Broken hands on broken ploughs,
Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken pipes, broken tools,
People bending broken rules.
Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking,
Everything is broken.
– Bob Dylan, “Everything Is Broken”
State of Emergency
Few of the authorities who write, speak, advocate, and lobby on behalf of ideologies about education or improvements in its delivery ever have created or managed a school. Fewer still have taught, and virtually none have taught recently. No doubt they mean well, but most authorities know little about actual teaching and learning in the contemporary world. Few have familiarity with nations and cultures that have achieved distinction in teaching language, mathematics, and science. None, in my opinion, place sufficient emphasis upon the sole protagonists who truly matter in any dialogue about education: the learners.
Despite these limitations in expertise, broad consensus exists in the United States that our public education system at all learning levels confronts severe challenges. The consensus is correct. Throughout our country, students’ motivation and academic performance seems to be declining in all fields of knowledge.
Many analysts fault teachers. I believe it is not possible responsibly to criticize or to laud individual teaching professionals, because we do not yet possess any generally agreed means by which teachers’ efficacy can be quantified and measured.
All experts agree we face epic financial challenges in sustaining and modernizing our education endeavors. An alarming number of communities are finding it difficult appropriately to finance putatively public resources. Schools are beset with spiraling costs, decreasing revenues, and attendant challenges in providing core programs, suitable staffing, sufficient facilities, necessary maintenance, and basic safety. In many localities, particularly in economically disadvantaged districts, our education infrastructure is outmoded and, in many instances, in acute disrepair. Lawrence Summers, Director of the National Economic Council for President Obama, recently suggested that 75% of American schools are in an unacceptable state of disrepair.
Resource deprivation is a serious national problem. Even more serious is the sheer pertinence of our curriculum and instruction system. Education in the United States has not changed materially since its origins in outmoded economic, geographic, and cultural paradigms. Our nation no longer is a predominantly rural agrarian civilization existing in immune isolation from global geopolitical forces. Everything about our instructional program, its content, its calendar, and its hours of operation, was designed for an historical situation that long ago departed. Our public education philosophy and practice make little sense for the contemporary universe, and for the world of work our children soon will enter.
In truth, we seldom give the needs of our children and the welfare of our society the attention they warrant. Instead, we focus on the preferences of various sectarians’ ideals, the narrow self-interest of teachers and education bureaucrats, and the pandering of indifferent politicians who seek these influencers’ financial and electoral support.
We blithely ignore the fact that other countries rapidly are improving their education systems. Societies are not necessarily competitors of one another. However, we ill can afford to ignore the reality that our peer nations in Europe and Asia are making major strides in providing their children with impressive competencies in many of the fields that most signify in modern life.
These are our current circumstances in American education. Many commentators agree the conditions constitute an unacknowledged state of national emergency.
The Action Agenda
The corrective action most analysts most frequently advocate is reform. Across numerous political and other ideological divides, we are told education in America needs modification, improvement, revision, renewal, repair.
This is not accurate. Few will say so for risk of imperiling their employment, but everyone who actually teaches in classes or actively administers schools and universities knows that education in America needs revolution. Our conceptions about teaching and learning, their broad purposes and specific objectives, scale and scope, format, governance, management, and economics do not require adjustment. They need to be completely rejected, reinvented, and replaced.
Fixing public education in America is not a task of renovation or reconstruction. It’s a teardown.
The Problems We Face
For more than forty years, I have served as a senior teacher and executive manager in preschools, schools, and universities. My experience has led me to conclude we confront eight key challenge areas in American public education:
- Candor and Practicality
- Mission-Critical Truths
- Purposes and Objectives
- Content Design
- Delivery Design
- Outcome Assessment and Reporting
- Teachers’ Qualifications and Accountability
- Teachers’ Compensation and Job Security
In the passages that follow, I will discuss each of these problems in turn. I will close by recommending the specific revolution I believe our education system most needs.
1. Candor and Practicality
We cannot identify problems unless we are willing to be truthful about their nature and importance. And if we truthfully seek to find effective solutions, we must commit ourselves exclusively to the criterion of practicality. A remedy is not a remedy unless it actually can work.
In any discourse about education, the welfare of our children and the benefit of our society are the only values that ultimately can command our allegiance. In comparison to these imperatives, the workplace preferences of teachers and administrators are irrelevant. The predilections of idealists, theorists, and partisan adherents of any philosophy, creed, or dogma are extraneous and immaterial.
2. Mission-Critical Truths
Here are several fundamental truths about teaching and learning. Few educators and no polemicists will acknowledge them. They nevertheless are baseline realities, and they centrally concern the process and project of education. Unless we take these mission-critical truths into full account, we cannot possibly design and deliver valid learning for our children, or ensure abiding vitality for our society.
