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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Our Educational System is Broken: A Parent's Perspective

[I am not into taking sides in a debate. Debates are usually just excuses to put others down so we can feel better about ourselves. So, I am not taking sides, pointing fingers or laying blame. It is not the teachers or unions or administrators or parents or students that are to blame. It is the system itself that is broken.]

Our educational system is designed to prepare people to make a living not a life.

We are more concerned with our children’s bank accounts than we are concerned with our children.

As my brother contemplated pursuing art as a major in college, I remember my dad telling him, “There are a lot of starving artists out there. Good ones.” My brother is a computer guy who pursues art in many forms whenever he can.

I love this photo. I think he said he used a lamp and some paper towels, maybe a paper bag.
My uncle never went to watch his son skateboard in any of his competitions or even just for fun. “There’s no future in skateboarding.” He later became a pro-skateboarder. He now works for Nike, I think.

How many of us have been told similar things about the passions of our hearts? How many of us have told our children similar things?

Insiders could tell you more about the inner workings of the system and what is wrong from that perspective. They could tell you about wasted hours of teaching to tests, the ridiculous nature of tenure and the insanity of bureaucrats setting teaching standards. But, as a parent here are my top ten reasons our educational system is broken:

1 – The system has become self-generating. The only people who leave school prepared for their jobs are teachers. Every other occupation without exception needs on-the-job training after they graduate. Why? Because, school is on-the-job training for teachers. How about finding what a student is passionate about and setting him up with a mentor. Finding someone who loves what they do to teach our children about their area of expertise. Yes! Absolutely!

2 – The system is designed for those who can sit still for long periods of time (not for children). Get them up, moving, doing, creating, exploring.

3 – Success in school is determined by your ability to get a good grade. What isn’t measured is how much the student has learned, how much they understand and can grasp a subject? This is incredibly hard to measure with a percentile. So, our grading system adds to the dysfunction.

Instead of trying to learn, our most alert students spend the first few weeks of school figuring out how much or how little work is required. Do they really need to read the text or just take good notes in class? Is homework checked? What are the tests like? They even pass this info on to future classes.

 4 – Teachers aren’t given the freedom to teach what they love. They teach what the system requires. They teach to a test. They teach what they taught last year. So few teachers are able to fit what they love into the system. As a parent, I would rather my children have great teachers who taught what they love, than to learn a specific set of knowledge that fits within a system. Great teachers inspire a love for learning and a love for life. The system does not. It cannot.

5 – Math and English are more important than anything else all the way up through high school. Really? Is that the most important thing we can teach our children?

6 – Creativity is trained out of our children. It is rare for a child to graduate high school or college with as much creativity as he had when he began kindergarten. That’s wrong.

7 – The system thrives on comparison and competition. Students are not seen as individuals, encouraged to flourish in their way and excel at what they were created to be. They are not rewarded for how much they have grown and flourished. They are compared to a standard, a set of scores on a series of standardized tests. “My son is in the 94 percentile.” “I was valedictorian.” “I got 1600 on my SAT’s.” What does that have to do with education? And, yet, it has become synonymous with it.

8 – The system minimizes the importance of experiencing life. My friend commented, “Why do children get taught to color trees brown? They are gray. Look at a tree. It’s gray. Why can’t they show them a tree and just have them draw it?” A silly example, maybe, but why not have art class in the woods. The system teaches us to simplify things and try to capture them rather than to appreciate things in all of their complexity and multi-sensory richness. Students are taught to memorize facts and then to think that they understand. Can you grasp World War II, or MacBeth, or Impressionism. In college, they debunk many things learned in high school only to replace it with “deeper understanding” held with greater arrogance. It is more of the same. We are not able to grasp the depth of the beauty and majesty of God or any of His creation. We can only wonder. Let’s teach our kids to wonder.

9 - The measure of success for administrators is the % of students attending college after high school. We used to have dumb kids at our school. There was no stigma to it. We just seemed to appreciate the fact that we weren’t all the same. The “dumb” kids weren’t really dumb. They just didn’t get good grades in the “system” that was school.

One of those kids would be the first to get a car and would know how to take it apart and put it back together again. One guy rebuilt an old Porsche and sold it. We were all in awe. He made $5000 on it, if my memory serves me. That was big money for a high school kid. No one expected him to go to college and get an MA in Education and become the next school teacher. He pursued another career and demonstrated his intelligence in other ways.

That is just one example of the system being self-perpetuating. Success in school for students, teachers, and administrators all lies with how well the system works to perpetuate itself. Maybe it is time we rethought the entire system. Maybe homeschooling, hackschooling, and other forms of alternative education are the answer. Or maybe we haven’t even begun to see it yet. But, there must be another way.
10 –Finally, relationships. The best education usually happens in relationships. There is interplay between student and teacher. Both are learning and growing. Both challenge the way the other thinks. Mutual respect grows. Great teachers know their students and engage them in areas that interest the students as well as areas that interest the teacher. Content can be taught in a variety of ways, but the relational aspect of teaching is foundational. When teachers are required to teach to the test or overly bound to a curriculum, the relationship withers on the vine. I believe most teachers love their students and desire to do their best for them. But, the system prevents this more than encourages it.

So, what now? Do we just take our chances with our children and experiment on them with all kinds of educational models hoping we get something right? I don’t know. But, can we get a worse result than we are getting now. Math and English are the highest priority in this system, and we continue to lag behind in these areas. The system doesn’t even work at promoting its own priorities. It certainly isn’t promoting the welfare of our children or our society. Something must change, within or without the system.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” – Sir Ken Robinson

(Another quote by Sir Ken Robinson, “If a man speaks his mind in a forest and no woman hears him, is he still wrong?” Now that's funny.)

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