We Need to Move Away from One-Size-Fits-All Education

one-size-fits-allOn Thursday I read an Education Week blog piece, “Survey Finds Rising Job Frustration Among Principals”, highlighting the Metlife Survey of American Teachers documenting declining morale among both teachers, principals, and other school leaders. It rekindled my frustration with the mainstream approach to endless inside-the-box “reform” of our public education system rather than making some real substantive changes.  I posted perhaps an overly provocative comment…

Seems like all the participants in the conventional schooling process are hating it more and more! Will we have to let the whole thing go down in flames before we get out of our state of denial and really transform the system, rather than this endless reform?

Striking a Nerve?

My comment ended with a link (as I usually do) to a blog piece I had previously written last October, “Let’s Have Real Discussion about Education Policy”,based on a snippet of a speech by President Obama on education policy last August on the 2012 election campaign trail at Canyon Springs High School in Las Vegas.  My piece featured my frustration that it seemed like all our mainstream political leaders were drinking the Kool-Aid of imagining an OSFA (one-size-fits-all) education system as the only possible path forward.  Typically, when I post such a link, I might get a handful of views of my piece linked to.  But since posting that comment and the link last Thursday, my blog stats show over 70 views of my piece based on that comment, way more than I’ve ever gotten before from any similar Education Week comment.

Here again is the snippet from Obama’s speech that inspired my October piece…

Education should not be a Democratic or a Republican issue. It’s an American issue. It’s about what’s best for our kids. And I haven’t just talked the talk, I’ve walked the walk on this. Over the past four years, we’ve broken through the traditional stalemate that used to exist between the left and the right, between conservatives and liberals. We launched a national competition to improve all our schools. We put more money into it, but we also demanded reform. We want teachers to be paid better and treated like the professionals that they are. But we’re also demanding more accountability, including the ability of school districts to replace teachers that aren’t cutting it.

Obama was using the classic rhetorical approach of staking his policy vision above the fray of petty political bickering, as part of the tried and true general election strategy of reaching out to undecided voters in the center between more polarized Democratic and Republican positions.  Though some on the right of the GOP and the left of the Democrats have a different take on the path forward for our public education system, certainly his election challenger, Governor Romney, had an education position not that different from the President’s.  Basically they both believed in standardization, high-stakes testing, teacher evaluation based on that testing, and encouraging the launch of charter schools to improve educational choice.  The biggest difference was Obama being more favorable to teacher’s unions.

So presumably one of the viewers of my comment that linked to and read my October piece made the following comment on my piece…

This is a beautifully written piece containing many interesting and thoughtful quotes by bright individuals who seem to understand learning. What is missing is what is missing in almost, if not all, political, theoretical, and editorial writings – how do we do what needs to be done? How do we transform education when government entities drive the educational bus, not trained educators? How do we transform education and meet the needs of all students, most specifically those who are drowned in poverty, abuse, mental health issues, Fetal Alcohol Affects/Syndrome, addiction… and the list goes on.

My commenter shared her credentials of over 30 years work in schools with young people who are burdened with the problems she mentioned above.  Based on that background, her take was that…

It is easy to teach those who are willing to learn, those with supportive families, those who are of higher intelligence – they are usually curious and creative and only need a little guidance. What is difficult is to develop a system that meets the needs of all students. Only when someone can provide a viable solution that our governmental entities will accept and fund, will we truly transform education. In the meantime, people like me will continue to do the best we can for every child for whom we are responsible, with fewer resources and more regulations. I agree with much of what is written here, all that is missing is the SOLUTION!

I appreciate and share her frustration! Though she is focused on kids with learning difficulties and I more on kids she refers to as “willing to learn”, I strongly believe that both groups are suffering in our standards-obsessed OSFA schools.  Yes there are certainly a number of kids in that latter category, who love school and enjoy following the academic direction of their teachers and successfully jumping through all the hoops they are presented with, and gaining self-esteem from real learning plus being awarded good grades for doing so.