- Not all children are born with equal intelligence, motivation, complexity, flexibility, emotional resilience, and character strength.
- Children do not want or need to lead similar lives. They do not need to pursue comparable fulfillments, develop analogous gifts, or create like relationships, careers, and accomplishments. They need to nurture and enact their own selfhood.
- Children do not learn in the same way, in the same sequence, at the same speed.
- Learning almost never occurs sequentially. It occurs by leaps and bounds, most powerfully when the learner achieves confidence and attains a personal resolve to learn, a self-motivated joy in discovering, engaging, and internalizing skills and knowledge.
- Teaching differs drastically from learning. Just because a teacher “covers” a subject does not mean all learners have learned it, or will remember it.
- A test almost never can reliably quantify what a student has learned. Exceptions may occur in such content-intensive fields as computation, geographical names, orthography, etc. A test primarily measures, if anything, some students’ skill in understanding and mastering the requirements of the test itself. This ability will be importantly affected by many socioeconomic and other environmental factors.
- Grades are abstract, improvisational approximations. They refer metaphorically to criteria that frequently are undefined, and always are merely figurative. They involve samples that invariably are unstated or overstated: “norms,” “grade levels,” “the general population,” “bell curves,” etc.
- Much, arguably most, of what we are required to learn in school turns out to have little consequence in the lives we lead as adults. During my grade 9 and grade 10 years, for instance, I was forced to devote myriad hours learning how to recognize and parse the ablative absolute syntax in Latin. I have utilized this awareness rarely.
- Most adults cherish the memory of one or more teachers who were transformative in the growth of our imagination, our character, and our erudition. Sadly, most of the teachers whom we have encountered produced little influence on our learning or our lives, and many created decidedly negative impacts. In our school communities everyone knew who the great teachers were, and who the mediocre or horrid teachers were. Yet, great mentors rarely were institutionally recognized, honored, or rewarded; and nothing disciplinary or ameliorating ever seemed to happen to middling, below-average, or dreadful instructors.
- During our school life, especially during our middle school and high school years, many of us frequently experienced emotional discomfort and social cruelty. The principles extolled in particularly our upper school communities, the virtues respected, the values celebrated, excluded most students from inclusion and bore little relationship to what, as adults, we have discovered most matters for living in happiness, success, and goodness.
These observations suggest a distressing conclusion. A great deal that is foundational in anyone’s comprehension of useful and healthy education is imperfect or failing in the current American system.
3. Purposes and Objectives
Most citizens of our nation would agree that the primary purpose of education is to prepare children and young adults to conduct happy, beneficial, and productive lives. Most would agree that our schools should produce independent, self-motivated, lifelong learners; and should foster students’ commitment and ability to behave with decency, compassion, integrity, and honor.
More concretely, preschools must prepare their graduates for success in elementary programs. K-12 schools must prepare their graduates for skill and effectiveness in work fields; or, for those who choose to continue their studies, success in universities. Universities should prepare their graduates for discovery and leadership in life.
4. Content Design
American public schools commonly ignore education’s most compelling purposes, and substitute politicized or recondite goals in their place. Many establish self-referential curricula: they “cover” fields of knowledge that local education bureaucracies or other influential forces deem appropriate for various “age groups” and “learning levels.” These fields and their required “coverage” may have little to do with the knowledge base and the thinking and creative skills most universities require; or with the competencies and capabilities employers expect of non-collegiate professionals.
For all intents and purposes, education policymakers ignore students who do not aspire to or seek university education. We increasingly are reluctant to identify and track such learners, or to equip them with qualifying career preparation in honorable, necessary, and remunerative fields of work. Few districts even attempt to audit prospective employers’ hiring requirements for terminal senior secondary school graduates. Few make any provisions for high school leavers.
Our failure to focus on practical outcome objectives is paralleled by our refusal to respond to our country’s rapidly changing social conditions, economic topography, and cultural mores. History curricula in the United States remain obsessively Anglo-European and patriarchal in their emphasis. Few science curricula have kept even approximately current with the remarkable pace of scientific discovery and technological advances that are the most important hallmark of our era. Many science courses are leavened with ideological concerns, or issues concerning religious revelation. Our expectations for learners’ mathematical competency and English language literacy are woefully outmoded for the era in which we now live, and for the polity our graduates eventually must lead. Children and young adults in the United States seldom learn an international language other than English. Despite the fact we now inhabit what we often term a “flat world,” we decline to prepare our learners to comprehend or informedly respect any other society’s consciousness and civilization.
This problem is compounded by our ever-growing insularity and unconscious arrogance. We behave as though our daughters and sons somehow are entitled to flourish in their lives because they dwell in the United States. We often feel contemptuous or bitter about nations that seem to be “pushing” their children to achieve standards more exacting than our own. The reality is that our education system’s graduates must live and compete in the actual great world – not in the realm of our fantasies, biases, and preferences. They need to comprehend and transact in an economy that years ago became incomparably more global and meritocratic than the forebears who designed our education systems could have envisioned.
