Saturday, September 17, 2011

Has Public Education Got It Wrong?

With so many school  reform headlines on the forefront, it would seem that our public schools are failing.  And, according to these headlines, they are.  Low test scores and low graduation rates are at the top of the list for reasons why changes are needed.  One of the main concerns is a lack of individuality, or customization for students. Really?

Indulge me for a moment for a look into the past.  A typical classroom 40 years ago had rows of desks.  All students practiced the same lessons.  The teacher would usually speak for a few minutes, explaining new material at the board, and then students read a chapter and answered questions at the end of the chapter.  For spelling, we wrote each word 10 times - the idea that after writing it so much, it was ingrained in our memories.  And it worked for the typical 72 hour recall to take the spelling test on Fridays. We regurgitated what we were told or read.  We did not use math manipulatives.  There was no hands on anything until high school.  We worked as individuals, never allowed to speak to another student in class, and there were no resources for those who learned differently.  Despite these drawbacks and old fashioned strategies, my classmates and I, for the most part,  managed to become successful adults.

As in other professions, such as medicine, that have adapted to changes and improvements, and thanks to technology, schools no longer look like the classroom of 40 years ago.  Today's strategies include students working together, and individually.  Students have hands on learning, virtual field trips, information accessed by the click of a keyboard, and access to their instructors almost 24-7.   Students who learn differently, speak a primary language other than English, or have emotional and psychological problems are provided assistance as needed.  Students no longer regurgitate facts, but solve real life problems.  Years ago, students wrote reports on topics.  When I was in the 4th grade, I remember writing a report about Saturn.  I read some facts in the encyclopedia and probably copied those facts and wrote them into one long paragraph.  Now, rather than learning facts about the Revolutionary War, students may research questions such as, "What were the effects of the American Revolutionary War on our economy?" or  "How is the culture of Ancient Greece relevant to our society today?" Actual investigation and thinking is required to answer these questions.

Teachers are more prepared than ever before. They are certified in their grade levels, content areas, and are better trained in techniques and strategies. They work in teams. Teachers have access to tests that provide individual student scores based on performance levels in each content skill area, and can use those scores to customize individual students' needs and address those needs through grouping or individual conferencing and instruction. .....Wait.  What ?  That's right.  Customized learning in today's public schools.  And, in addition, many districts utilize computer based instruction that teachers can use to coincide with these individuals' needs, as well. 

So, what is the argument that accuses education of "cookie cutter" instruction, not customizing for individual needs?  My guess is that it's the hype about all of the standardized required testing.  No Child Left Behind has caused widespread panic among school districts that has trickled down to the classroom teacher, who is pressured to forego the meaningful student experiences as outlined above that take longer than can be allowed if all of the test items are covered by test time.  Educators are struggling to maintain presenting meaningful and engaging instruction while addressing all of the required standards.

It's obvious that parents are looking for answers.  Just look at the new alternatives to traditional public schools that are popping up: charter schools, virtual school,  home schooling, and
private school vouchers.  And, it's only natural.  This is the age of individuality and customization.  "Hold the pickles..." led to basically a society in which we can choose what we want, when we want, according to our desires.  Everything is customizable and accessible, almost instantly. And we like to be in control.

We are also a society that is in love with new-ness.  We are bombarded by new electronics, new styles, and new ideas.  We have grown accustomed to wanting the latest and greatest.  I believe this has trickled into our minds that newer is better.  Thus, the thought that "old" public education is outdated has emerged.

But, is public education broken?  If we have better resources, teachers trained in best practices, and tests that provide individual scores and needs that we didn't have 40 years ago, then what is the problem?  Let's look at what else is different.  Forty years ago, most students did their homework, completed classroom assignments, and behaved in class.  And, I must say, even though lessons were boring, I behaved properly, did my homework, and completed my assignments.  Why?  Because my parents had expectations that I would do these things, and I was very much aware of these expectations.  Parents did not make excuses as to why homework wasn't done.  And it was MY homework, not my parents'  Bless the parents who still have those expectations.  When students develop poor habits and use excuses in school, what kind of work ethic are they developing to help them be successful in their workplaces as adults? 

Sure, not all schools are good.  Not all teachers are good.  Not all doctors are good either.  But, in my 30 years in education, I've never encountered better, more knowledgeable, caring, and prepared educators than I have my these last few years.  And don't misunderstand my thoughts.  Alternatives provide competition that fosters improvement.   Let's work together to bring about awareness and each do our best in the roles we play in education, as professionals, parents, students, school board members, and community members.  Our students are our future.


  1. Great article. One thing to add- when the media says are test scores are horrible compared to other nations- does not really stack up as new because as a nation we have never been on the top on standardized tests! But, that would cause them to do some actual research!

  2. Amen, Mike. And, we could add that we test ALL of our students, unlike many other countries around the world. SAT scores took a dive in many places, but more and more students are taking the SAT's or ACT's either because they hope to get into college - whereas 30 years ago they wouldn't have dreamed it was a possibility for them; or, they go to college because there are no jobs available and they have nothing to lose.