C and above can be achieved by all, even the below-average, the challenging, the ones with statements of special education need. I wonder how many disruptive pupils will find a place in a free school, or will they be persuaded to go to another state school which will no doubt be pilloried because it doesn’t achieve the same results as the school which rejected the difficult pupils?

    The article says that only one-fifth of state schools achieved good GCSEs in maths, english, science and a foreign language. I suppose the article refers to the EBac although the humanities subject is missing. When the present cohort of Year Elevens started their courses there was no requirement to study a foreign language, therefore to criticise state schools for not achieving results in a subject which was not mandatory is disingenuous.

    I like the thoughts of this article. Thanks for the post. I will revisit your site frequently.

  40. Many comments here back my view too of wisdom and insight in this article. I’d add one thought: Like the mall that has noting to invent or make, how many “food” items in supermarkets today are not food ingredients to be cooked or used, but already assembled, processed foodstuff? The penultimate example to me: 20 choices of pasta sauce with extra ingredients, so we need not think nor season to our own tastes. Nor grow our own parsley.

  41. Loved the article. My one question is this. I hear what you’re saying about needing teachers that are masters of their discipline. On the other hand I think there’s a value in amaturism. If a teacher is only allowed to teach what they hold a BS in you run the two fold risk of creating boredom in the teacher and discouraging cross-curricular curiosity. My question? Does your position that teachers need to hold a BS in their subject area contradict your later assertion that over-specialization is dangerous?

  42. “Would it be better if schools were non-compulsory?” this is a question i find myself thinking about a lot. as a student and philosopher, i believe that if schools were non compulsory, that students would be more engaged and actually want to be there instead of constantly thinking about how much they hate school. they would be more likely to succeed in life because they actually want to learn, thus they would absorb more information and over all, have a better attitude. I’ve heard about many schools in Africa that when the students afford an education got done walking through and the gates closed, dozens, sometimes even hundreds of lower class children go to the gate looking through trying to get even the tiniest bit of knowledge. over all, i believe that schools should be non compulsory.

  43. I seem to be an outlier here, but happy to occupy the limb, when this one seems in need of an occupant. I do not see how this article differs from most I read in the local newspaper blaming teachers for a populace of uneducated and unmotivated youth. I have been a public school teacher in many capacities for about 16 years, and have gone through 3 graduate programs as well. The fact that only one of my three grad programs was useful to me is another story, but perhaps one worth mentioning here, since in some sense college seems to be the saving grace of our children. That said, most educators I have and do work with are exceptional people, and exceptional teachers, balancing with success the needs of our students. These needs often begin with the basics of food and shelter, and teachers in my area work with and through these needs every minute. Does that mean we do not have high expectations for our kids? No. It means we come in with notions of changing the world for the better, and often get floored with the realities of social systems failing our children. I am not in turn blaming society, parents, or any one person or group for this reality, but it is a reality, and it affects the learning our students are able to do. I’m sure many kids complain of boring classes in school. Often the same kids who complained during my class that they were bored are the ones who come back later and thank me for not letting up on them, for being caring, for teaching them ___, etc. I could go one and on, but my message here is that, contrary to what others here have written, and what the author seems to be saying, AND in agreement with some aspects of the author’s essay, our public education system is NOT broken, most teachers ARE doing a wonderful job with what we have to work with, and conversation about changes would be more useful to more educators if we stopped blaming educators for this system, which, by the way, seems to have okay with those of us writing here – unless, of course, I am the only product of public education in this area of cyberspace.

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