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On Labor Day in Georgia, a state with 7.8% unemployment, in a nation where 90% of our children attend public schools, it is worth pausing to ask whether we are doing the best we can to prepare our kids for the lives they will lead in the 21st century.

We need to reexamine the underlying assumptions in our system of public education, and be willing to make a major overhaul of principles and practices.

We need to recognize that our preoccupation with standardized testing has damaged our educational system. What was meant to measure progress has crippled innovation and stifled meaningful learning.

We need to acknowledge the fact that, whatever creative adaptations have been made in education over the years, the institution of public education itself is based on an obsolete idea. The economic realities of the 21st century are different from those of the 20th.

It was once possible to imagine life as segregated into distinct phases – an early one in which people progress through an education system that was both authoritarian and nurturing, and a later phase in which people are on their own in a work environment where they are responsible for their own success.

In the 20th century it was quite reasonable to expect a high school graduate to land a job in a factory and have stable employment for the next 40 years. It was reasonable to expect the possessor of a bachelor’s degree to land a secure job in the offices of a big company, and for a person with a master’s or professional degree to enter a profession without ever having to add significantly to their educational credentials.

But that is no longer the case. The world in which we live and work is no longer so stable. Learning is a life-long endeavor, and people must be prepared to adapt and innovate their own solutions to unanticipated challenges.

Do public schools really prepare young people for the lives they will lead?

It’s Labor Day. It’s good to take a day off, and reflect on how much work we have to do.


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Putting the kids in charge

In my last post, I pointed out that students have far more at stake in the quality of the classroom environment than adults do. After all, for adults the classroom is just a workplace – albeit one which most teachers approach with passion and dedication. But for students it is not only that, but also the place where their future success can be shaped as they acquire the skills and knowledge they will need throughout their lives.

I posed the question:

What would be wrong with empowering students to make and enforce their own rules governing behavior in class, and allowing teachers simply to teach?

And simply by phrasing the question that way, I acknowledged one of the major roadblocks to this approach. Classroom management has traditionally been in the hands of the teachers. Adults are not only the source of knowledge and the model of behavior, but also the enforcers of rules. This paradigm is so ingrained that it is almost unimaginable to suggest that we do things differently. We can’t simply say, “Let’s try it a new way.” Instead we proceed on the premise that the current paradigm works – that things are fundamentally right with having adults in charge – and we ask, “What would be wrong with changing things a bit?”

But it is important that we put that premise aside. We can hold on to the idea that adults are the ones responsible for making knowledge accessible to students, and keep adults in their role as models of behavior. But let’s imagine a scenario in which adults have no role in making or enforcing rules. And let’s ask not what’s wrong with this idea, but instead let’s ask how to make this idea work?

Gentle readers, I am truly improvising an answer here. There are in classrooms across the country lots of lessons in self-government and circumstances in which students have some authority to make rules under adult supervision, but I do not know of any model in which students authentically run the classroom environment without adult oversight. We are in the realm of theory informed by common sense as well as imagination. I would like very much to have the benefit of your ideas.

But here is what I have so far ….

First, students must feel that they are truly in charge of their environment. It will only work if they take their responsibilities seriously, and they will never do so if they believe an adult will come along and overrule their decisions.

Second, students must create any rewards or punishments to be administered by their peer group, not by adults. In other words, there should not be a situation in which an adult is called upon to step outside his or her role as the conduit of knowledge and model of behavior to become disciplinarian.

One caveat to this principle is the real world consideration that adults have legal responsibilities to the children in their care. In certain extreme situations, they will have to step in. But what this means in our new paradigm is that the circumstances that require adult intervention should be clearly understood by everyone involved, and students must feel confident that adults will not step in unless absolutely necessary.

Third and perhaps most importantly, students must be motivated to create an environment that is conducive to learning. Learning is, after all, the primary purpose of school. In order for students to do this on their own, they must believe in the rewards of learning. Without this core value, the environment that students create may be agreeable to them in many ways, but it will fail in providing the very thing they need the most.

What do you think? What are your ideas about how to make this work?

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Who’s in charge here?