5. Delivery Design
Deficiency and dereliction in our schools’ content designs are serious problems. Far more dangerous are the defects in our delivery designs.
The most troubling of these proceed from our insistence, against all evidence, that children always learn in a linear order, all in the same manner, all at the same pace. Almost universally, we teach courses of study in a straight line sequence. Fields such as history and literature customarily are taught in a chain of chronology, organized by region or nation. Mathematics normally is taught in a progression of capabilities. So is language acquisition. Those students who do not move along the grid as the teacher presents it lose root constructs and competencies. They are fated to fall ever further behind, unless, improbably, they receive specialized remediation or achieve a self-directed renaissance.
The problem is not simply that we teach in grossly artificial straight-line modalities. The obstacle is compounded by the fact that we habitually aggregate learners by their age, house them in grade levels based upon their age, and make no genuinely consequential provisions for those who learn much more readily and swiftly than the “norms” we invent; or for those who learn much less easily.
We rarely utilize meaningful criteria and instruments to identify gifted or challenged learners. Even if we could achieve these vital distinctions, we seldom empower our most caring and capable teachers to serve either group; or, for that matter, to assist any individuals or specialized groups. In most of our schools, classes are not only too homogenized. They also are grotesquely too large. We permit this syndrome – often we deliberately engineer it – even though knowledgeable researchers and experienced pedagogues always have known that the single most determinative factor in education effectiveness is a low student-teacher ratio.
Every mathematician will tell us that our education “norms” statistically must fail to serve a majority of learners. A greater part of any cohort must perform “below” or “above” any “median” we choose to establish. Every skillful, committed teacher will confirm that our “norms” indeed do fail to serve the large majority of our daughters and sons.
The truth is we don’t care. We placidly accept the despair of perceived inadequacy and progressively more damaging ignorance for those who learn too slowly for the prevailing “norm.” With equal comfort, we resign ourselves to the even more insidious despair of boredom for those who learn too quickly for the benchmarks on offer.
I regard our commitment to synthetic norms as the most pernicious defect in our schools’ delivery system. There are several other grave flaws that warrant attention.
Let us consider our traditional instructional schemes. Most public schools insist educators compose, review with the colleagues to whom they report, and implement in their entirety prefabricated lesson plans: inflexible, inert metrics that assume a teacher should know or can predict how an actual group classroom dynamic will occur and operate. Almost all our schools require teachers to devise blueprints or gridirons of a kind that ensure every “lesson’s” intents will be rigid, its energies formulaic, and its outcomes precisely definable. This practice is intended to guarantee that a “grade level” curriculum will be “covered” on a definite and defined schedule.
Forward planning is a sensible and necessary pedagogic activity. But fabricating in advance the entirety of a lecture, a discussion, a unit, or an entire semester so that classroom work will consist mainly of assembling and uniting standardized parts cannot succeed in generating thoughtful learning across any spectrum of a specific learning community’s inevitable individualism. The manufacturing paradigm so dear to modernist cultures has no salience for education. In fact, it is acutely counterproductive.
This problem is compounded by the teaching tools we commonly utilize. Most schools deploy textbooks as their primary informatory and educative instrument: dry, desiccated, dull, reductive, emphatically hindering learning devices – and hugely expensive. Modern technology offers immense possibilities for teaching and learning. However, technology is expensive to acquire, license, and maintain, it requires enlightened cognition and use, and it often is subject to student abuse. Many schools use some elements of modern technology creatively and constructively. Most, though, cannot or do not.
The unfortunate impacts of this limitation are exacerbated by our most commonly accepted teaching methods and learning platforms. Too often, schools rely still on archaic teacher-delivered presentations, delivered by lecture, supported by dry marker runes drawn on white boards. Too often, schools rely still on outdated student recitation responses repeated in orchestrated chants. Pupils reply to their instructors’ lectures, if at all, by rote, regurgitating mindlessly what a notional authority robotically has conveyed. Or, in the most common supplemental model, pupils reply to set questions when called upon by name. Those who do not volunteer and those who are not specifically summoned to reply are assumed to comprehend the lesson’s material. This assumption normally is ratified by many teachers’ standard closing query: “Are there any questions?” If there are no queries, group mastery of the subject matter supposedly can be presumed.
Contemporary research abundantly establishes that these teaching protocols cannot succeed for a large majority of learners. At best, these methods can force-feed some students information that will help them achieve successful scores on examinations that test these specific data. No one pretends, however, that information mastery and data recollection constitute thinking, problem-solving, or creating – the skill sets most necessary for achievement in universities, workplaces, and the living of life.
