Extended family

Schools should be places where young people are nurtured, challenged, exposed to the possibilities of the world, granted a safe haven for growth and reflection.

Families should be places where young people are nurtured, challenged, exposed to the possibilities of the world, granted a safe haven for growth and reflection.

Schools and families should support each other in their separate, but deeply interconnected roles.

Both of these time-honored institutions serve these functions well … at times.  All too often each one fails in its most important purpose.

Schools are too often devoted to crowd management instead of personal development.  They focus on the transmission of information instead of the ultimate goal of all this knowledge – the development of insight and wisdom.  Schools play the game of numbers – budgets, resources, test scores – and lapse into treating the impressionable young persons in their charge as objects to fit into the game.

Schools should pick up where the family leaves off, with concern for each child as an individual, helping each student develop and achieve goals that will bring personal fulfillment.

But sometimes families fall short as well.

Families often suffer from the stresses of daily life, financial vulnerability, overextension of resources.  Families might reinforce antisocial behavior, force hasty decisions by immature actors, mask or make excuses for dysfunctional relationships instead of providing a means to heal. Families sometimes neglect the personal development of their members to focus on social status, economic gain, or even momentary pleasure.

But families are – in the context of the social universe – our point of origin, and our home.  Each one of us deserves to have a family that is a source of strength, and a place to invest with hope for the future.  And each one of us is both the product of and a contributor to a family.

Schools see the benefit of strong families.  Any teacher will tell you that a child who comes to class imbued with high expectations and confidence instilled at home will succeed.

But a child whose energies at home are devoted to surviving, who sees failure as the most likely option, will struggle to meet the expectations of his teachers.  Sometimes such a child will see success on anyone else’s terms as an impossibility.  This child will seek his own form of success, his own educational agenda.  But the school will mark him as a failure, and eventually will make him an outcast.  He is not.  He is what he always was – an individual.

Children learn.  Children strive.  Children seek to find themselves.  It is in their nature, and it happens whether or not they have supportive families or school environments.  Children know success because they can feel it.  They crave it.  And they will seek it whether or not someone helps them find the way.  This is why it is so important that children have an environment that helps them to learn and grow.

Children need strong and supportive families. Children need schools that respect their individuality and facilitate the discovery and exploration of their greatest potential.

How can we guarantee for our children the kind of schools and families that they need?  Is it a hopeless task?

I don’t think so ….

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Family

What is the model for a good school?

For many months on this blog, I have argued and explored the proposition that our nation’s public schools are not as good as they should be.  I have decried the emphasis on testing as detrimental to the goals of education.  In years of teaching, writing about, and discussing issues in education, I have encountered very few who disagreed with these two points.

I have also questioned the goals of public education, explored the history of education in this country as a function of social and economic needs.  In colonial New England, public schools were created to teach children how to read the Bible and to participate in a social order based on Puritan principles. In early 20th century America, public schooling was seen as a way to assimilate immigrant children and prepare young workers for jobs in industry.  In the late 20th and early 21st century, schools are expected to be run like a modern business, data-driven and results-oriented.  And quite a few Americans are optimistic about the possibilities of data to guide policy and the “accountability” found in the business model.

But I think that the business model for schools is a terrible guide, and I question strongly the notion that any worthwhile data can come from standardized tests.

A few weeks ago, I posed a question.  Instead of looking to business as the model for success in education, why not look to another, more universal human institution – the family?

The most fundamental social structure is the family, and the most essential function of the family is the nurturing and education of young people.  In the absence of schools – whether historically before they existed, or where they are not available today – families serve the function we typically assign to formal education.  They identify children’s strengths and needs, and support children’s growth and acquisition of knowledge, catch them when they fall, and try to set them on a course that will lead to success in life.

To be sure, not every child has the kind of supportive family we would wish for everyone.  But we have long understood that this is a gap that needs to be filled.  We strive to address these deficiencies through social institutions such as adoption, social services, community organizations, and even public education itself.  Whether explicitly or not, we recognize the importance of a strong, supportive family, and when one is not present we try to make up the difference.

So then, acknowledging that in the world in which we live there are all sorts of less-than-perfect family configurations and improvised solutions, let’s consider the ideal.  Let’s look at the kind of family we would wish everyone had and see if its characteristics can be applied to schools.

