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Entering the Blog World: The Crazy Educational System

September 24, 2011

I enter the blog world. It’s only been about umpteen years I have thought of doing this and still wonder if anyone reads this stuff, but if nothing else, it gets these ideas out of my head and cataloged in the “cloud” to rain down later if I ever get back to this.

The big idea I keep coming back to is the paradox of why our schools are so mediocre and how remarkable it is they do as well as they do despite being part of what is probably (to rephrase David Tyack’s immortal title) the one worst system. 30+ % non graduation rates, lousy test scores, repressive school climate, loads of kids “hurt” by school….this really is untenable. At the same time, it is praise worthy that even 50% of kids, from wildly diverse backgrounds, many with huge struggles from poverty, hunger, trauma, etc, do pretty good learning with an ever expanding curriculum (I know it was that much easier to teach all of US history back when I started 30 years ago before we had to add the Reagan years, Clinton’s impeachment, Iraq and Afghanistan, etc., let alone shoving in AIDS education, 21st century skills, financial literacy, etc).

The paradox, or the problem, is that almost anything good that happens in schools is in spite of the system, not with support of the system. As one superstar educator who is a principal just wrote me, I feel like I am a boxer fighting with two hands tied behind my back. In almost every regard, the various structures, traditions, and organization of our public schools work against quality and lead to, at best, mediocrity.

Before I get slaughtered by the stories of all those great public school graduates who have won Nobel Prizes and such, maybe I should frame what I mean by mediocrity. There are certainly individual students who thrive in our public schools. And there are even some individual schools where I imagine a fair number of kids thrive. But overall, our schools tend to work for a small percentage of kids (and in fact, I would argue the organization of our schools reinforces this tendency to benefit a few at the expense of the many). So for me, the ultimate question has always been how do we create a system of schools (and maybe simply a system of learning) where every child can find success? By this standard, I tend to think our public schools are pretty mediocre.

Documenting how schools are mediocre (or “failing,” to use the more alarmist Nation at Risk terminology) seems like overtilled (and overly depressing and distracting) terrain. Once we get caught up in arguments over the minutia of statistics and test sampling methods and controlling for family background or cultural differences, we will never get at how to improve the system. I hope it is ok to leave these debates to those trying to score political points and accept that our results with kids are not great and could be better. The question I hope to explore is why our schools function as they do and how this might change to achieve real improvements in learning for all kids.

There is also no shortage of critiques of our public schools and pointing out the reasons for shortcomings. The targets for blame vary from NCLB, testing, teacher’s unions, educational bureaucrats, lazy teachers, uninvolved parents, lame educational administrators, test makers, textbook adoption policies, funding …

To me, this points out the real problem is none of these and all of these. If almost every part of the system has problems, then maybe it is the system that is the problem. The system has given us NCLB and testing and unions and textbooks and uninvolved parents. These are not the causes but the symptoms of a dysfunctional system—a system that is typified by no one having responsibility for results but everyone having authority to prevent change. It is a classic scarecrow scenario where every part of the system can point to some other part as the problem—teachers blame parents, parents blame the principal, the principal blames the superintendent, the superintendent blames the state bureaucrats, the state officials blame the feds, the feds blame the legislators, the legislators blame teachers….Kind of feels like all these parts of the system aren’t exactly working together for the good of kids, eh?

So my first task is to look at all the parts of the system that are as much symptoms as causes, but ultimately (where I hope my perspective adds something constructive to our understanding of schooling), I want to consider these parts as a whole, avoiding the futile whack a mole version of school change and recognize why those pesky moles keep popping up, despite the heroic and noble efforts of teachers, administrators, parents, and students.

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