Schools: Not Full of Bugs, Full of Features

Ooooh, ho ho… lookee at this piece about the real reasons that school exists as it does today. Guess what, he’s right. School is working as intended.

I don’t think that the whole “closing the achievement gap” talk is an intentional smoke screen around the true reasons that we need school – to keep kids off the streets and out of the work force. But it works really well. By keeping consumers’ focus on the impossible task of making sure everyone who goes to school performs up to a certain level, it keeps attention off the fact that kids don’t need to be in school to learn things, but to keep them busy.

Sounds harsh? Well, it is. Because it’s true. That’s not to say that there aren’t good things to be found in school. And that’s not to say that school is bad or that all kids are doomed to failure there. However, our current system was never designed to actually create a place for learning. If it was, then we would have no emphasis on standards – standards wouldn’t matter in fact. The emphasis would be – do the kids want to be there? Are the kids allowed to choose what is important to learn? Are the kids given the freedom to say, “I’m not getting anything from this, I want to do something else?” Are the kids who show proficiency early, and who are obviously very bright, and clearly ready to enter the work force, start an apprenticeship, or even go on to a higher education, encouraged to do so? No, every kid, no matter where they are, what they need, what they want in life, and what they are capable of, must be in a school classroom doing what the school/district/NCLB deems important. Period.

Why? Why, I ask a million times?

Because, they have to learn, says the social outcry.

But, learn what exactly? What are they learning that they so desperately need that they can’t get by having a job, or being an apprentice, or going to community college or focusing on real world projects?

Kids who are young, are being taught things they would learn anyway. Kids that are older are being taught things they won’t need or use. This is not a place where preparing for life, for work or for adulthood is important. School is a holding pattern. A holding pattern that our society can’t live without. That we depend on. That we can never “fix” because, it’s already exactly how we want it to be.

If we truly wanted school to prepare kids for adulthood, it would look different from what it looks like now. If we changed school to be for adulthood preparedness, it would look so different, it would completely rock our world, and there would be mayhem. No, the important thing is not learning, it’s keeping kids in line, busy and out of the way until they can enter the workforce themselves and still be out of the way.

Now, that said, I don’t think we should give up on changing our schools, adding new school options, or trying things. But we are fooling ourselves every time we talk about the achievement gap, standards, better curriculum, better teachers or any of these other details that never seem to make much of a difference. We are fooling ourselves because we don’t really want the system to be radically different. And as it is, it won’t ever be radically different.

And that’s OK, if it doesn’t change much. Because it’s obviously filling a need. Before it can change, our needs have to change. Our needs, right now, as a society, is to have a place where kids go during the day, parents work, and in the meantime, kids have at least some exposure to the world while they are being held out of the mainstream.

As a society, we don’t need every child to be ready to go to college. In fact, that would make our whole system crash. We need diversity in our children’s abilities and interests. We need the achievement gap. If we didn’t have it, then we would have a whole set of kids who are leaving school, wanting to enter the workforce at the place, doing similar kinds of jobs. And since everyone can’t do the same thing, we’ll have kids who are fully capable of doing higher paying jobs, but choose lower paying jobs anyway because there is nothing else. So instead of having a bunch of kids all doing better in life, we’ll end up with a bunch of over-educated, non-trade trained kids taking jobs they are over-qualified for, wasting all that effort that went to educating them. (Wait, isn’t this already happening with college grads?)

If we face the fact that there will always be an achievement gap, and focus on what the kids can do, and are willing to do, and start from there, rather than trying to get them to go somewhere, then our schools will be closer to a place for learning. But as it stands, we don’t even know if the schools educated people at all. Once kids are no longer in school, no matter how we change the results of all the tests and make kids “smarter”, we have the same jobs waiting for them, the same social rules and the same choices they have to make. And we have no idea what people choose.

The only thing we know is how many kids go to college. But again, once they are out of school, where do they go? Did all that schooling make a difference? Or did it just hold off the inevitable diversity of where people go in the workforce?

People say that school is broken. People like me. But they aren’t. Because the people who really want change are going against the social desire of what school is even for in the first place. And the vast majority of us in this country like school just the way it is. It will have to get to the point where the benefits of having a place for kids to go no longer outweigh the frustration that parents and children feel in not getting what they need in order to be successful and ready for life as an adult.

That’s starting to happen a little more now, with an increase in homeschooling, charter schools, virtual schools and private schools. At least, it seems like these things are on the rise. But until that balance tips over significantly, any little tweaks, trials and changes we make to the school system, even things as serious as punishing schools for not being good enough, we won’t ever see a system that truly readies our kids for adulthood.

