Safe but ultimately doomed

Published by Lori Pickert on September 6, 2011 at 04:38 PM

If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, they will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.

As we get ready for the 93rd year of universal public education, here’s the question every parent and taxpayer needs to wrestle with: Are we going to applaud, push or even permit our schools (including most of the private ones) to continue the safe but ultimately doomed strategy of churning out predictable, testable and mediocre factory-workers?

The post-industrial revolution is here. Do you care enough to teach your kids to take advantage of it? — Seth Godin, Back to (the wrong) School

One of the biggest advantages my sons have, being homeschooled, is the opportunity to develop their interests and talents over years.

When I graduated from college, I benefited hugely from having worked my way through school. I graduated not just with a degree, but with four years of relevant work experience. I knew what I wanted to do, what I did not want to do, and I had the wherewithal to get it.

Similarly, my sons are already amassing meaningful experiences, education tied to their own talents, and solid ideas about what they want to do with their lives. I feel like they are lightyears ahead, not in the sense of long division or history facts, but in self-knowledge and world-knowledge and confidence based on having already worked hard at something important. Can we give that to public-school students?

11 comments

Comment by amy on September 6, 2011 at 05:27 PM

I also worked through college but graduated without a clue of what I *really* wanted to do (I'd say a goodly portion of the reason for that is because I entered college not knowing). However, since I mostly waitressed, at least I had a marketable skill; waitressing was my full-time job the year after I graduated when I couldn't find a "real" job. When I finally found a "real" job, I took a pay cut. I don't think I'll be encouraging my children to enter college at 18. It's the rare person who has experienced enough to know how to proceed at that age, in my opinion, although maybe always-homeschooled kids are those rare people; I don't know.

Comment by Tana on September 7, 2011 at 04:35 PM

Seth Godin's comments about the history of public school education in the U.S. (the purported goal being to take kids out of the factory and prepare them for an adult life as a factory worker) were really interesting. I wonder if the same is true in Canada (my home).

I've worked in web development for the past 10 years and one of the most common themes I've seen is the endless pursuit of better and better processes, procedures, and checklists. In other words, better ways to tell other people how to do their jobs. Maybe sometimes this is helpful. It's good to have a starting place when you are looking at a big job, but mostly I think its a fool's errand. An attempt to wrangle, explain, commodify, and reproduce intelligence and creativity.

What I've seen lines up directly with what Godin is talking about. Smart, self-directed people come up with far better solutions to problems than people who are following a regimented process and using guidelines, templates, and stringent standards. But so many people are afraid or incapable of just winging it (me included, a lot of the time) - we want to know what the process is, where the user guide is, what the test will be on, what the rules are to guarantee a pass.

So, yeah, I strongly agree. People (kids and grown-ups) who want to be valued and well-rewarded in life all need to learn how to be smart, self-directed problem solvers with good eyes and good ears and an ability to synthesize information and make it their own. Schools and systems invented to supply the world with compliant factory workers are so not going to help.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 7, 2011 at 08:23 PM

amy, i agree completely. who knows at 18 what they want to do with their life? very few people.

i do think it is a huge help to know what you really enjoy doing, to have experience doing real work with other people, and to know yourself — your interests, your opinions, your talents, your skills, what you enjoy and what you loathe.

the problem is, college is just really inconvenient for adults. we slide it between high school and adult life but it's a really poorly designed system and the graduates end up paying the price when their guess at what would work for them turns out to be not a good fit or not what they thought it would be or even not leading to a paying job.

even if you know what you want to do, most of us end up changing jobs several times as adults. so how far does a college degree take you? after that first job, everything is based on knowledge we get through actually working.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 7, 2011 at 08:31 PM

"we want to know what the process is, where the user guide is, what the test will be on, what the rules are to guarantee a pass."

tana, love how you tied this to your work, and i agree with all you say.

i think that first paragraph up there is very interesting — the idea that if kids only know how to follow directions and do what they're told, they're stuck looking for jobs that mirror that school experience. they're going to be at sea in a job that requires them to figure it out on their own or create it. i believe this is true 95% of the time — i've seen it with middle-school kids, so i have to think that adults who've always experienced that situation look to replicate it in their work and feel uncomfortable if they're challenged to move beyond it.