No one has a greater interest in the quality of life in the classroom than the students. Think about it. Not only is it a matter of having the kind of day-to-day environment that is uplifting and inviting – students and teachers alike have a vested interest in that goal. But for the students it is also the forum in which they will gain knowledge and experience that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

For adults the stakes are not nearly as high. True, they share the desire for a pleasant, productive work environment. But for adults who are paid to be in the classroom, part of the job is to endure whatever unpleasant aspects of the environment need to be endured in order to accomplish the greater goal of educating the kids. The classroom should not be organized for the teacher’s convenience or pleasure. The classroom should be designed in such a way that students have the best possible opportunity to learn. The teacher’s pleasure in the environment should be an ancillary outcome, not the primary goal.

Students know better than anyone what kind of environment is conducive for their own learning. And students know what external factors act as distractions. Despite our best intentions and years of experience with our own learning, adults can only make assumptions about what will work for students. It is the students themselves who are the experts.

So let’s put that expertise to work. Let’s put students in charge of creating the classroom environment. Let’s allow those who have the most at stake to make the most important decisions about schedules and social behavior in the classroom. Let’s allow the students the freedom to learn on their own terms.

Is it possible this could work? It certainly is a nontraditional approach

But schools have traditionally been organized in a way that maximizes administrative efficiency at the expense of learning. Why not turn that formula around?

This is a serious question, and it calls for serious discussion. I want to know what you think.

What would be wrong with empowering students to make and enforce their own rules governing behavior in class, and allowing teachers simply to teach?

Am I crazy or is this the obvious solution to many of the problems with schools today?

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Learning on the bubble

For several of their elementary school years, my sons attended the International Community School, a charter school whose student body includes a large percentage of immigrant-refugee children, many of them very recent arrivals to the United States. For a great many reasons, my family’s experience with ICS was a rewarding one – for my sons in terms of their formal education and their socialization and understanding of other cultures, and for me as a professional educator in my exposure to a fascinating laboratory of learning.

The backgrounds of the students at the school were incredibly diverse, including the fact that many had come to the U.S. after several years in refugee camps, deprived of formal education. But the sense of community that was fostered in this school environment was something very special. One observer shared with me that the attitude towards learning was different here than at any other school she had experienced. “At other schools, students copy the answers from each other’s papers. At ICS, students show each other how to find the answers.”

The attitude of cooperation encouraged at ICS should not be unique to schools operating under special circumstances. Background and culture are not the only factors affecting how we learn. The diversity in the human family is broader and more profound than even the wide range of life experience can explain.

People absorb what they learn differently. Some take more time than others to reach the same level of proficiency. Some understand different aspects of a concept more completely than others. For some the way they apply the learning is different from the way that others might do it. Some need help while others may not. For those who need help, the quality of assistance called for may vary widely.

Modern public schools acknowledge the existence of different learning styles and different needs among the students. Most schools have some kind of framework for providing differentiation of instruction. Some even make demonstrating these processes a requirement in their teacher evaluation system.

But schools are fighting against their own organizational structure when they attempt to provide differentiated instruction aimed at facilitating real learning. Public school students are required to attend classes on the same schedule as all other students, regardless of their learning needs. They are required to take the same standardized tests, regardless of their ability or level of preparation.

At one public school I have visited, the principal addressed the upcoming battery of high-stakes tests by instructing the teachers to differentiate instruction as follows. First identify which students will be able to pass the tests with little or no additional help from their teachers. Then identify which students will be unlikely to pass the tests no matter how much help they are given. Neither of these groups would receive any extra help.

Only the students who were “on the bubble,” and might pass or fail depending on teacher intervention, would receive special attention. Teachers were instructed to focus their test preparation efforts on these students. It was students in this middle group who could affect the school’s overall performance on the standardized tests. If only a few more of the students in the middle group passed, the school could show improvement over the previous year’s pass rate.

For me, there could hardly be a starker illustration of the cost of making higher test scores the goal of our system of public education system.

The goal of education should be learning – for all students. We all learn differently. We are all “on the bubble.”

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Americans have always had a complex relationship with authority. It is a feature of American culture that extends from our roots as a people and is rife with contradictions that are alive in the modern classroom.