  • A family is multigenerational.  There are people of greatly different ages and vastly different needs and abilities.  And yet they are all part of a cohesive and cooperative one.
  • A family provides continuity in an environment of change.  Families watch their members grow up, turn from helpless to capable, from productive to honored. In the midst of this cycle they leave the nest, sometimes to return, sometimes to build a new nest and start a new family.  But changes in age and ability do not mean leaving behind those who helped us to grow.  We do not graduate from family; it is a lifetime appointment.
  • A family cares about each member as a unique individual.  Everyone is entitled to his or her own goals, and whatever expectations are set for all family members, each one may reach those goals in his or her own way.
  • A family is limited in size.  Of course, if we expand the family tree far enough we discover that we have multitudes of relatives.  But our family is the members that we know and love, for whom we feel responsible and in whom we take pride.  We may express a love for humanity, but it is an abstract expression directed at a collection of strangers.  We know and care about the members of our family in a way that is personal.

Schools should embody each of these values.

AGE

A school should include a broad range of ages – at least grades K-12.  Sure, it makes some administrative sense to divide public resources into different schools for different ages – but as any parent knows, what is cheapest is not always what is best for the children.  Segregating all students who are entering puberty into middle schools is asking for trouble.  At an age when kids are quite naturally searching for identity and asserting themselves against authority, we remove from their environment all positive role models who are members of their own generation.  The result is often a police state in which the search for identity is stifled and conformity to rules is the only rewarded behavior.  This is simply wrong.

Children – especially those undergoing rapid and disorienting periods of developmental change – should be in an environment in which they are reminded of the continuity of life.  Older kids look after younger kids and are rewarded for being good role models.  Younger kids look up to the members of their generation who have dealt with the transitions they are now experiencing for advice, for examples of coping strategies, and for models of success.  Brothers and sisters support each other.  In the extended family of a school, all members of the community should feel a responsibility for each other and see each other as a resource for learning and growing.

CONTINUITY

Schools should pay attention to the fact that students not only learn in stages of their development, but also across the span of their lives.  Schools should take advantage of the fact that children grow up within the community and it is not only possible, but quite natural to follow and to be involved with that development over many years.  A student’s 4th grade teacher has an expertise and interest in that child that is not extinguished at the end of the academic term.  There is no reason for a productive, supportive relationship between two people to end just because one has a job teaching a 4th grade curriculum and the other is in 8th grade.  Families do not construct such artificial barriers, and neither should schools.

Children need continuity in relationships with the people they trust.  In a school with a broad range of ages, the expectations should include open communication and productive relationships that supersede job descriptions and age classifications.

INDIVIDUALITY

People are different.  Exploring these differences and the creative possibilities waiting to be discovered in the diversity of the human race is one of the joys of living.  There is a valid purpose in teaching children how to “play the game” of social expectations – and families do this well.  But rarely do families quash individual brilliance for the sake of conformity.  Families celebrate the talents and encourage the interests of their children.  Schools all too often discourage – even punish – any behavior that does not contribute to order and discipline.  Schools treat the normal range of differences within the human race as a problem – one that must be suppressed and ultimately eliminated.

Children should be encouraged to explore their talents and interests.  If it requires unique accommodations on the part of the school, so be it.  We have to move away from the concept that the primary goal in operating a school is efficiency.  Efficiency, conformity, and even order, should secondary to supporting the development of individual students – sometimes in directions unanticipated by their parents and teachers.

SIZE

Every school should be small enough that it is possible for every person in that community to know every other person.  This promotes accountability and responsibility, and eliminates some of the artificial barriers that keep us from helping each other.  There is no excuse for placing a child in an environment where he or she feels anonymous or lost.

Children need to be in an environment where they feel they belong.

Some schools embody these values, mostly private schools that are not bound by traditional concepts of a quality education.  Many schools – public schools included – embody some of these values.  This is perfectly natural.  The teaching profession tends to attract individuals who care about the development of the whole child (not just the part that is taking Algebra this semester).  Children tend to seek out others who can help them learn and grow – those they feel they can trust.

The fact is, the family model for a school is a better fit for how human beings actually learn and grow and relate to each other than the typical model of a public school as it has developed in this country.  We need to take a serious look at the way we are attempting public education and ask if we want to continue down the path we are on, or try something better, something that makes intuitive sense, something we already know how to do.

