The Case for Many Educational PathsMarch 7th, 2010 at 16:45
Starting in third grade with learning the multiplication tables, our son Eric started having a problem with school. By seventh grade he would not do any homework, had been diagnosed with ADD, was taking Aderall, had been through an IEP, and had had a number of sessions with an educational therapist. When he got to the point in eighth grade of writing “F**k Math” on his standardized math test, we pulled him out of school.
We looked at alternative schools with a more holistic approach to learning. The few public alternative schools we found were not really that different, they were equally bound by the standardized curriculum and high-stakes testing. We identified one or two very alternative private schools, but they were way too expensive. We ended up homeschooling Eric, and after some false starts, we worked out a path forward for his education that truly worked for him.
So Eric, now 24, is an accomplished young adult and entrepreneur who has partnered with three others to launch a computer business. Eric, the math-phobic kid, has spent the last two years as the Chief Operating Officer, dealing with all the personnel, logistical and financial issues for the business.
One Size Does Not Fit All
From our son’s experience, the experience of many other families and youth we know or have read about, and the sobering statistics about how many kids don’t finish high school, I have come to the conclusion that the ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all conventional instructional public school does not, and cannot work for every youth, no matter how fully it is funded or how much it is “reformed”.
Based on my research and direct experience, I am drawn to the conclusion that when it comes to education, don’t even try to argue that any one learning path can fit everybody, one size does not, cannot, and should not fit all!
Making Conventional Instructional Schools Better
From my past experience as a student, from talking to my kids and their friends about their school experience, and talking to friends who are public school teachers, it seems one of the main things that drags down the conventional instructional public school is that teachers have to try to teach all the youth who don’t belong or otherwise don’t want to be there. There is a mythology that if teachers are good they can motivate any student to learn the required material. But I hear teacher after teacher I know complain about having to spend so much time and effort trying to motivate many of their students to learn and at the same time deal with the behavior problems of those who won’t.
So many of the features of a standard classroom – rules clamping down on behavior, required graded homework, and copious behavior modification techniques – are there to try to motivate or coerce students to learn who do not want to be there. For the rest of the students, who are interested in what the teacher has to teach them, these strong-arm tactics and the general negative energy of the other youth can poison the classroom environment.
I ask teachers how different it would be if every student in their class wanted to be there. They generally roll their eyes and tell me that it would be wonderful, for them and for their students. Wouldn’t the conventional instructional school be transformed by just that one profound change, a teacher interacting with a classroom full of students truly interested in and grateful for the lessons the teacher was providing?
How Else Could a Kid Get an Education?
There are other schools that are significantly different than conventional public schools. Some are categorized as “holistic”, like Waldorf, Montessori, or those inspired by the education philosophy of John Dewey. Others are called “democratic/free”, like Sudbury Valley in Massachusetts and the Albany and Manhattan Free Schools in New York.
These “alternative” schools are generally private, because their educational approach is so profoundly different than the conventional instructional schools. They are more student-directed, including allowing those students leeway to work at their own pace and focus more on areas of interest. This can be great for a self-motivated student with some keen interests, but not necessarily in sync with the state standardized approach to testing and school in general, which assumes, for example, that every fourth grader has had the same instruction in English, math, science and social studies.
I believe that a lot of the kids that struggle in our conventional public schools would do much better in one of these “alternative” schools, or even being educated at home (if the family has the resources).
A Third Voice in the Education Debate
As a lifelong liberal and Democrat, I find it ironic that Republicans are often closer to the many educational paths position. They are more likely to support homeschooling, “school choice”, and giving more educational decision making to parents. Then again, Republicans have also been the strongest proponents of scripted learning (like Open Court) and high-stakes testing, which makes it so difficult for truly alternative public schools to pass muster.
I would like to see the dialog and debate on education and educational policy include a third position that champions “Many Paths” and educational alternatives behind a banner of liberty, democracy, and self-direction, within a context of local community responsibility for educating their young people.
I believe that embracing the idea of “Many Paths” to transform our education system, is sound policy for the 21st century. The dimensions, complexities, knowledge-base and skill sets needed to maintain human society and facilitate our continuing evolution require a profound move away from the “command and control”, one-size-fits-all education system that we developed in the 19th century to address an earlier phase of our evolution. Today’s challenge is to create an enriched environment for learning so that our youth can find satisfying and rewarding careers that also contribute to their communities, which in turn would contribute to our larger common good.