A few days ago my friend Dave Murray, writer for The Grand Rapids Press and MLive.com (no, I’m not kidding, I consider Dave a friend even when we disagree on issues, which is quite often) reported on Michigan’s plan to change its school accountability grading system from the traditional A, B, C… to a color-coded system (Parents understand an 'A,' but what about a 'yellow' on a school report card?). Dave’s article focuses primarily on the potential for confusion in the general public understanding what the colors mean. Usually when I read his articles I get angry primarily because he has a “monopoly” on communicating his ideas while I have to depend on word of mouth, blogging, and other means. I wanted to shout out to all who were reading it that, “The very idea you can’t change to a new system of reporting IS the reason public education doesn’t change!” First it was the inability of our neighboring Grand Rapids Public Schools to successfully change to a report-card system that focuses on student’s actually learning course content, not student failure, and now it was this. We’re stuck in an 1890’s rut and can’t get out of it because of the lack of support from Dave and others who appear to advocate “better sameness” as the only acceptable form of change.
I’m tough on Dave (and he has no problem giving it right back) because he puts himself out there when he writes in a manner that reveals how he feels about an issue. That’s his style and I admire him for his writing skills even when I want to stand on his front lawn and scream at the top of my lungs. But if public education is truly going to change for the benefit of kids, we need the help of the media and not just more hurdles thrown on the track.
We need to once and for all face up to the only logical conclusion: Educational outcomes are not going to significantly change until the practitioners of education ignore the overwhelming societal urge for sameness (i.e., I want schools for my kids that were the same as when I went to school) and abandon the industrial model of education, a.k.a., the factory-style graded school.
We are averse to change because we fear it. We build or hold on to structures that make us comfortable and reduce our fears. Embracing change has potential for putting us in the spotlight as if we were living in a house made of glass, and we fear uncertainty, risk and failure. Adding to that, we also tend to be a bit on the lazy side and not wanting to invest time in the hard work of change including having to learn something new. It’s likely one of the reasons so many of us Americans – particularly my generation – only know one language (bad English) and rarely travel through foreign countries. To do so requires change that can be stressful and hard work. We’d rather remain within the comfort of the American way because it involves less change.
But schools MUST change for the sake of this and future generations. Our system of education, while tended to by professionals with the highest degree of care and concern for their charges, is outmoded and cannot be improved on enough to produce the different results needed. We can test our kids until the cows come home and it won’t make a damned bit of difference if we don’t actually change to a learning system that meets their needs for a 21st century technology-driven world economy.
The industrialized mass nature of school goes back to the very beginning, to the common school and the normal school and the idea of universal schooling. All of which were invented at precisely the same time we were perfecting mass production and interchangeable parts and then mass marketing.
Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.
Of course, it worked. Several generations of productive, fully employed workers followed. But now?
As long as we embrace (or even accept) standardized testing, fear of science, little attempt at teaching leadership, and most of all, the bureaucratic imperative to turn education into a factory itself, we’re in big trouble. ~ Seth Godin, Stop Stealing Dreams
Here are just some of the outdated structures and habits that inhibit real change in public education:
1. Schedules – a nine-month calendar filled with class schedules based on a rigid length of the school day that’s divided up by bells (or the more modern tones), that serve primarily to teach our students that learning is only accomplished during certain months of the year and hours of the day. And you only learn math for this hour and English for that hour, etc. In the meantime, like Pavlov’s dogs, wait for the calendar page to turn or the bell to signal a class change. But summer and weekends are sacrosanct and parents expect order in their children’s schools, so don’t change these structures, even though I believe they can be shown to be some of the worst forms of child abuse there is.
2. Buildings – a rectangular structure labeled a school is the only place real learning should ever occur. Heaven forbid that learning takes place at a shopping mall, a beach, the bowling alley or even in the comfort of one’s own home. This is the source of constant friction instead of cooperation between teachers, parents and students over homework, summer bridge activities or even summer school itself. Learning spaces can be anywhere but unfortunately we think such things weaken the physical boundaries between the school building itself and the rest of the world. We can’t have that! School is, after all, for school.
3. Grade levels – it’s sadly pathetic that we still believe grade levels were designed to provide a structure that improves student learning. What’s more, we reinforce that belief by dividing up the curriculum into age groups and then test everyone each year to see if they are progressing or failing. We tend to ignore mountains of evidence that says physical, emotional, and intellectual development can vary as much as 2-3 years between children who by virtue of sharing the same year of birth are grouped together, for better or for worse, for thirteen years of schooling, and pushed through year after year regardless of whether they learned it or not. Add this to my list of child abuse.
I’ve just touched on some of the structures, including my earlier mention of report cards, that limit our creativity in building an educational system that’s based on the needs of kids, and not of the adults. School should not be primarily about efficiency, order, control, low-cost conformity, and separation of learning from real life. It should be a system of support for learning 24/7 regardless of when, where or how it occurs. Technology is just one tool that can help us leverage wholesale change.
I think it’s clear that school was designed with a particular function in mind, and it’s one that school has delivered on for a hundred years.
If school’s function is to create the workers we need to fuel our economy, we need to change school, because the workers we need have changed as well.
Changing school doesn’t involve sharpening the pencil we’ve already got. School reform cannot succeed if it focuses on getting schools to do a better job of what we previously asked them to do. We don’t need more of what schools produce when they’re working as designed. The challenge, then, is to change the very output of the school before we start spending even more time and money improving the performance of the school.
The current structure, which seeks low-cost uniformity that meets minimum standards, is killing our economy, our culture, and us.
School’s industrial, scaled-up, measurable structure means that fear must be used to keep the masses in line. There’s no other way to get hundreds or thousands of kids to comply, to process that many bodies, en masse, without simultaneous coordination.
And the flip side of this fear and conformity must be that passion will be destroyed. There’s no room for someone who wants to go faster, or someone who wants to do something else, or someone who cares about a particular issue. Move on. Write it in your notes; there will be a test later.
A multiple-choice test. ~ Godin
Let’s begin anew by ending our propensity for inhibiting real change and simply improving on the same thing. Get over our fears and get on with creating a whole new educational system, one free of industrial-age structures and personal bias, a system of learning for the age of real-time communication and collaboration.
A real school.