English Puritans in the 17th century bristled under the authority of the Church of England, and so they came to North America to set up a community that operated under their own rules – a system that was far more rigid and intolerant than the one they left behind. The conventional version of U.S. history holds that the founders of this repressive social order were seeking “religious freedom.” But high school history courses seldom fail to mention Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson – two early settlers who were expelled from the Puritan colony for espousing divergent views on religious authority.

The decade prior to the Revolutionary War was marked by tax protests, petitions, demonstrations, and occasional acts of violence. But during most of this time even the most vocal dissidents considered themselves loyal British subjects. They weren’t trying to overthrow their government, just cut a better deal for themselves.

Americans like mavericks, rugged individualists, pioneers. We admire those who step around the rules – from a distance. We don’t have much time for those who challenge the system itself. How is it that we can admire outlaws and yet support the very laws they flaunt? It is because of the way we were raised.

The American educational system is designed to force feed conformity to young people who are in the process of discovering themselves and exploring their potential. Because it is based on a mass-production model, school requires uniformity in behavior, and uniformity in work product. It is fundamentally at odds with the revolutionary spirit that we are taught was instrumental in our country’s founding. We are taught that the mavericks, the pioneers, the outlaws are American heroes – the ones who bring about innovation and reforms. Then on the sound of a bell we have to report like trained animals to our next class, we line up single file to go to the cafetorium, and beg permission to be excused to perform basic bodily functions.

For kids growing up in the system, it is very easy to reach the conclusion that school is the enemy. If we ever want to achieve the kind of individuality that adulthood promises, the kind of freedom that apparently is our American birthright, we are going to have to escape the shackles that bind us to the plastic chairs with laminated desktops that imprison us for seven hours a day.

Escape can take several different forms. For kids who are good at performing the assigned tasks, school can be a source of positive reinforcement. All that is required is to play the game, accept praise when offered, and take advantage of opportunities that are available to students who conform to expectations.

For kids who struggle with learning, with behavioral requirements, with any number of social and developmental issues, school can be a waking nightmare. Instead of using the school experience to build confidence and the skills required to work within the system, these kids develop tools to avoid taking responsibility for the tasks that they cannot or will not perform. They become outlaws, but not American heroes. Their form of protest works best if it receives the least notice. They do nothing to reform the system itself. More troubling is the fact that they do so little that will help them to succeed in life.

We need school to be an empowering experience. We need to resolve the contradiction between celebrating individualism in history classes and enforcing conformity in daily life. We need to encourage kids to become the best that they can be without forcing them to become outlaws.

The question is, how to do it.


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In the 1880s, one of America’s first sports heroes, Mike “King” Kelly was notorious for playing on the edges of the rules in the game of baseball.

He sometimes skipped second on the way to third when the umpire was not looking…. Once, he was sitting on the bench when a high foul ball arced towards him and clearly out of reach of the catcher. The rules then allowed a substitute to enter the game “on notice to the umpire,” so Kelly jumped up, shouted “Kelly catching for Boston!,” and caught it for the out.

- Geoffrey C. Ward & Ken Burns, from Baseball, An Illustrated History

Americans have always had a wonderful aversion to excesses of honesty, and baseball has always been able to express that. The sense in baseball is that the reason they put those four umpires out there is to enforce the rules, but if you can get outside the rules and outside the umpires, it is a very reasonable question to ask whether you might not be allowed to do it.

- Thomas Boswell, from Baseball, A Film by Ken Burns

We voice a great deal of respect in this country for the rule of law, and yet our behavior frequently demonstrates a healthy disrespect for the spirit of the law. Whether it is in the context of fun and games, driving in traffic, or advancement in our careers, the rules – and even the principles of fair play – often take a back seat to self-interest.

It is no surprise, then, that Americans tend to skirt the rules that form the rigid structure of schools. But it is a bit of a shock to some when it is adults who are doing the skirting. As I write these words, a trial is getting underway in Atlanta concerning widespread cheating by teachers and administrators in the Atlanta Public Schools system. The highly publicized scandal has been a constant presence in local news for several years, and now it promises to provide more fodder over the anticipated three months the trial will take to unfold.