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Revolutionary history

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The way we view history and the heritage we chose to honor depends a great deal on our opinions about the world we live in today.  Consider the following interpretations of our nation’s birth.

The evolving cause of liberty

The nation called the United States of America was born in a revolution that was grounded in liberal ideals.  The American people rose against an oppressor whose villainy consisted most notably of offensive tax and monetary policies, and forged a Constitution based on principles of rights that went far beyond limiting government’s power to tax.

American revolutionary society is based in the core cultural values of Enlightenment era Europe, and is innovative and forward-moving.  It is evolving, constantly seeking to fulfill its destiny – formed at conception – to vindicate the rights of its citizens against oppressive power.  This American mission is a source of inspiration and comfort to oppressed people around the world.

As time brings changes, as new technology becomes available, as new insights into human psychology are revealed, so new forms of oppression do arise.  It is necessary for the continuing American revolution that these threats to liberty are met with a refreshed understanding of the rights enunciated in the Constitution.

Thus, for instance, the right to be secure in our homes – to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures – guaranteed by the 4th amendment, can in modern times be understood to extend to forms of electronic surveillance that would have been unimaginable to James Madison.

The American revolution lives, and evolves to serve the evolving needs of the people who fought for its principles.

On the other hand …

The American tradition of self-government

The American revolution was a conservative one.  Americans did not seek to overthrow the established order of power and authority, only redress grievances that had become so intractable under King George III that independence from Britain was the least disruptive option available.

In fact, the established order for the colonies included a substantial degree of political independence already.  The English American colonies had experienced a lot of self-government in their century-and-a-half pre-revolutionary period.  Every one of the 13 colonies had a locally-elected legislature that exercised most of the authority over taxing and spending.

For most of the pre-revolutionary period, England had been so consumed with its own problems that it paid relatively little attention to North America.  The most notable actions the English government had taken with regards to its colonies had been to drive the Dutch out of their mid-Atlantic coastal claims and defend the English settlers from the French to the north and west.  England was protecting its empire.  But internal affairs of government in the colonies were largely left up to local authorities.

This experience with self-government gave Americans confidence that cutting ties with Great Britain would not lead to chaos.  Indeed, political independence had become the status quo in English North America.  It was recent actions by the British government that had provoked the independence movement.

After the French and Indian War, the British stepped up both their efforts to regulate trade with the colonies and their military presence within North America.  The notorious Stamp Act, Tea Act and Quartering Act prompted colonial discontent that was so worrisome to the British government that it further expanded its authority and enacted the Intolerable Acts and suspended the meetings of some colonial assemblies.

The American revolution was a fight against the abuse of power and the over-regulation of economic activities by the national (British) government.

So …

Clearly, the American revolution can be described as ongoing, evolving, and concerned mainly with personal liberties.  It can alternatively be described as concerned chiefly with the right of self-government and freedom from economic oppression.

Why does it matter?  Because just as the past shapes the present, our perceptions of the present shape our perceptions of the past.  Ultimately, understanding the events of more than two centuries ago can only be accomplished through a modern prism.

If we are concerned primarily with personal liberties, we are on guard against all forms of oppression, whether originating in the public or private sphere.  We may be willing to strengthen the hand of government to protect our freedom.  But in so doing, we strengthen the hand of a potential oppressor.

If we are concerned primarily with economic freedom, our focus is on limiting the regulatory authority of government.  We rely on faith in market forces and local decision-making. But we may ignore at our peril forms of oppression that originate in private enterprise.

Contemporary political philosophy will inevitably affect our conceptions of the meaning and significance of past struggles over political issues.  Contemporary social values will inevitably affect our opinions and understanding of past social norms and conditions. Whether the American revolution is ongoing and evolutionary or limited to a specific class of issues over political and economic power, is a matter of opinion.  But such opinions can have great consequence when they are used by lawmakers to shape policies for the future.

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Family ties and aspirations

My father was an only child and now has four adult children and ten grandchildren.  A great-grandchild is on the way. My father’s early home experience didn’t prepare him for a household of noisy kids, but he managed pretty well.  In fact, he seemed to enjoy the conflicts and the diverse interests of his kids not only as an opportunity for parenting, but as entertainment, and an opportunity to learn about human nature.