Comment by Cristina on September 8, 2011 at 01:01 AM

It's a real conundrum. The taxpayers demand to know how their money is being spent. The easiest way for the schools to show "progress" is through testing. And from my own reading about the subject, this has been the issue from the very beginning. How do you publicly fund education without some sort of accounting? And since results have been shown in the form of testing for so long, it is near impossible to change. Adults who went through the system demand the testing because they were tested, whether or not they feel the testing was successful and a true measure of their ability. What we've created is a self perpetuating system. It will always be broken because it has already created predictable, mediocre adults who would rather complain about their situation than find a creative way to change it!

Real change comes from those who escaped the main effect of school for whatever reason--illness, rebellion, homeschooling, etc.--and nurtured their curiosity and personal love for learning. I would even say that it is never too late to develop this. I spent a lot of my k-12 years sick, so I had a terrible attendance record. When I was in school, I was usually bored. In high school, things were better, since I went to a specialized art high school. But I would say I started to realize in college that I loved to learn. That was when I could finally choose what I wanted to learn.

If we could bring that college mentality to the younger grades and allow them to choose their curriculum, I think we would definitely see some major changes for the better. Of course, I won't hold my breath waiting for something like that to happen. As I see it, first we need enough people to allow their children to leave the public model for one of the alternative schools or homeschooling/unschooling. Then we need to wait for that generation to grow up and effect change. :o)

Peace and Laughter!

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 8, 2011 at 01:50 AM

"Adults who went through the system demand the testing because they were tested, whether or not they feel the testing was successful and a true measure of their ability. What we've created is a self perpetuating system."

agree, agree, but here's the thing - i don't really care about testing. standardized tests take what .. one day every few years? who cares?

it's *teaching to the test* that is the problem. it's administrators and teachers who fail to lead and say "look, if we let kids learn the way we KNOW they learn best, they will do fine on these tests. SOME kids are going to have more problems, but that's going to happen no matter what. so instead of pushing them out of the system or hiding them or lying or cheating or fudging data, we are going to teach all of the kids as well as we can."

"It will always be broken because it has already created predictable, mediocre adults who would rather complain about their situation than find a creative way to change it!"

agree, and what is this ubiquitous "i suffered and i'm fine" attitude? how stupid is that? aren't we supposed to want something better?

again, i'm going to put the onus on educators to stand up and say what's what. *someone* has to put their foot down - i call on educators to be that someone. there have been parents begging for change for decades and that doesn't have any effect. parents have zero power.

(unless we all quit the public schools and homeschool? ah, i see you suggested that as well! ;^)

"I would say I started to realize in college that I loved to learn. That was when I could finally choose what I wanted to learn."

a powerful realization and statement. i experienced this at my private school and of course in hs'ing - kids care about self-chosen work. they work *hard* at self-chosen work.

"If we could bring that college mentality to the younger grades and allow them to choose their curriculum, I think we would definitely see some major changes for the better."

see, this is totally doable, but people deny it, fight it, etc.

my private school had kids age 3 to 10 doing long-term projects and doing amazing work, high-level thinking, research, etc. and they were ON FIRE about it. but visiting educators would say "this doesn't work" (while they looked right at it) or "this wouldn't work with OUR kids" (even though there was nothing extraordinary about our kids). they denial is tremendous.

i don't know if the hs'ed/unschooled kids can grow up and effect change - mine say they will homeschool their own. :)

now, after saying that educators should take responsibility for change, do i think that will happen? no. why? because of the exact thing you are saying — the *majority* of teachers came up through this system and they think it's fine, they think it worked for them, they don't think project-based learning works, and so on. there are some really passionate educators who want to change things, but i don't see how they are going to turn the ship around, not with someone like arne duncan at the helm.

i hate to end on a depressing note. :) there are some great schools, there are many great teachers and administrators. i want to support them however i can. but they can't have my kids.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 8, 2011 at 01:52 AM

i just want to reiterate this point — do parents have any power other than to elect not to participate? a good question. i should put it into its own post.