As a matter of course, we supplement this ineffective way of teaching by mandating homework. Schools routinely assign learners often quite onerous self-study requirements. These assignments usually are mechanical, repetitive, nonanalytic, and noncreative in their design: they emphasize chores of drill and repetition. If teachers reply to the exercises assigned, they normally do so with an abstract mark and minimal comments. Few teachers would argue, none plausibly, the exercises ensure or even assist student learning that has meaning or purpose. No one will argue homework of this sort can animate and feed any person’s inborn embryonic passion for study.
Nor can our customary classroom architecture and semiotics provide these necessary stimulations. We force students to sit still in enclosed spaces for much or all of their learning day. We bolt chairs to floors or cluster them around tables, with the teacher installed in a symbolic fortress in the front of the room. We signal the beginning and announce the closing of a class period by sounding bells or claxons like we do in prisons, as if education were a regimen punitive, penal, or in some other corrective manner prescribed and inflicted. Our daughters and sons properly ought to regard learning as their joyful vocation. How can they regard the environment that confines and regulates them as either a professional or a pleasurable surround?
We tolerate another conspicuous defect in our delivery design. We no longer expect that our students will assist with sowing and harvesting. Why, then, do we operate our schools for, on average, less than 50% of the calendar year? Why do so many schools conclude the learning day at 3:30 PM or 2:30 PM, or begin it at ever later hours in the morning?
American children need far more school time than we currently provide. Many of our students swiftly forget much or most of what they seemingly learn, especially during break or holiday periods. Our most challenged students desperately require remediation, tutoring, and ongoing guidance. Our most gifted and talented students need, deserve, and would relish accelerated learning opportunities. Many of our children confront compromised or actively perilous homes, and greatly would benefit from assured persisting access to safe, protected, nurturing communal environments.
Our schools should be all-day, year-round community centers. They should be hubs of inspiration and safety where children can engage in academic study, arts, sports, arrays of salubrious extracurricular activities, and ongoing health and wellness counseling.
Nothing prevents us from modernizing and expanding our atavistic education order. Nothing except developing the resolve to do so, and allocating budgetary resources to pay for it.
The problem principally is that of resolve. We already pay for elaborate physical infrastructures that we minimally use. We already pay for a workforce that regards it as a somehow inviolable right to work considerably fewer hours per day and per year than other professionals. And we already pay momentous hidden costs to care for children whom we lose from the schooling and developmental tracks we regard as necessary and normative. In worst instances, we pay massive sums to detect, bring to trial, and incarcerate those whose alienation and neglect lead to criminality.
These are negative perspectives. Let us rejoice in the more positive viewpoint. We may be certain that all expenditures necessary to modernize our education content, design, and delivery systems would be abundantly recompensed by the social and material gains we would accomplish. How swiftly our national productivity would advance if we more fully would recognize, protect, and empower each child’s capacity for learning.
6. Outcome Assessment and Reporting
Measuring learning has not changed substantially in the United States since the advent of public schooling.
Teachers develop assessment mechanisms that in various ways attempt to quantify students’ commitment to and participation in class work, their success in particular exercises, quizzes, and cumulative tests, the results of their homework, and, in some cases, their school attendance and daily deportment. For the most part, though, American schools still determine learning results by means of locally-generated or standardized written examinations – examinations to which, accordingly, all teachers must teach, and ever more class time must be devoted. We rely on tests no one ever has been able to demonstrate actually succeed in meaningfully calculating knowledge. Not by means or measures many honest and effective teachers will endorse. Not by criteria that in any reasonable manner reflect the lives students will conduct in their communities and cultures.
The tendency to measure comprehension and understanding by test is growing. Indeed, it rapidly is becoming federalized. This process is the more destructive because it increasingly controls the extent to which districts and schools receive finance, and the means by which individual teachers’ effectiveness is evaluated
We continue to report on individual learners’ performance by periodically delivering teacher-generated grades to parents, as if children were not responsible in any degree for their own learning or answerable in any manner to their own conscience. Almost never do we invite or require students to set their own expectations, or help evaluate their own performance. Almost never do we expect learners to establish a formal contract for their learning commitments with their parents and their schools. Almost never do we expect students to generate and present a portfolio of their education’s products, or to discuss in what manner their creations express their learning and reveal the pathways they want to develop for their awakened awareness and knowledge.
I know of no instance in which our public schools attempt to measure or report on a student’s achievements in terms of the individual’s potential. Instead, we report as if the only significant frame of reference for a person’s learning were a single, coherent, definable, monolithic “grade level expectation.”
Why do we fail to measure and report learning outcomes collaboratively with students? Why do we not even try to gauge students’ individual potential in each “subject,” and reflect upon the quality of their learning results in the terms of their inherent capability?