The diversity of the human race is astounding, even among individuals in the same family.  The ten in my sons’ generation are scholars, athletes, musicians, artists, engineers, wandering spirits, and driven achievers.  Most of them are still in school and their path is as yet largely unwritten.  But each of them is on a path, and at a gathering last week in celebration of my parents’ 60th anniversary, my father’s children and grandchildren had a chance to reflect on the richness of the experience of being members of such an interesting group of people.

It is said that you can choose your friends, but your family is chosen for you.  I don’t think that is entirely true.  Certainly in the case of my older sister, who has adopted five children, the family we have is the one we embrace.  In the case of my younger siblings and myself, our families are the product of a series of choices in the wake of marriages that didn’t work out, involving new parenting configurations and financial compromises.

But the real choices we make involve not just the individuals we include, but also the kind of family we wish to have. Will we enjoy the differences among our loved ones … or work to bring others in line with our expectations?  When the people we care about surprise us, disappoint us, sometimes even enrage us, how do we react?  Do these events break the ties that bind us, or do we find new ways to come together?  Does our family provide a springboard for individual expression, or does it set guidelines for behavior, and penalties for violations?

What is the desired outcome of life in a family? How do we measure a happy and successful life?  How do we support a successful future for our children?

I ask these questions in a blog about education policy because the real issues in public schooling are the same that we encounter in families.  When we decide to provide an education to all of the young people in our midst, we are in effect creating an extension of the family unit, asking a public entity to take on the functions of guiding, encouraging, teaching, and nurturing that would otherwise take place at home.  We expect that schools can perform at least some of these functions better than we could do on our own.

Discussions on education reform often revolve around test scores and inefficient bureaucracies.  I have written often about the inadequacy of standardized testing in providing a path to school improvement.[1]  I have decried the impulse towards a formula for education that works for some, but practically guarantees boredom or failure for others.[2]  I have written recently about the inapplicability of the business model for school operations.[3]

But what about the family model?

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There is much more to say on this subject, and I want to learn what you think.  Next week on July 4, I will post an essay on the American Revolution.  The following week, I plan to return to the subject of schools as an extension of the family.  Please submit comments or send me an email; I would love to have your perspective.

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A formula for successful teaching

The administrator was trying to help me, I knew that.  I had a reputation as a tough, traditional teacher who devoted a lot of class time to lecture.  I had earned this reputation in the Advanced Placement U.S. History class I taught, which I tried to make as much like a college course as possible.  Certainly when I was in college, and still today as far as I have been told by many students and professors, lecture is the center piece of the classroom experience and lengthy reading assignments are the bedrock of student work outside of class.  I patterned my high school class for college-bound 11th graders on this model.

But that was a problem for some in the school community, and now an administrator had been sent to gently guide me back on to a path that conformed better to the latest scholarly literature on learning.

She told me a story of a bright young student – the valedictorian of her class.  One day, as graduation approached she asked the student what she would have done differently if she were in charge of designing the instruction.  The girl responded that she would like to have done more group work, more collaboration with classmates, to have had more social time.

The administrator nodded to me as she concluded her story.  The point was obvious.  I should alter my instructional style to better suit the needs of students based on this exceptional girl’s advice.

It was no surprise to me how the story turned out.  Ask any high school senior a week before graduation whether he or she would have liked more time during class to interact with friends and the answer will be yes.  Ask any student driven enough or gifted enough with the skills necessary to grade her way to the top of her class whether she needs more practice learning how to take notes or keep her focus while reading, and she will say no.

I found the “evidence” presented by this administrator was less than compelling in support of her argument.  At any rate, I had another case study in mind.

A year or so before this conversation, I had another visitor in my classroom.  “Jason” had been a student in my AP US History class as a junior, and had clearly not enjoyed the experience.  He had performed competently, but from what I could tell, joylessly.  His attitude towards me seemed to be a kind of simmering hostility – never expressed in words or in refusal to do his best on assignments – but I certainly got the feeling that he didn’t regard me as one of his favorite teachers.

Now, two years after he had completed my class, and at the end of his first year in college, he appeared at my door.

He told me he had to get something off his chest.

“When I was in your class,” he said, “I thought the way you did things was just because you were … a jerk.”  It was clear the word he had in mind was stronger than the one he had used.  “But when I got to college I understood what you were trying to do.”

“So I wanted to tell you I appreciate it, and that I was wrong.”

