Monday, June 02, 2014

Why Are Schools The Way They Are?

Have you ever wondered why public schools are the way they are? As Peter Gray shows in his book Free To Learn, it's mostly just pure habit. There's been a ton of investigation into how children learn best (the answer is always some version of play), but no one has ever taken a systematic look at what and how our schools attempt to teach. Nor has anyone ever even attempted to draw a correlation between the specific trivia found in a typical pre-packaged curriculum or textbook or worksheet or standardized test and a child's future prospects. The research that has been done indicates that "successful" lives are the result of some combination of being sociable, working well with others, and motivation: the trivia has never been shown to matter, while the skills learned through playing with others is everything.

No, our entire school system is simply based upon what's been done in the past, with adults telling children what and how to learn and play being increasingly, and even intentionally, eliminated. What meaningful learning that does take place seems to primarily be the result of talented teachers who know how to work with children between the cracks, and the children themselves, who are born as highly tuned learning machines and are pretty much capable of making at least a minimal level of education happen whatever we do to them.

Oh sure, there are changes around the edges, "innovations" that come down the pike, like the famous "new math" from my youth that required schools to toss out all their old text books and purchase new ones, or, more recently, Common Core State Standards, a completely untested set of mandates that require billions of dollars in spending for new "compliant" materials. Maybe this year's kids memorize more of their trivia, or learn it a little more efficiently than last year's kids, but the question that is never asked is: Why have we decided that we must subject all of our children to this specific material in this specific manner? And because we don't ask that question, I don't think it's an accident that Americans have, as Diane Ravitch details in her book Reign of Error, fretted that our schools are failing since the inception of public schools. We just don't know, and not knowing is the medium in which fear best grows.

According to the Education Industry Association, education is on the verge of becoming a $1 trillion a year "market," representing 10 percent of our nation's GNP, second only to the health care industry in size. "Education companies" are currently enjoying annual revenues of over $80 billion and growing. I don't think anyone can deny that this explosive growth has been driven largely by corporations seeking to cash-in: this is the engine of the corporate education "reform" movement. Teachers are not driving this, parents are not driving this, children are not driving this, and the only "data" involved are numbers found on the bottom line of corporate P&L statements. Pure and simple, Wall Street types, entrepreneurs, and opportunistic politicians have taken advantage of our not knowing and ramped up the hand-wringing over our public schools, disguised themselves as Supermen, and rushed their untested, over-priced products to market, chasing after those No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top dollars.

Left out in this equation are the children and what is best for them, and frankly, what's best for our society, which relies upon well-educated citizens in order to function. 

This isn't to say that these education corporations aren't able to point to numbers that have the scent of research-iness about them. They can show you how the software and textbooks and worksheets they manufacture and sell, if used according to their directions, will lead to higher scores on the tests they also manufacture, sell, and grade. It's a perfect little self-sustaining system designed to produce steady, predictable profits. But, of course, like any manufacturer worth his salt, "new and improved" models are always in development, which, if purchased, are "guaranteed" to raise those test scores (and profits) even higher . . . At least until we have another generation of "new and improved" tests, which will lead to a new round of hand wringing, Superman disguises, and slapping another "new and improved" label on yet another untested, over-priced product

And, of course, they are always working on new and improved tests because they are essential to maintaining the vicious cycle, which is something a class of 6th grade students in Ipswich, Massachusetts recently discovered when they were required to take a full week out of their lives to "help" the manufacturer trail-run a standardized test. The kids had no choice, so when a teacher joked they ought to be paid, the kids took her up on it. They are now petitioning to get paid for their labor.

Of course, it's all being treated as a sort of joke, but it's no joke. Until we start asking and answering the big questions about our educational system, until children and their parents can be assured that what is happening in schools is based upon the actual research and not just habit, as long as the only measures we use are those produced by these vicious cycles designed for profit, not education, then the kids have a valid a point. As education works today, it's big business generating billions in profits off the unpaid labor of children. Teachers are at least getting a paycheck, but the real work is being done by the kids who did not volunteer for this any more than the kids "volunteered" to work in Victorian era coal mines. 

And like with those juvenile coal miners, the work is unnecessarily hard and the meager "pay" comes in the form of a scrip that can only be used in the company store to purchase test scores. Our schools can be so much better, but we won't get there through the coal mine.

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