Comment by Elise on September 8, 2011 at 02:59 AM

Hi Lori - thanks for the thought-provoking post - it's so apropos right now in both my home and working life...

I work for a large urban school district, so sometimes I wonder if I'm too enmeshed in the system, to truly see a large-scale alternative to public education as we know it today. But the thing is, I do believe that a project approach can work, for all kids. That's probably why I'm still working in my current position, because I want that option to be available to more children, and I don't know who else will fight for it. My 'fighting' feels quiet and slow, but I don't know how else to do it.

I also have observed parents creating change within our district - parents/communities have asked for Montessori inspired schools, a school based on Expeditionary Learning, dual-language schools, arts based schools, to name a few. But what I also see is that in general it is parents in wealthier neighborhoods that ask for and receive these options. The alternatives that are pushed through in less wealthy neighborhoods are generally skills based, 'fundamental' type options. It makes me angry, and I want to change the paradigm.

I definitely support homeschooling and unschooling, but I don't think that every family is cut out for it. Not that I don't believe that parents are capable of teaching their own children, but that some families either need the two incomes, or neither parent is particularly interested in teaching. I guess that's where having a wide variety of alternative schools in a community would be ideal.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 8, 2011 at 01:12 PM

elise, that is an interesting bit of anecdotal evidence — wealthy parents asking for more options — maybe because they feel more entitlement to ask? maybe because they know their opinions might be more seriously considered?

i think you're right — the changes made in poorer neighborhoods and schools are in the opposite direction, toward more drill and kill. i remember reading on susan o'hanian's site (or maybe in her book about Kindergarten) about a school that punished kids who weren't doing well studying for standardized tests by giving them extra drilling while kids who did well were given recess. no recess for the kids who weren't doing well on the pre-test. (no matter that kids who have access to nature and recess learn better in general...)

it's true that hs'ing and unschooling aren't for everyone, which is why we need to make changes in the public schools. this is something i hear again and again, by the way - hs'ing solves nothing! it only fixes things for that one family! and that's true, but when *yours* is the one family, you still want the fix.

project-based learning and interest-led learning is entirely doable in schools, *has* been done in schools with *all* kinds of kids — not just privileged brainiacs, yet the vast majority of schools are still as seth godin describes. why is that? maybe, as discussed here, because politicians/communities/families are looking for education to give a guarantee for future employment instead of a chance at a more satisfying, whole life.

Comment by Barb on September 11, 2011 at 02:35 AM

at what point do *parents* realize that school isn't meeting the needs of their children?

I got together with some of my old high school friends this summer and was floored by the stories that almost each one of the six or seven of us told--all about our brothers or sons, stories of essentially how school has failed almost each and every one of them! Stories of brothers in prison, brothers dropping out of high school (including my own brother), moms hoping their kid just makes it through that last year of high school, moms with kids that were diagnosed, medicated....on and on.....And yet, as the only homeschooler, I couldn't resist trying to delicately point that out, that something must be wrong with the system, not ALL of these kids, and you could have heard a pin drop--no one wanted to go there. I was floored. Even my parents, who struggled with my brother all through school until he eventually dropped out and ran away from home, are so ASHAMED of the fact that we homeschooled, (we are *trying* a Waldorf school for the first time this year) are the staunchest defenders of public school. I just don't understand it.

Comment by Lori Pickert on September 11, 2011 at 01:44 PM

i don't know. i have had conversations where i was talking about actual experiences, actual things i witnessed myself, and i was getting back only platitudes in response. if we can't move off the "public school is important and necessary and teachers are wonderful people" and onto the specific problems, we'll never get anywhere.

this is partly why i think educators fail to step up and lead — it's no fun cleaning your own house. no one wants to be the guy who says "forget about MY classroom — let's talk about what's going on in ALL the classrooms (and it isn't pretty)." there's a sense that it's hard enough to do what you want to do in your own room — it's impossible to enact major change across a whole school.

i do wonder why parents are so invested in the idea (or maybe the *ideal*) of public school that even when it lets them down, they don't blame the system.

the next time someone tells me that i should have kept my kids in school and fought for change from within the system, i will point out that if anyone else cared, the system would already be different.

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