Published in the Washington Post September 2012

How President Obama and His Secretary of Education Can Rescue
Schools Held Hostage by the 1950s

A Commentary by Lloyd C. Daniel

Schooling in the United States is a mushrooming disaster. President Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, are moving to develop ways of improving our lack luster educational system. Their Race to the Top program is a national grant project designed to spur education reform and student achievement. As they proceed, they should take into consideration crucial factors concerning our schools that are often overlooked.

Over the past 65 years, our society has undergone profound changes. Our way of schooling hasn’t. In the ‘50s, all schools had to do was to prepare fill in the blank, keep your nose clean, ready to follow instructions graduates who were, primarily, well prepared to work in factories. The vast majority of these factories are long closed. But most schools continue training students for jobs that do not exist. Most of what we call educating is out of sync with the rest of this society. Young learners and would-be employers deserve better. As a result, many school districts, across the country, are, virtually, going out of business. It’s obvious that, for many students and parents alike, much of the public school system is going the way of public health facilities. They’re rapidly becoming the destination of last resort, particularly for the working poor. Most schools are way too large, as are most classrooms, in which students spend too much time, and are often overcrowded. Piling students on top of students, of different ages, will make teachers’ jobs much more difficult, leading schools toward only an elaborate and expensive form of babysitting. Now is not the time to even consider increasing the number of students per classroom. Smaller classrooms and other more personalized learning environments must be created.

Even the bright-eyed students, who do graduate, are, in general, largely ignorant of the world beyond the stereotypes of corporate media, their clan and/or block. They know little or nothing about their history, their culture, Standard English (the language of business and power), international relations, how to start and run a business or find a job, let alone a career. In this country there is a great aching for post-industrial educational delivery systems that fit the needs of those who are alive today. These models, that emphasize critical thinking and problem solving, must be honest, decentralized, flexible, adaptive, culturally relevant, forward looking and in sync with the multi-faceted mosaic that is modern-day America. We’ve all taken history classes, but how many of us have ever taken a future class? Futurism is a well established field of study that is seldom, if ever, made part of the typical public school’s curriculum.

Yes, education should start at home. But that’s a truism, not a solution for many families that have unraveled as a result drug abuse, child abuse and poverty. Currently, there is only minimal realistic discussion around why thousands of schools are failing to educate students, particularly in urban areas, in a fashion that will create an environment in which they would be inspired to learn, as opposed to dropping out. Drop out and push out rates in many urban school districts average close to 50%. This reality has accelerated a desperate search for someone to blame. Some people blame the parents, some blame the teachers, some blame school boards and administrators. Others blame taxpayers and federal and state governments and of course many blame the students, as if they created our dysfunctional process of schooling. But the structure of the system of education, itself, and its approaches to learning are the most flawed factors in the equation. The reasons why and the ways in which we school are the real culprits. Administrators, teachers, parents and activists, alike, must stop trying to defend and recreate the schools that they attended in their youth. Thoughtful people must accept that what was good for 60 years ago is absolutely out of sync with the 21st Century, therefore not good enough for now. There’s plenty of blame to go around. But virtually no one is addressing what lies at the root of the continuing decline in the quality of America’s system of education, or mis-education as many would call it.

Having taught for almost 40 years, on a variety levels, from K through Post-Graduate college instruction, I know for a fact, that the main culprit, in this long standing crisis, is none other than the educational system itself and its knuckle-head approach to learning. Here in the 21st Century, in a fundamental sense, the United States is burdened with an educational process rooted in the priorities and perspectives of the 1940s and ‘50s. Most schools, even many of the so-called good ones, are continuing to pump out graduates who are fully prepared to function quite well, in the bright and shiny world of 1950, not 2010.

In these schools teachers are being forced to teach with their eyes only on a stiff, standardized, fill-in-the blank, multiple choice, true/false industrial test. These exams do not measure students fairly. Learners, of all ages, are more than the sum total of their test scores. In this environment the concept of a well rounded education that includes music, sports, drama, communications and analytical thinking is being or has been lost. As these students mature their inability to determine the difference between the truth and a lie, between what’s real and what’s fake will make them, as citizens, even more vulnerable, even more easily manipulated by the ocean of untrue propaganda in which we all swim. As a result, this approach to schooling has become an anti-intellectual and in turn, an anti-democratic force that plays into the hands of those who prey upon the ignorance of those they rule. But there might be a glimmer of hope. Many people like to say that what starts in California; will eventually sweep across the rest of the country. The University of California system has finally dropped the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) as a necessity for enrollment. Governing bodies in other states, including Missouri, should ask themselves why serious administrators would make such a move.

