Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Let's hear it for the kids!

For a long time I've been troubled by the way we educate children in this country - so much so that I pulled my own kid out of school for kindergarten and sixth grade. I've never regretted either of those decisions, even though my attempts at homeschooling were profoundly flawed at best. My kid never spent a single day in public middle school, and that, to me, is worth everything.

Our educational system -- and here, I mean to include both private and public schools as a whole -- has, for the most part, devolved into a means of warehousing children and training them to take tests inexpensively and with a minimum of fuss. Don't get me wrong -- I think teachers are grossly underpaid considering the importance of the work they do, and they need a whole lot more support from parents, school administrators, and, well, everybody. But most teachers, like most Americans, have bought into an outdated educational model that is better suited for training a productive, well-conditioned, compliant workforce than actually raising up an innovative, inspired citizenry that can solve this gargantuan mess we're so busy making for them to clean up.

Which is why I'm happy to recommend Susan Engel's wonderful editorial appearing in today's New York Times. Engel looks at a project that allowed high school kids to develop their own curriculum, with a minimum of guidance. The results are encouraging, to say the least.

Kids aren't fungible, one-size-fits-all workers-in-training. They're creative, inspiring, thoroughly exasperating little boogers that do their best when they're given boundaries instead of rules; guidance instead of instructions; discipline instead of punishment; and above all, unconditional love. Inconvenient? Yup. But who said this stuff was supposed to be easy?

Give children permission and support to fly, and fly they will; usually in quite the opposite direction of where we pointed them. But then, that's where the best new ideas are usually found.


  1. You're absolutely right, and then these kids get to college (or community college) and we need to start teaching them to think critically and creatively. (I teach English at a community college.)

    The problem is so widespread that something like 80% of the new students entering community college are not ready for freshman composition. We have THREE levels of developmental English available to catch them up. I have had students who are reading at third grade level.

    There is no single cause of the problem, though. Here are several: parents who don't care about their kids' education or well-being and don't encourage them to read, do homework, get sufficient sleep, or eat nutritious meals; a curriculum that is entirely centered around standardized tests and outcomes in the name of "school accountability"--the result is boring drills and rote memorization since testing the ability to apply, evaluate, synthesize, and analyze can't be done on a multiple-choice instrument; an obscene student-to-teacher ratio (as high as 30 kids per teacher), which makes it virtually impossible to develop lesson plans and activities that will accommodate every single student's unique strengths; a system that exhausts teachers while underpaying them and criticizing them (or their unions) for bankrupting state budgets and promoting the idea that "anybody can teach" and in fact, "those who can do, do; those who can't do, teach"--which, over the long term, will wear even the best and brightest teachers down; and the list goes on.

    Our entire K-12 educational system needs to be revamped. Sure, there are bad teachers (there are incompetent people in every profession), but the majority of teachers are dedicated, educated, and talented folk. It's a truth that the countries with the most educated students VALUE teachers, recruit the best students from their universities to be teachers, and the profession is seen as ranking up there with doctor, lawyer, and other esteemed professions.

    Now I know you conceded that you're not blaming teachers for the problem, so I'm not saying you did... I'm just elaborating on how the system is set up right now for them to pretty much fail most kids when it comes to educating them well and giving every student the attention and nurturing they deserve.

    As you may correctly guess, the kids who do best are usually from wealthy school districts that have updated materials, involved parents (along with fewer attendance and truancy problems), better student-to-teacher ratios along with teacher assistants in the classroom, and don't have the added stress of gang problems, drugs being sold on campus, and weapons being brought to school.

    It's crazy.

  2. Thanks, Joyce, for your thoughtful comments. I agree, it is crazy. And in particular, I agree that most teachers are dedicated professionals.

  3. Yeah, I kinda went on a tear, LOL

    I think the situation in Wisconsin just bummed me out to no end.