I think this must be because at the present moment our society does not genuinely care about individual children or their learning. Nor do we genuinely care about parents’ percepts and awareness. Our practice indicates we are concerned solely with legitimizing our education system itself: the rightness of its coverage, the rectitude of its methods, the clarity of its self-awareness, and, above all else, the totality of its authority.
Parents do not genuinely care, either. If they did, they would insist upon reform. Passive uncomplaining mothers and fathers are essential to and complicit with the education paradigm our social order inflicts upon their children.
We also must note that most students do not care, either. If they did, they would insist upon challenging and changing the education experience that in a multitude of its most important aspects disrespects and damages them. Mute submissive students are necessary to and acquiescent with the infantilization their educators impose upon them.
7. Teachers’ Qualifications and Accountability
Throughout the United States, prospective teachers are required to prepare for their employment by studying in an accredited university’s department of education. They accomplish state licensure on the basis of fulfilling a university’s program requirements, achieving a passing mark on a written qualifying examination administered by the state’s department of education, and, in some cases, by successfully completing an internship under the supervision of an experienced teacher.
Teachers theoretically are accountable for the quality of their work. Most districts delegate to the administrative leader of each school the responsibility to evaluate the quality of each teacher’s commitment and capability.
Some districts mandate that junior teachers undergo a period of senior peer mentorship and review. These evaluations often are confidential, as are the nature and results of any ongoing mentoring work that may ensue. Increasingly districts measure teachers’ effectiveness primarily by the rate at which their students achieve learning as assessed by standardized examinations. In 2010, the Houston, Texas district determined that students’ performance on standardized examination will serve as the sole criterion by which it evaluates its teachers’ merit and employability.
In many but not all districts, teachers are encouraged to continue their professional development by completing “enrichment courses” provided by university departments of education or other vendors, and by participating in conferences and workshops. The salience and usefulness of these programs rarely are assessed.
I am aware of no instance in which a district permits students or parents to contribute to their “public” schools’ assessment of teachers’ effectiveness.
Most American public schools are unionized. Teachers’ unions vigorously monitor districts’ treatment of all issues concerning licensure, assessment, and accountability.
Our prevailing qualification and accountability procedure hypothesizes that all teachers have achieved and will maintain mastery of the courses of study they provide to students, and expertise in pedagogy. Possibly this is so. It is more likely, though, that our procedure ensures ossification. Established instructors exercise exorbitant control over new colleagues who seek to enter the profession. All teachers, senior and junior in service, are thoroughly indoctrinated in and reliant upon the outmoded education schemes, content designs, delivery mechanisms, and assessment methods we have discussed, and therefore can never become a focal point of resistance to them. We have built a system that is hermetic, self-refereed, hostile to inquiry, and highly resistant to change.
8. Teachers’ Compensation and Job Security
Compensation for teachers varies widely by region. All salaries have improved in our generation. However, as costs of living in the United States inexorably increase, particularly in such chronically inflationary sectors as housing and healthcare, it is becoming ever more difficult for teachers to accomplish economic comfort. No one can build wealth by choosing to pursue this essential but undervalued profession.
Districts compensate teachers on fixed scales determined by length of service. Much debate has arisen about the desirability of creating merit pay systems for instructors who warrant recognition and reward. Teacher unions energetically have resisted this conversation. Few political leaders have dared challenge the unions’ stand. None have done so successfully.
Budget permitting, districts award annual contract renewals to all teachers who meet “average performance” standards. Districts commonly award lifetime tenure to instructors on the basis of minimal longevity achievements.
Few school principals and district superintendents have developed credible means by which substandard teachers can be responsibly identified, improved, or removed from service. No practical means short of proven moral turpitude now exist by which tenured teachers can be involuntarily retrained or retired from employment. [The New York Times recently published shocking reportage about this problem. Please see: “Progress Slow in City Goal to Fire Bad Teachers,” 23 February 2010]
Our present compensation and job security policies link all instructors’ economic self-interest to length of service rather than excellence. Renewal in employment is the sole accomplishment our public schools currently recognize and reward. The ultimate reward is the conferral of lifetime appointment, without any serious annual performance review or professional development expectations.
This situation is irrational and tragic. The essence of educating ought not to be durability of contract terms but jubilant experimentation, deliberate diversity, passionate investigation, and absolute devotion to individuality. Our public school system and its workplace organization encourage apostate energies. Even though we know our education philosophy and practice are not succeeding, we engineer for orthodoxy. We impose upon our principals and teachers, the system’s only feasible internal change agents, essentially insurmountable pressures of compliance and conformity. Indeed, we reward them exclusively for accepting and enforcing our existing, failed conventions.
Exceptions That Prove the Rule
Many education practitioners, numerous analysts, and virtually all political leaders recognize the conditions we have discussed, realize they constitute a national emergency, and share this essay’s judgment about the need to create swift and deep improvement.