But is should not come as a surprise to anyone that educators would break rules. In their 2005 best-selling book, Freakonomics, Steven B. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner discuss cheating by teachers in the Chicago public school system after high-stakes tests were introduced as part of a strategy to increase performance. In their analysis, the benefits of falsifying test answers simply outweighed the costs. The benefits of having students whose scores went up would include greater job security and potential professional advancement. The costs to the teacher would be the risk of being caught as well as any moral objections – both seen as negligible. The cost to the students of having inaccurate test results reported was not even considered.

By making higher aggregate scores the goal, the school system created an incentive that was realized by reporting higher numbers, not by doing a better job of educating children. In a very real sense that is rooted in American values, the teachers and administrators who changed students’ answers to improve test scores are less cheaters than they are creative problem solvers.

What do you think?

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Lost in the crowd

Halfway through the class, Cody strolled through the door.

“Where have you been?” I asked him.

“I was at the ice cream social,” he replied. “You heard the intercom.”

There had been an announcement over the intercom an hour earlier that students who had participated in the Homecoming planning committee were invited to have ice cream in the cafeteria after the last lunch period had ended.

“Yes, I heard the announcement,” I said, “but you still need a pass to come to class late.”

“Just ask Mr. Jones, he can tell you I was there,” Cody said, taking his seat.

I sighed. “Cody, it is your responsibility to be in class on time. If you have an excuse for being tardy, you need to show it to me. I didn’t get a list of students who were invited to have ice cream, and I have no information about when students were dismissed from the cafeteria. If you are late to class, you need to have a pass. You know that is the way it works at this school.”

“Just ask Mr. Jones,” Cody insisted, not moving from his chair.

“I don’t know who Mr. Jones is, Cody. It is your responsibility to account for your absence the first 20 minutes of this class. It is not my responsibility to research whether your story holds up. Now, go get a pass.”

Cody was playing a game that is fairly common at large schools – getting lost in the crowd. He was counting on the likelihood that it would be too much trouble for anyone to bother checking whether he was in the right place at the right time. It is a game that has a high probability of success for the students who play it, at least at schools like the one where I worked and that Cody attended.

Built just a few years earlier to accommodate 1500 students, last year it had an enrollment of over 1800. Beautiful in appearance when empty, its flaws were evident to anyone who experienced it in use. Its hallways and classrooms bulged with students throughout the day. Its design included numerous corners and alcoves that broke up sightlines and made it easy for students who got out of class to hang out in the hallway for extended periods of time without being seen.

But the physical plant was only the backdrop for the real problem. The school was just too big to be efficient. Up to a point, there is a certain amount of sense in operating a larger school. There are economies of scale – efficiencies that are possible by consolidating tasks, particularly in administrative positions – that can’t be managed in a smaller institution. But here, the tipping point for greater efficiency had been passed a long time ago. The administration was stocked with more people than I had ever seen at one school, and they all seemed to be overworked. Yet at the same time, it was extremely difficult for a new teacher to find out which administrator handled which areas of responsibility and who could answer which questions.

Because schools serve children who deserve a safe environment in which to learn, they need to have a sense of community, and that requires both personal accountability and institutional memory. Schools that are too big for anyone to know more than a small fraction of the students cannot foster personal accountability. For most students, the adults they pass in the halls might as well be strangers they would pass on a public sidewalk. The best these schools can do is to create a draconian system of hall passes and crowd control that buries everyone in more paperwork and has nothing to do with education. Schools that are too big for any one person to know how everything works or even what everyone’s job is cannot take advantage of institutional memory. It is too fractured. People spend too much time investigating how to solve the problems that crop up instead of simply dealing with them. Those schools lose any sense of continuity, of family. No one belongs there; they simply go to work there.

In large schools, it is easy to get lost in the crowd, easy to be overlooked, easy to trade away an opportunity to learn for a moment when no one is telling you what to do.

Achieving autonomy through education and the development of good habits should be the goal of every student, and schools should be designed to help students achieve that goal. Students deserve the individual attention they need to develop competence in the areas that will be crucial to their success as adults. Devoting time and energy to crowd control is a misuse of talent and limited resources – something schools can ill afford to do. It turns teachers into policemen and students into faceless suspects. That is not the lesson we need to be teaching.

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