In ten years of teaching APUSH, Jason’s testimonial was the clearest message I received that I had been on the right track – at least for a student who needed the kind of challenges and support that he did.  Any teacher will tell you that this kind of explicit validation from a student is rare, and so for me Jason’s visit that day is a cherished memory.

But my story does not provide a formula for instruction any more than the administrator’s story does.  Students have different needs.

The question of how to do a better job of teaching high school should be asked after time for reflection – maybe a year after moving on to the next phase in life, maybe even later.

The answer to the problem of creating a course of study that works for every student is that – there isn’t one.  Every student is different.  Every individual needs support in different areas and needs to be challenged in ways that encourage the development of strengths that will enable that person to lead a productive and fulfilling life.

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Thinking of education as a business

How do we measure success in the public sector?  Governments provide services that private enterprise generally does not or cannot.  And yet we tend to apply a measure of success borrowed from the business world to determine if we are getting value for our tax dollars.  With some services, finding the relationship between goals and achievement is relatively easy.  Was the garbage picked up this week? Was the fire department’s response time acceptable?

But schools are different.

The real goals of educating children are not realized until after the formal education has occurred.  We want to prepare young people for lives as responsible adults, who will not only be self-sufficient, but will also contribute to society.

The idea that we can run public education like a business is in fact terribly flawed. In a mixed market economy such as the one we have in the United States, we invest in education now with public money in the hope of a payoff later in the private sector. Funding for schools comes primarily from local taxes, but the hope that children who are educated on one community’s dime will return there as tax-paying adults is uncertain at best. What responsible business would pour enormous capital into an enterprise without the reasonable guarantee of a financial return?

One business-minded solution is to improve public schools as an incentive for people to move to a community, thus increasing demand and prices for real estate, and ultimately increasing tax revenues.  But the competition for affluent home buyers, and the resulting inequality in school funding, leads to some systems being advantaged and others being disadvantaged.  Good news for the families living in districts with well-funded schools, but is this really an outcome we want?

Businesses thrive on competition, and we regard failure in a capitalist system as an acceptable consequence of someone else’s success.  After all, the inability to make a profit with one business model is a good indication that it’s time to try a new model.  Meanwhile consumers have a choice, and can move from one product to another as tastes and needs change.  In a free enterprise system, it doesn’t hurt consumers when a company goes under.  In fact, it should result in a better marketplace, with more choices better tailored to consumers’ needs, produced more efficiently with the result of greater profits for the producers of goods and services.

But the reality of public schooling is different.  School systems do not go out of business, to be replaced by an improved and more efficient model – a new enterprise eager to swoop in and attract under-served and hungry consumers. And most parents do not have the freedom to move their children from school to school in search of the best product available.

There are not enough vouchers or charter schools possible to negate the reality that we need every school to be a good school.  The products of unsuccessful schools are not objects that can be sold at a discount or tossed into a recycling bin.  They are children.  Failure is not an acceptable option.

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Capturing human potential

Part I – Questions

How many people hate their jobs?  In this country, which abounds with opportunities and even the worst available choices are better than those that exist for many in other lands, how many Americans live for the weekends, for their two weeks of vacation every year?

What does it say about a society in which so many are unhappy with the way they spend the majority of their productive hours?  Most of us accept our situation in life as normal, and many consider ourselves lucky.  We don’t think of ourselves as an oppressed people.  We don’t question our political system, our economic structure, the shared values that affirm our way of life.  It’s almost hard to believe that this country was born in a revolution.

The diverse range of talents and interests that exists among any dozen random people is staggering, and yet it might take a team of experts to uncover their very existence.  For a society that extols individuality and self-reliance, we are very good at encouraging conformity, and each of us has learned very well how to hide our individuality.

Who remembers drawing with crayons?  All of us did it as children.  All of us at one time in our past were delighted to discover that we could create an image on paper.  We could create art – all by ourselves.  But over time, most of us gave it up when we couldn’t stay within the lines or when the picture we drew of a horse didn’t look very much like a horse.  We accepted the judgment that we weren’t very good at art, and acquiesced to the “fact” that we were not artists.  But why did we so willingly concede to the aesthetic values of others?  Why did we disregard our own pleasure with creation and accept a value system that made our own assessment of our own work irrelevant?

All of the great accomplishments in human history have been made by people who refused to accept the judgment of others – who refused to accept that what everyone else was doing was all that was allowed.  Inventive genius is born in the unshakeable belief in one’s own creative powers.