Of course there exist plentiful instances of education excellence in American education. We can cite numerous examples of better-equipped, better-staffed schools that generate better results for many students than those criticized in this commentary.
However, the illustrative illustrations are exceptions. The individual schools we may reference know themselves to be out of the ordinary and remarkable. And they are restricted to districts whose population is prosperous. Throughout the United States, there invariably is a direct relationship between family affluence and relative public education quality. Too often, there is an equally direct correlation between family affluence and race.
Although we can find exceptions, and although public education in America has in many respects a proud heritage, no one responsibly can dispute how imperfect our schools now are, how rapidly conditions are deteriorating, and how dangerous this corrosion is for our children’s future prospects and our nation’s wellbeing.
The Reform Solution
The solution most reformers prefer is to perfect and universalize standardization. They believe if we confer control of education to states or, as an increasing number suggest, grant total authority to the federal government, we can regionalize or nationalize:
- Superior teacher qualification standards
- Enhanced curriculum
- Better teaching practices
- Accurate student assessment [universalizing the use of standardized tests]
- Reliable teacher assessment [measuring whose students score well or ill on standardized tests]
Reformers argue we can enforce the potency of these measures by directing state and federal funding primarily to those districts and schools that achieve the highest degree of success in fulfilling the reformers’ agenda. We can do this most efficiently, it is said, by financing only those schools whose students score suitably on nationalized standard tests. Some recommend we go so far as to close schools whose students consistently fail to score appropriately.
There are many political problems that attach to this scheme of putative reform, particularly during our current era of internecine social and governmental polarity. To name but one disqualifier, we must anticipate that few American communities voluntarily will cede additional control of their schools to state or federal authority.
In my judgment, the reformers’ strategy presents a far graver problem than procuring and preserving political acceptance. I believe the strategy simply cannot work. It cannot work because:
- Standardizing teaching never succeeds. Great teachers teach in idiosyncratic ways that are indissolubly connected to their personal sensibility. Their specific talents and tactics rarely are transferable.
- Standardizing learning never succeeds. No matter how well or how ill a pedagogue may teach, each human being learns in a distinctive, perhaps entirely singular manner.
- Standardized examinations never successfully measure meaningful learning. Such tests do not even purport to measure a student’s critical and creative thinking skills, power of present comprehension, or potential for future gestation.
I do not believe in the curative power of additional program standardization. Even if I did believe in this reform as a panacea, I would continue to feel profoundly disturbed by all the other crucial issues of content and delivery raised in this essay: the inexplicably brief length of our school day and year; the parochial and inverted nature of our content designs; the irrelevance of many of our learning programs’ preoccupations; the dysfunction and pathology of our nominal quality controls; the monotony and cruelty of many school communities and environments; our shocking indifference to inspiring each child’s learning aptitude – an aptitude that my long experience in the field has taught me is limited only by the restraints imposed upon it by adult authorities.
The Revolution Solution
Reform will not help us. I conclude public education in America requires revolution.
The specific revolution we need is choice. Let parents freely choose the approach to education they prefer for their children.
Let there be as many approaches to school education as interested practitioners can devise. Let schools clearly and candidly define their approaches. Let schools attract and retain their clientele legitimately by fulfilling expectations, or lose their clientele by failing to provide expected value.
Let this multiplicity, this free market competition, be fairly and fully funded. Let federal, state, and local jurisdictions stop extracting involuntary payments from our citizenry by assessment and directing our tax funds to so-called “public” school districts without transparency or accountability. Let there be instead a Public Education Voucher System. Let each family annually receive for each school-age child an amount of money equivalent to that which our government now allocates per child to public school districts.
This sum is startlingly large, although the dollar amount that reaches each learner for actual education contact hours is scandalously low. Let us fairly tabulate the total to which each child is entitled, and grant it to the child’s parents as a public entitlement. The total should constitute a proportionate amount of the entire publicly levied expenditure for education, including that apportioned for ill-designed, ill-maintained real estate, ill-conceived and underperforming bureaucrats, ill-advised textbooks and other supplies, school vehicles, utilities, officials’ unnecessary perquisites, etc.
Let the free market determine the varieties of education experience parents can purchase for their children with that sum. If families want to spend more than their annual allocation for exceptionally costly education experiences, let them do so. If private schools price themselves out of their market, they will flounder or fail.
Let the free market determine what should be taught, how it should be taught, and how its outcomes should be measured. In its wisdom, over time, the free market will discipline unwise, untruthful, or outlandish education philosophies and practices.
Teach creationism? Fine. Teach Nazism? Fine. Eventually, probably swiftly, parents will note that universities and workplaces do not grant access to graduates who know little, or who espouse mindless viciousness. Mothers and fathers will determine whether they want to use their voucher to enroll their child in a school that vitiates their child’s future. Parents are not dumb; and they want the best for their children.