Not until, as a society, we change what we really see as the purpose of education.


7 Responses to “Schools: Not Full of Bugs, Full of Features”

  1. Robin Says:

    I was a school teacher, and from my experience, most teachers either have a job or have a purpose. The job is filling a space in the workforce and being paid for services rendered. The purpose is to really educate children. I loved the idea of learning. What interferes is the idea of “for your own good.” Children don’t know what is for their own good and it’s up to us to direct them. My question today, is why more teachers do not question the system. I did because my instructors in college questioned… some of them questioned. But I did not have a clue to the potential depths of my questionings until I left the building and began “homeschooling.” Perhaps leaving the building is the beginning of what could be significant change, one step at a time. Some folks have a higher tolerance for others for pain. Some need a viable opt out… one they can see themselves somewhat accomplishing. I think the accepted purpose of education will change first with individual and after individual after individual.

  2. Mom of All Seasons Says:

    Someone remarked to me once, “Wouldn’t it be great if all kids could be doctors?” to which I had to reply, “Sure, until someone got hungry or you needed a place to live.”

  3. Joanne Says:

    A thought-provoking read. It’s long been acknowledged (if you read history / philosophy of education-type stuff) that mandatory schooling developed in this country to keep kids off the streets, and also to “americanize” immigrants. I agree with Robin in that it’s really important to question accepted dogma. But in a way that really looks for insights.

    I see adult students in my classes who didn’t “automatically” learn. I have a young woman who told me she’d basically never gone to school. She struggles today because when she tries to read, she doesn’t have a large enough vocabulary, so she doesn’t understand a lot…even though she uses a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words. She consequently also has a hard time expressing herself in writing. How do we ensure that whether kids are home schooled or publicly schooled, they get what they need?

    The other thing is that you never know what life is going to throw at you, or what knowledge you’ll need. Especially today, when people are not just changing jobs every two to five years, but also changing careers. So what someone is being taught now–that may sound “unnecessary” or like something they’re never going to use–may indeed turn out to be useful later on, in that unknown future.

    I think some people are saying that the answer to coping with that kind of uncertainty is to teach thinking skills and problem-solving skills, and to teach people to be lifelong learners. But I’m not sure how to encourage that in every person. Even for me–I love learning and also did well in school–it is a major impediment to learn new skills when life is so busy you barely have time to make a living when you’re trying to make ends meet.

    What Robin said about tolerance for pain is interesting. I am curious about what she means, exactly. Recently I heard some people say (in a discussion about learning) that the deepest learning seems to happen as a result of pain. (I am thinking they were not talking about inflicting pain with learning, but that some of the lessons we’ve learned have come from painful experiences.) What is the role of pain in the larger context, such as the one Robin is alluding to–that leaving the building may be the first step toward significant change?

    I don’t know enough about other countries’ educational systems (or other countries’ approach to issues like homeschooling) to know if there are interesting examples of what can be achieved in terms of truly “educating” kids and getting them to be lifelong learners. I have heard (from a rather curmudgeonly but concerned individual who was part of a national commission evaluating the state of education in the U.S. and what it meant in terms of the U.S.’s chances of staying competitive in world markets) that some other countries’ citizens seem to be more invested in their own advancement, and in using problem-solving skills and self-education to achieve those goals.

    What’s your take on this?

  4. Carol Says:

    Wow. That really just lays it all out, huh. I was just telling my husband the other day that so much of what we learned (or memorized) in school seems now like such a waste of time. I once knew every county in NJ in alphabetical order and could place them all correctly on a map…. now I don’t even live in NJ!

  5. misedjj Says:

    See “Why Education is So Difficult and Contentious” at the Thinking Parent.” 🙂

    . . . educational thinking draws on only three fundamental ideas—that of socializing the young, shaping the mind by a disciplined academic curriculum, and facilitating the development of students’ potential. The problems we face in education are due to the fact that each of these ideas is significantly flawed and also that each is incompatible in basic ways with the other two.

  6. Robin Says:

    Joanne and Tammy, I wrote a rambling response over at my blog:
    Thank you for the topic!

  7. Just Enough, and Nothing More Creating Life Long Learners (In School or Otherwise) « Says:

    […] Learners (In School or Otherwise) April 15th, 2007 — Tammy In response to my entry Schools Not Full of Bugs, Full of Features, Joanne asks a few questions about homeschooling. Instead of answering them in the comments, I’ll […]

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