Why do so many people hate their jobs?  It is because most of us have given up on the idea that we can do the things that make us happy.  We have been funneled through a process of maturity that shears off the qualities that make us unique.  We have been marched in formation through an educational system that teaches us to follow rules or else.  Schools allow for certain kinds of exceptional performance that meet the narrow criteria of academic or athletic achievement, but even for the valedictorians and sports heroes, the standards of excellence are set by others.  We need worker bees to make the offices and factories hum.  But human potential offers so much more.

How can schools cultivate talent and individuality?  Is it even possible for an institution like public education that is available to all to foster such unlimited potential?  What would be the impact on society if we all felt our creative powers and used those powers to build a life that made us truly happy?

Some of these questions are impossible to answer.  Any change in the status quo will give rise to new circumstances and new questions.  But it is time now to examine how we arrived where we are today and begin to construct a vision of where we need to be in the 21st century.

Part II – That was then

One hundred years ago, public education was booming.  The American population was growing, especially the urban population.  There was an increasing concern about the assimilation of the swelling numbers of immigrants arriving on our shores.  The days when a person could make a good living as a farmer, without needing to be able to read and write, were fading into the realm of memory – a relic of pioneer days, not a feature of an urban, industrial power.

American schools were built like factories – large structures with separate departments for constructing pieces of the finished product.  Over here was the math department, over here was science, and over there history and English.  Students moved from one workstation to another on a rigid schedule, assembling pieces of their education.  The finished product: a high school diploma.  That piece of paper meant something, and its value was accepted as currency because it represented the same set of experiences and the same body of knowledge for every student who earned one.  High school graduates could apply for work in a real manufacturing plant, not the metaphorical one they had attended for four years, and could themselves become an interchangeable part in the labor force of modern industry.

That was then.

Through much of the 20th century, the economic opportunities for workers were in manufacturing, in rigidly controlled environments in which tasks were defined by a small number of decision-makers and work was carried out by teams of laborers.  The system worked.  American manufacturing became the envy of the world, producing increasing volumes of increasingly high-quality products.  American workers were provided wages adequate to allow them to become consumers on a massive scale.  We had constructed a treadmill – creating a labor force that would produce as well as consume the very products that would define, in material terms, our success.

And eventually we reached a saturation point.  The marginal increase in our ability to produce more, better, and cheaper began to decline.  Our employment base began to erode as other countries competed for our consumers by paying their workers lower wages and offering choices in goods U.S. manufacturers did not provide.  American manufacturing began to diminish in terms of worldwide industrial production and as a sector of our own economy.  As we shifted away from making goods, we suffered no shortage of material objects to mark the progress of our individual success.

The American economy began to revolve more around the provision of services.  At the low end of the pay scale we have the food service industry, maintenance and repair of machines and facilities, and various types of personal services.  At the upper end, we have financial services, an increasingly technological medical industry, and of course lawyers.  This latter cluster requires a more specialized education than a typical factory job, but through a serendipitous set of circumstances, by the time the U.S. economy needed larger numbers of more highly educated workers, we had them.  The G.I. Bill, enacted after World War II changed the expectations of Americans regarding higher education. By the 1960s, the presumption in middle class families was that children would go on to college after high school.

This is now.

But progress in the 21st century will be stymied if we continue to educate our citizens on a 20th century model, based on 20th century expectations.  Mass production – whether of goods or of services – has reached the point of decreasing marginal returns.  We need a more effective system for developing human potential.  We need education that will foster innovation.

Part III – Standardizing the population

The United States made huge strides in the 20th century, but in recent years, it has become clear that we are experiencing a new set of circumstances with new challenges.

In the 20th century, the United States became the leading manufacturing power in the world.  Now our relative position in manufacturing is in decline.

Since World War II, the U.S. has been the world’s the leading military power.  But for all our might, we have been unable to prevent regional wars from spinning out of control, we are vulnerable to being incapacitated by a hacker with a vendetta, and we are at risk of having our way of life undone by a terrorist with a nuclear device in a suitcase.

Over the last century, our country evolved from one in which less than half of the young people could expect to earn a high school diploma, and a college education was available only to a tiny fraction of the population, to one in which a high school education was mandated by law and the expected result of a diploma was preparedness for college.  College admissions skyrocketed, graduate degrees became a normal part of the resume of an upwardly-mobile professional.