Religious education? Why not. We are one of the world’s few nations that celebrate and formally legalize freedom of worship. Our society should cherish multiplicity in all aspects of our national life, including state-sponsored education. Again, parents in their wisdom will determine in the free market whether specific instances of religious education are or are not beneficial for their children.
Teacher certification, compensation, assessment, and job security? Let all schools decide freely whom they want to employ, how they want to evaluate their efficacy, the compensations they want to offer, and the employment securities they want to provide. Let teachers contract freely with the school whose system they prefer. For employers and faculty as well as parents, our education system can operate as it ought to: by choice, and by merit.
Some may maintain we already are moving toward this solution by authorizing charter schooling and home schooling options.
Charter schooling is a valiant and valuable experiment. But I do not foresee how charter schools can achieve or even pursue significant reform if they must win, as is presently the case, the consent and support of their sponsoring public district and teacher union. These entities, the beneficiaries of monopoly, have obtained exclusive ownership of “public” education through legal privilege, command of supply, concerted action, and consummate political sophistication. In my opinion, neither districts nor unions willingly will surrender any of these entitlements. They have too much to lose if they grant genuine emancipation to enlightened and effective charter competitors.
Home schooling is a burgeoning movement. It is fueled primarily by libertarian parents’ discontent with the public and private school options that are available in their localities.
We ought to permit home schooling, as we should allow all appropriate freedoms in our nation. I believe, though, that we should not allocate tax dollars or in the future award tax-supported vouchers to parents who exercise their freedom to educate independently. Society has an immense collective interest in communal education. It has none in wholly personalized education.
Center of Resistance: Teacher Unions
I believe a universal voucher system and open market freedom for all schools is the education revolution we require. I further believe this revolution is inevitable. The forces that will produce it are building inexorably and swiftly.
There are, though, centers of resistance. These are impassioned, empowered, articulate, and well-financed. The most vocal opponents of a national voucher and free market education system are teacher unions and the political leaders who rely upon organized labor’s support for their electoral campaigns.
In particular, unions fear and fight all threats to existing standards for teacher tenure. Their opposition usually is framed as a defense of freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Unions assert tenure is the indispensable guarantor of education’s sacred principles: the disinterested search for truth, and the sovereignty of independent, honest, apolitical, nonsectarian teaching.
Unions also claim freeing public education from its existing controls and financing parent choice with public voucher stipends would allow unqualified or unscrupulous providers to engage incompetent teachers, offer defective courses of study, report inaccurate learning outcomes, and provide unsafe facilities.
Ensuring teacher quality, teacher independence, learning integrity, and student safety are crucial values. I believe a free market education system will protect all these canonical provisions much more thoroughly than any writ of tenure, or any government bureaucratization of curriculum and assessment in a public education monopoly. Schools that choose to muzzle their faculty, discharge teachers for teaching truths, provide substandard courses, report dishonest grades, or imperil learners in perilous environments will swiftly lose their clientele. In a free market system, discontented parents will react to corrupt schools and inferior education products just as dissatisfied wealthy families do now: by transferring their child to a superior institution.
Center of Resistance: Politicians
Many political leaders maintain that a voucher system will lead parents of gifted and motivated students to withdraw their children from public schools and enroll them at public expense in privileged private academies. Left behind for the public schools, these politicians assert, will be all the children who present the greatest educational challenges: students with learning differences, substandard intelligence, psychological disturbances, indifferent homes, etc.
This argument has force. However, the present situation is a plutocracy’s solution. How does it benefit our democratic nation if only wealthy parents can choose the education program they prefer for their children? How does it assist our populist society if less wealthy parents must accept the public school that is available in their district: a school that is enabled by policy of government monopoly to collective the learning experience for all students of certain ages, regardless of their individual capability and needs; a school that may deliver uninspiring courses of study that insufficiently meet the requirements of many universities or the expectations of prospective employers; a school that may tolerate the wastage and boredom of many learners’ mind and spirit in order to convenience an intractable institutional preference for standardization?
Let us ask three other questions about our politicians’ acceptance of the status quo in our public education system.
1) How can it benefit students in the so-called “general population” who require specialized learning provisions if they do not receive them? How does it aid “special needs” learners if they are subjected to synthetic “norms” whose criteria they cannot meet; or if they are supplied with occasional teaching “specialists,” “special programs” or “streams” that provide only lip service to their complex and permanent requirements?
- Voucher financing would enable education entrepreneurs to establish learning communities designed to deliver specialized education specifically for children with special needs.
- Teachers committed to and qualified for special needs education would flow to these schools if they were compensated appropriately.
- Should political leaders and the voting public determine that additional financial support is necessary to subsidize special needs education, it could be awarded by deed of grant or by increasing the qualified students’ voucher stipend as needed.