Standardized tests have little or no relationship to students’ hopes, dreams, home circumstances or the daily threat of eminent and deadly violence. These tests mainly test how well a learner takes standardized tests. Only the strongest students and teachers survive this intellectual hazing being passed off as education. And those who run districts thinking it’s all a matter of dollars and cents, generally have neither dollars nor sense. Most people, including many teachers, don’t understand or have forgotten that teaching is a craft, not an industrial function. It’s not just a job. Huge classes can force a good teacher to forget their calling. One size fits all is no way to approach the process of learning the world. Standardized tests should be used as just one of a set of methods to determine a student’s actual growth or lack thereof.

City schools, collapsing under the pressure of public demands for results, with governmental support, have taken a typically industrial approach to what they perceive as the solution. They now implement an approach to learning that places far too much emphasis on standardized testing and the so-called 3 Rs, Reading, Riting and Rithmetic. And as a result, there is very little emphasis on the most important R, Reasoning. Critical thinking is the key. What is the value of the various odds and ends of information acquired, if a learner does not understand what it all suggests, what it means and how it can be applied in the real world? Some argue for the lengthening of the school day and year. My position is that whether you have a gallon of sour milk or 5,000 gallons, the milk is still sour. No school is better than its teachers. The current environment has forced thousands of gifted educators, paralyzed by the fear of losing their jobs, to reduce their craft to just “teaching the test”, a huge waste of their intellectual capacity. More teachers and teacher’s unions must, once again, become brave change agents. They/we must organize with students, parents and legislators to resist the weight of this regimented, know-nothing approach to education from becoming this nation’s primary method of learning. Imagine a doctor using only one means of diagnosing a patient’s condition. That would be medical malpractice. To rely solely on standardized tests as the method of evaluation of a student’s current circumstance and potential is a form of educational malpractice. It means that most students are not being educated, but trained to take tests that often have nothing to do with the real world or their actual abilities and latent talents. The industrial, one size fits all; approach to education has proven to be a recipe for mediocrity, at best. Being trained is only a small part of being educated. Training tends to domesticate the learner. But the children of the rich are not taught in this fashion. This standardized test mania is just one more example of how working class children are being trained to follow, while the children of the rich are being educated to lead. A learner, who is truly being educated, is being liberated. There is power in the expansion of one’s mind. Millions of young Americas are barely being trained and certainly not educated. You can train a dog, but humans need to be educated. We need to be liberated.

Learners, of all ages, need and deserve education that is relevant and usable in the real world. The last time there was any significant reform in America’s system of education was in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. That was when movements, led by the students themselves, along with parents, activists and many teachers, challenged what had been deemed “appropriate” education. Out of that struggle came concepts that were often the genesis of many of the most dynamic, powerful and successful approaches to learning including: Teacher Corps (no schools is better than its teachers), Head Start, School Without Walls, the Highlander Folk Academy, Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Upward Bound, Project for Adult Continuing Education (PACE), Education/Instruccion, the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA), YouthBuild, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Space Camp, Write-to-Read, on the job training, small business incubators, as well as scores of stellar media, leadership, tutorial and rites of passage projects, institutes and other culturally-centered learning models, including many Black, Latino, Native American, Asian American, Women’s and Labor studies departments, initiatives, programs, learning centers and projects that have improved the quality of education in many universities, colleges, high schools, technical schools and communities. These types of projects, programs and perspectives constitute the foundation for learning models that will be successful in this country.

Riding the crest of the wave of integrating the best of what has worked with new concepts, smaller classes and interactive technologies, a wide array of on-the-job-training and work study programs and a host of other forward looking, experiential (hands-on), imaginative, innovative and effective community-based and home-based learning models, have opened up cutting edge and exciting opportunities to build both basic skills and knowledge. It will now require brave steps, by the people who have the most to gain, to demand and make the next set of crucial changes that will impact upon the reasons why, the ways in which and what Americans learn. There are students, parents, educators and activists who understand all of this. They understand that this is the future. And in this future, we not only need to know history, we must be prepared to make history. They are acting accordingly and creating islands of real success that should be supported and emulated.

At home and abroad the new environment requires something other than guns and bombs. It’s an economic engagement. This is a struggle in which no semi-literate nation will play a leading role. When you take a look at federal and state spending, there’s money for super-sophisticated satellites and bombs, but limited resources for building this country’s intellectual base. Now is the time for the federal government to stop wasting our tax dollars running around the planet trying to dictate to others how they should run their own countries and start spending that money, time and energy on better ways of educating, training and otherwise preparing people for what jobs do exist and providing small and micro-loans to start-ups and home-based businesses, in so doing, creating millions of jobs for people in this country.

Editor’s Note: Lloyd C. Daniel is a writer, educator, poet and a former member of Missouri’s House of Representatives. He’s author of the book, Liberation Education: A Strategy for the 21st Century. You may read, watch and listen to more of his work on his website. The address is http://www.lloyddaniel.info

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