In a little over a hundred years, we have gone from an environment in which books were a precious commodity, owned in large numbers only by the wealthy, to one in which knowledge is easily obtained and free.  Many of us carry in the palm of our hands a device that can deliver more information than was dreamed possible one hundred years ago, let alone available to the masses.

But our public schools have not adapted to the new realities.  We have a massive educational infrastructure in place, but we are focusing its efforts on the wrong outcomes.  We think with a mass-production, interchangeable-parts mentality.  We have a system in which we aspire to produce high school graduates with the same base of knowledge and the same sets of skills as every other high school graduate.

It is understandable that we would tend towards using public education as a tool to standardize our population.  It is a big scary world with increasingly rapid changes happening all the time.  Our country is already intrinsically diverse in terms of geography and cultural heritage.  It is natural to wish to use public schools – the one institution that affects Americans nearly universally, and at an impressionable age – to bring us all together under a common banner.

The fact that it is understandable doesn’t make it a good idea.

We are distracted by our cultural diversity, which historically we have always sought to suppress.  We do not give sufficient credit to the natural diversity of human talent, which has always been our greatest strength.

We are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information that is readily available in our digitally-integrated world.  We react by defining more narrowly for our children the information that is acceptable for them to learn.

We should be empowering students to judge the value of information on their own.  We should be helping them develop the critical thinking skills they will need to evaluate what they learn, and the ability to use information in productive and innovative ways.

We should abandon our fixation on standardized outcomes and cultivate the diversity of human potential.

This will take more than a shift in emphasis in how we teach our kids.  Reforming public education for the 21st century will require a whole new paradigm.

Part IV – Envisioning a new paradigm

Education must prepare young people for the future.  Now, more than at any time in human history, changes in technology, trade, and social institutions are occurring with disorienting rapidity.  Looking ahead, it seems that the only prediction we could make with much certainty is that the future promises to bear little resemblance to the past.  But how can we get our children ready for a world we can’t foresee?  How can we construct an educational system that will produce a population that is ready for the challenges of a world yet to be created?

In this still-new century, two important truths have emerged.

Young people will need to learn new skills and acquire new bodies of information for their entire lives.  Those who lack the ability or the willingness to improve their market value in the work force will be left behind, or pushed into menial labor or even unemployment.

The economy will continue to change.  We have seen in the late 20th century a shift from a manufacturing base to a service economy.  We have seen a slow-down of growth in mass-production and an increase in the production of specialized goods and services.  We are experiencing an economy that has essentially peaked in its ability to produce the necessities of life for a large, geographically diverse population.  The expanding opportunities are in products that have not yet been invented – that consumers don’t yet realize that they must have to secure their desired quality of life.

Public education will have to prepare students to be life-long learners and to be producers not only of goods and services, but also of ideas.

In order to accomplish this, schools will have to let go of some of the sacred tenets that have guided their mission for many generations.

Education will always be about the transmission of knowledge, but it can no longer afford to be about a set body of knowledge.  It is no longer as important what students learn as it is that they become proficient, autonomous learners.

Education will always be about preparing young people for life as adults, but we should recognize that we can no longer predict with any precision what that life will be like.  Instead of shaping children into the kinds of workers we need them to be in order to conform to our idea of a model citizen, we need to empower them to find their own ways to accomplish tasks and to solve problems.

The greatest challenge for public schools – those large, impersonal, state-funded factories of conformity – is to develop ways to foster innovation and creativity.

It will require a new paradigm – a whole new vision of the purpose of education.  And it has never been more important to create that vision and to construct that new paradigm.

Some people aren’t waiting for the schools to get it right, they are creating a new paradigm on their own.

Part V – Pursuing passions

My friend Doug did okay in high school, but like a lot of kids he wasn’t particularly turned on by the experience, and was irritated by the strict rules about incidental issues like chewing gum.  He was a smart kid, made respectable grades, was friends with other good students who were on the conventional path through high school and on to college.  But after turning 16, he transferred to the Open Campus high school to finish his diploma requirements in a place that had few rules about behavior, but serious consequences if students failed to take care of their own responsibilities.  For perhaps the first time, Doug truly enjoyed the school environment in which he found himself.  He never had any problem accepting the natural consequences for his choices in life, and he never chose to go on to college.