2) How can it benefit our nation if those students in the “general population” who possess highly developed talents, advanced learning gifts, and elevated motivation are forcibly restrained from learning at the most rapid pace they can accomplish? Do we believe America’s future will be best protected if we cultivate only the brilliance or genius potential of private schools’ most advanced pupils? Do we for some reason suppose that only the children of wealthy parents are capable of precocious and important intellection?
- In a publicly funded free marketplace, education entrepreneurs would be induced to establish accelerated learning communities for demonstrably gifted students.
- Teachers skilled at this type of teaching would direct themselves to these academies if they were rewarded suitably.
3) If our political leaders believe so fervently in the sanctity of the present public education system, why do so few of them enroll their own children in it?
A rapidly growing body of research demonstrates children derive enormous benefit from receiving preschool education. Evidence is unequivocal that all children:
- should enter preschools at the earliest possible age
- early education teachers should be highly trained and skilled professionals
- early education programs should provide teaching in language, mathematic, and scientific cognition as well as socialization and life skills
- programs’ duration should be much longer than is presently conventional
- kindergarten programs in particular should be far more academic in content than currently is the case, and should be on offer throughout a full school day.
I know of no one who is informed about contemporary child development research who disagrees with these conclusions.
Why is it, then, we do not provide universal preschool education? Because it is costly. We assert we cannot afford the expense.
It is an offense to reason to aver that the United States of America cannot afford universal access to preschool education. The truth is we prefer not to afford it. We prefer to invest in other goals rather than maximal welfare for our children.
This is a mindless preference, because it commits our society to constraining the productive potential of our populace. It is mindless, too, because in the long term our country will recover the expenditures needed. We abundantly will recoup every cent of our investment cost in human capital, the outlay needed to incubate and nourish our children’s invention and leadership potential, as surely as we tend to earn back our venture outlays in technology, manufacturing, and other nonhuman sectors.
Not to mention how many valuable, dignified, permanent jobs we can create for our adult workforce if we resolve that our tax funds should build and maintain infrastructure, equip and supply it, and mount a professional instructor corps to design and deliver universal early childhood education. Can taxpayers not more wisely and more enthusiastically support public payments for this purpose than, say, to purchase preposterously large bonuses for incompetent and possibly criminal banking executives? Or to underwrite unacceptable cost overruns for defense systems our military leaders declare we do not need?
This is an economic imperative. The moral obligation is even more powerful and persuasive. Our daughters and sons incontestably deserve every opportunity for intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development our government can provide. What more compelling purpose can any government imagine it has?
Preschool Education Revolution
Here again we confront a situation of opportunity that cries out for a free market solution. We most wisely can protect the value and efficiency of our taxpayers’ investment in our nation’s future if we simply grant each child in our nation who reaches a certain age – ideally, the age of 30 months – an annual Preschool Education Voucher for a certain fair sum.
Let preschool education entrepreneurs make the capital investment in infrastructure, education design, workforce, and supporting technology they believe will be most successful. Let the marketplace determine which models parents prefer to support. Let national Preschool Vouchers stimulate and sustain a host of new early education initiatives that in short order will catalyze massive systemic acceleration in the entire corpus of American elementary, secondary, and university programming and learning.
If local governments wish to provide “public” preschools to compete for voucher clientele with “private” programs, so much the better. The free market cheerfully will tolerate competition, and fulsomely will reward the most successful exemplars.
Nothing can be worse than the condition of national inertia that now applies in the early education field. Why should we tolerate a government monopoly of public education when the monopolist refuses to invest in our preschool-age children’s full learning potential; and neglects to exploit this sphere’s extraordinary immediate and future job creation impetus?
Principle and Precedent in America
Freedom is more than the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action. Freedom also implies confident embrace of variety, range, and mixture. Our nation’s devotion to orthodoxy and homogeneity in public education has been unnecessary, expensive, destructive of many learners’ best interests, and increasingly failed by its own narrow and nonscientific criteria. Our neglect of preschool children’s developmental possibilities is shameful and indefensible.
I believe a universal Preschool Education Voucher system, K-12 Public Education Voucher system and open market freedom for all schools is a social revolution we require.
Americans have a long and venerable history of creating change despite the apparent control of our governors, and against the vested advantages of narrow interest groups in our society. Precedents in our history are ample and consistent. The record shows that when we know something is broken in our polity, we fix it.
The record also shows that no intricate process for change need be artificially organized. The American people not much longer will tolerate an unnecessary, unjust, and failed artificial government restraint against our children’s educational opportunities.
The demand for revolution and the appropriate, readily available, immediately affordable revolutionary solution – funding untrammeled parent choice in an emancipated education market – inevitably and spontaneously will arise.