The word “public” is a peculiar one. It is often synonymous with “government” and rarely in a flattering way. Few aspire to live in public housing, use public transportation or, God forbid, be represented by a public defender. Yet, when attached to education, it inspires almost blind loyalty from so many people. Public education, whatever it’s flaws, is part of the bedrock of our democratic society and educating our children is, if not priority one, then very close to it. Well, that’s what they always taught us in public school anyway.
Of course many of us were blessed with good public schools and gifted and caring teachers who changed our lives. We learned to get along with people from different backgrounds and with different ideas. Furthermore, many of us have close friends and family members who have dedicated themselves to education, people who frequently go above and beyond the job requirements and volunteer their time and resources to better reach their students. Many genuinely qualify as heroes. Like must heroes, they are rarely adequately compensated for what they do.
Sadly, these heroes often toil away in subpar facilities that resemble a maximum security daycare. Schools are no longer expected to merely teach children reading, writing, arithmetic, history and science. They are frequently expected to provide children with healthy meals, discipline and psychological support, things traditionally provided by families. In many cases, schools are simply a way to manage children, figuring out how to make them into adults who can maneuver their way through the (mostly) nonsensical bureaucracies they will encounter along the way.
It is odd when you think about it but the fundamental shape of the school experience hasn’t changed much in the past century. The model of a teacher in front of a group of students united only by age and geography, expected to “instruct” or “educate” them, is still the dominant one. I suspect there are also still overpriced textbooks and maybe even those horrific chalk boards around as well. With all the advances in technology, there is almost no area of life that closely resembles the way it was a hundred years past. But we still have those little desks, those concrete walls and those long hallways scented with corkboard, construction paper and glue.
We are frequently told that the problem lies in funding: we simply don’t spend enough on education. The statistics don’t bear that out. We are spending more on education but, sadly, less on teaching and learning. We have continued to add layer upon layer of administration, bureaucracy and compliance personnel. Not surprisingly, the growth in those officials has coincided with increased state and federal aid to local schools. Money never comes without strings attached. So we must now hold teachers and schools “accountable,” a lazy ass word designed mostly to pass responsibility to those who have the least power. Welcome to mandated “common core” and proficiency exams, a guarantee that schools will teach to the test, not for the student. But as long as state and federal bureaucrats and teachers unions keep their jobs and their authority, all will surely come out right. Or will it?
Much has been made of the particular level of incompetence possessed by our new Education secretary. Of course hers is a political appointment and a political payoff, like most minor cabinet offices. It is quite likely she will promote policies that favor her own prejudices and they may indeed turn out to be worse than the status quo. I will reserve judgement for now. I have also heard the very general statement made that she simply “doesn’t know how to educate your children.” Undoubtedly that is true. But neither do I and neither do you and neither does anyone else because that is impossible.
People aren’t machines. We are all different and respond to different types of teaching and training. There can be no one size fits all approach to education. The old saws of “scientific management” have largely been invalidated, though sadly not abandoned. Even medicine is beginning to grasp that treatment has to be tailored to the individual patient and advances in research are making that possible. The future of schools must take those same insights into account. The marvels of modern computer technology and the developing field of virtual reality has the potential to open up entirely new worlds to our children, allowing them to advance at their own (but likely accelerated) pace and go as far and as fast as their mind can take them. But those are simply examples and, undoubtedly, some good schools and teachers are already far ahead of me in developing these and other alternative learning techniques.
So what is my conclusion? What should be done? How can things be “fixed?” You should already have figured out that I do not have the answers but I do have some ideas. First, I believe we need to devolve authority back to local units of government and parents, not because they will always make the right choices but because they will make different choices and perhaps experiment with different models of learning. Second, parents and families have to be committed to their children’s education. Without that, no system can hope to succeed. Thirdly, private alternatives should be encouraged. The notion that the only way we can educate children is with government-run schools is a prejudice. After all, while government provides assistance in feeding children, food is grown privately. And providing kids with nutrition is pretty important too. Finally, let’s start paying good teachers and stop paying administrators. Sorry, but I am sure they can find equally useless jobs in the private sector. After all, they have plenty of experience.
Regardless of your thoughts on these matters, I think we can all recognize that the current system of education is benefitting neither students nor teachers and needs to be reformed. That will require us all to reflect much more on rethinking our schools. Thanks for following along and taking the time to read this. Much more controversial thinking to come. Have a great week!