But Doug loved rock climbing.  As a teenager, he discovered the sport, and it quickly became a driving passion in his life.  He practiced climbing the outcroppings that are found scattered around the Georgia piedmont region where he grew up, read about climbers and climbs in exotic locations, made himself an expert in ropes and the equipment climbers use, moved to the mountains of North Carolina for a few years to be closer to more challenging climbs.  Over the years, Doug made excursions around the country to climb in the Appalachians, in the Rockies, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Doug never earned a college degree, but he never stopped learning, and never lost his intellectual curiosity.  He married a woman with a Ph.D. and continued friendships with the “good students” who had become doctors, lawyers, and professors, as well as other good people who might not have as many years of formal education, but who were energetic and ambitious.

To finance his own passion, Doug worked in restaurants, as a surveyor, in construction.  He devised a business plan for leading expeditions to climb the Andes in Peru, and in order to make this feasible, Doug learned Spanish and earned certification as a paramedic.  He worked for many years in a mountaineering shop owned by a local climbing enthusiast and businessman.  Eventually, Doug purchased the business and provided high quality equipment as well as expert advice.  Doug became well-known among the tight-knit community of serious rock climbers in the metro Atlanta area.

In 1996, the year the Olympics were held in Atlanta, organizers for the games contacted Doug, who had been recommended as an expert in the use of ropes and climbing gear.  He was hired to hang cameras and other equipment from the ceiling of the basketball coliseum that served as the venue for many of the Olympic events.  In taking this job, Doug entered an elite fraternity of some two dozen men in the world who do this kind of work.  Every Olympics since 1996 and for several other large international sporting events, Doug has jetted to different parts of the world, often taking his wife and two kids.

When my friend Doug told me he was not going to go to college, I thought he was missing out on a great opportunity.  I don’t think so any more.  Doug has built an interesting and rewarding career by listening to his desires, and arranging his life to enable him to pursue his passion for rock climbing.  It is hard to imagine how spending several years in the cloister of higher education would have added to his success or happiness.

Schools need to encourage students to pursue their passions.  A curriculum should not be a narrow path to a predetermined end.  It should expose doors that students can open.  It should help to release human potential.

Part V – Marking out the future

I began this essay by asking, “How many people hate their jobs?” and by questioning the way schools encourage conformity over individuality.  Doug’s story stands as an illustration of how one person who never accepted the narrow role marked out for him by others found success on his own terms.  In fact, it was only because he insisted on pursuing his passion, and was willing to do whatever it took to make sure his life provided the rewards he wanted, that he was in a position to encounter the opportunities, and have the success he has enjoyed.

Not that there haven’t been setbacks, and not that the path was always clear from the beginning.  There were many, many hours spent on jobs that offered a paycheck, but little personal satisfaction.  But Doug never worked for an employer that wouldn’t take him back in a heartbeat.  No matter what the job, Doug always approached his work with energy, professionalism, and a positive attitude.  It was this optimism and willingness to do whatever it took, combined with commitment to his calling, that enabled Doug to persevere and finally to prevail.

So how can this kind of life, this kind of success based in personal satisfaction, be replicated?  Any parent, teacher, or education policymaker has to wonder – wouldn’t it be great if every child entered adulthood prepared to succeed on his or her own terms?

Doug did not know as a young man how his life would turn out.  He started out with aspirations and a willingness to improvise a determination to learn and do whatever it took to achieve his goals.  There is no way to have predicted Doug’s path in life, and no accurate way to measure his success against the success of others.

If we could identify every variable that contributed to his choices and to the outcome of those choices, perhaps we could create a program that would teach people how to maximize the potential yield of all of their choices as well.

If we could quantify life experience and personal satisfaction the way we are able to count money, perhaps we could rate and rank his accomplishments.

But the kind of success Doug discovered is not of the one-size-fits-all variety.  That is in fact what makes it so sweet.  There is no program that could have given him all the information he needed to pursue his goals.  Integral to his expertise is the fact that he discovered this information on his own.

There is no way to have determined with mathematical certainty that Doug was prepared when he finished high school to build the kind of life he wanted to live.

Public schools don’t test for these things, and if they teach these things, it is outside of the curriculum and most likely the result of the efforts of some devoted and inspirational teacher.

But aren’t these exactly the qualities that we would like to see developed in every young person?

We have to start doing things differently.  We have to capture the potential of the human race and empower young people to discover their own true calling – and their enormous capabilities.

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