Are Schools Really Getting Worse?

Or are we, as a society, looking at smaller and smaller criteria to determine what makes for a successful school?

What if our schools aren’t actually getting worse? Instead, it’s our expectations of what schools should be doing that is creating a growing pool of children who are not coming out of the system ready to succeed as adults?

What if what we are demanding from schools are the wrong things all together?

We demand that they make every child a “reader” by a certain grade/age. We demand that schools focus on graduating more kids. We want them to teach the right things, in the right order, at the right time. We demand that they teach kids how to take tests, produce numbers, fit the mold better. We want kids to come out of public schools like a trained horse bursting out of the gates on a racetrack.

Perhaps our biggest mistake is that we ask schools to produce something – the successful kid – in the same way we ask that Coke make every bottle of soda taste exactly the same. Perhaps that’s what wrong with our expectations. We expect schools to create successful Americans by honing in on very specific product-oriented results – test scores and graduation percentages.

Perhaps, by forgetting that these are living, breathing, children is fogging our perspective. Every child comes into the system with different ingredients, different experience, different learning abilities. And we expect them to all come out with the same results – success by taking tests and doing well in a classroom.

No matter how much money we throw at the system. No matter how good the tests are, or how well teachers teach, or how good the schools are, schools cannot ever create a unified front of successful school children. And the harder we try, the more we expect our schools to do “better”, the more obvious it is that we can’t meet those goals.

If we intend to continue forcing this idea of test-score and classroom-standards based success as our guidelines for successful schools, there will always be children who won’t be able to succeed within these parameters.

Here’s the thing:  You cannot force everyone to be a certain kind of successful. The smaller the definition of success, the larger percentage of people who will fail. Besides, despite what we might think, it is not a good thing when everyone is successful in the same way. And, it’s not a good thing when people who are not successful in a certain way are denied alternative paths to be successful in others.
School is not getting worse – our view of education is getting worse. It’s getting smaller. As more of us who were products of public school become adults, it becomes harder for us, as a society, to accept any measurement of success other than what already exists: test scores.

These are not good measurements. And the more we rely on these scores to determine if something is good enough, the more we are going to find schools failing to meet the needs of our kids.

When a child doesn’t do well on tests, instead of thinking “how else can we help this child?” we start thinking about how to fix his failing test scores. We don’t really want children to learn, we want them to do well on tests. If we really wanted children to learn and to find success, their test scores would be irrelevant.  But, since how well kids do on tests is the only real measurement of success that we have, we try to make adjustments to how the information is presented, or on figuring out how to provide a short cut. We blame the kids, their culture, their parents, the books, the teachers, the school, everything. We blame everything, except what really needs to be blamed – our expectations and definitions.

Change our view of what education is for in the first place, and then we’ll see some real change in how successful our schools are. Until then, we can do all the tweaking we want to the current system – it still won’t work. It will just create more kids who struggle to fit in the box of school, with varying levels of success. Really, all standard tests tell you is how well the kids at that school can squeeze into the box.

I’m optimistic. I think schools will will eventually start to offer more options for becoming successful. And they will eventually stop trying to force certain kinds of success on their students.

I’m hoping that will be sooner, rather than later. But my guess is that it will take at least a couple more generations before this transformation starts to happen.

Until then, I’m not going to use the schools. It’s just not my style to subject my children to such limiting learning environments.

I’ll come back when schools become tools for learning. Right now, they are not tools for learning, they are tools for teaching. And for assessing. When schools become a tool for learning, then I might come back.

But for now, I’ll use the library and internet, books and life, community classes and local mentors, travel and lots of free time as tools for learning. And watch and wait, popcorn in hand, to see where this crazy political/religious/social struggle takes us.


4 Responses to “Are Schools Really Getting Worse?”

  1. Laura in CA :) Says:

    Well said! I couldn’t agree more on every point. Can I copy it and commit it to memory? 🙂 Seriously, you said everything I’m thinking when conversations happen and I have such a hard time formulating it all into coherent sentences! 🙂

    I have a niece in her first year of high school and already I’m hearing things I don’t like. Things that should make every parent grab their child and run screaming from the campus.

    Not to make this way too long, but on Thanksgiving I was sitting with my two sisters and their daughters, both public school (middle and high) students. As I sat there listening to them talk I was incredulous that their moms’ just accept it all as ‘normal’!!

    Academically and socially high school is a waste of time. Like you, I feel like I wasted so much time in high school. I think at 16 students should be graduated and on to whatever education they need…technical school, university, etc. I think the last two years of high school are a particular waste of time.

    And in the interest of full disclosure…:)

    While we do utilize a public school to teach our children at home, and so are having to meet standards, I think the difference for us is that I can meet my children’s needs individually. Maybe my son won’t be interested in learning fractions tomorrow, but at least I can be in control of how long we take to learn the concept and not move on w/out him or stay too long an bore him.

  2. Adrian Stovall Says:

    Interesting take on things…

    I think the qusetion asked is a good one. The question of whether schools are getting worse is taken as a given by many. I think that in general, they *are*, in fact, getting worse, primarily because the prior focus of schools (teaching children and young adults the “3 R’s” along with some history and science) has been preempted.

    Schools today cater to the whims of the students, rather than focusing on getting them to learn something. School, public school, anyway, is about presenting students with a certain minimum cirriculum that *helps* to prepare them for the mundane things they will have to deal with as adults. Reading, writing, and math skills aren’t taught because of some arbitrary definition of success, they’re taught because without a certain level of ability in those subjects, a person is at a severe disadvantage as an adult.

    If you can’t read and comprehend (or simply read the words in) a contract or do the math to determine how much change you should get back at the time you make a purchase, who will help you? What chance of success (by any measure) do you have if you can’t determine if people are treating you fairly?

    I agree that we have probably set the bar too high, and there are probably too many bars, besides, but to me, that is evidence that there is a case to be made that our schools *are* getting worse, and losing sight of what’s important.

  3. kate sanford Says:

    linked to you from an education post today. thanks. good post! (couldn’t figure out how to send a trackback… sorry!)

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