But I’m convinced that there are many other kids who do not, whose natural love of learning is blunted by being constantly directed by adults (through academic rewards and punishments) rather than following their own muse.  Kids like our son Eric who bridled at that direction from his teachers, or like our daughter Emma, who seemed to be too dependent on the approval of her teachers and becoming a sort of “trained seal”.

The Path Forward

So what is “THE SOLUTION” that my commenter highlighted in all caps? Or at least a path forward to it?

I believe that path forward starts with moving away from rigid standardization (maybe “regimentation” is a more appropriate word) of school curriculum and the assumption that a learning environment for young people involves constant direction and instruction by adults.  Until we have more than a hammer (standardized instruction) in our society’s educational toolbox, I fear that we are going to continue to misperceive all learning as a nail that needs to be pounded in!

My commenter asks…

How do we transform education when government entities drive the educational bus, not trained educators?

It’s a great question!  From my reading of U.S. history, government has driven that educational bus since the beginning of the state-directed public education system in the 1830s.  Even the progressive ideas of the great educational minds of the early 20th century, particularly those of John Dewey and Maria Montessori, were short lived.  Dewey’s and Montessori’s approaches, which acknowledged the critical role of the student’s innate curiosity and drive to learn (beyond the state’s drive for a “melting pot” based on a uniformly educated citizenry) were set aside by a corporate takeover of public education leadership during the first three decads of that century. Teachers, being mostly women in a society where most leaders were expected to be men, have never been treated as real professionals and trusted with running public schools.  To the extent that unionization gave teachers more clout, it was still as “labor” rather than “management”.

I think that path forward to a solution starts with having a broad discussion about the full range of educational options, beyond the present assumption that all real education is a formal process that requires students to be sitting in front of teachers engaged in constant instruction and direction of their learning.  I think all stakeholders in the education process – parents, students, teachers, principals, bureaucrats, and legislators – have been guilty of harboring these very limited educational assumptions.  Add to that the hubris of legislators and bureaucrats that set all the most significant education policy, to think that they know best what others need to learn.  All of these stakeholders need to at least consider the arguments of Dewey and Montessori, and a number of other more contemporary alternative educators, that real learning starts with a self-directed learner, that I called out in my October piece.

Just as we have moved away from the idea of our society as a “melting pot” to one of a “salad bowl” that champions diversity in our culture, we need to champion real diversity in our education system.  Championing that diversity starts with backing away from the current obsession with ever-increasing educational standardization and high-stakes testing to enforce that standardization.

I think the Metlife Survey shows that, our teachers and principals as true education professionals, are increasingly disheartened by this trend.  The majority feel they no longer control the learning environment they offer to students, while still feeling responsibility for that environment.  In the world of standardized education, all real control is exercised by the standard setters at the state (and increasingly the national) level.  Principals and teachers are increasingly just following orders rather than being able to fully exercising their professional judgement.  I can only imagine the stress of being evaluated based on how well you teach a required subject that many of your students may not be interested in learning, and react with boredom, passive aggression, or outright hostility toward their teacher.

Instead, they could be energized by having more elbow room to enact a much broader spectrum of educational approaches beyond just conventional instruction of a standardized preset curriculum.  In such an environment, teachers and principals could better engage individual students in what the student is interested in learning rather than what the state demands they must learn.  The dynamic in a classroom where all the students are there because they want to be could make teaching a joy like it was meant to be rather than a grueling chore that it seems to have become.

Addressing the Challenge of Special Needs Students

Then my commenter asks…

How do we transform education and meet the needs of all students, most specifically those who are drowned in poverty, abuse, mental health issues, Fetal Alcohol Affects/Syndrome, addiction… and the list goes on.

To this question I don’t have any easy answer.  I think many progressives rightly point out that most of these are larger societal issues that belong in the realm of politics and the collective vision and action of a larger human community and cannot be relegated to schools to solve somehow in isolation from that political will or lack thereof.  This is where I believe that Obama is wrong when he says that education is not a political issue.

In my opinion, what we teach our kids, or choose not to teach our kids, is completely political.  According to a progressive educator like John Dewey, the circumstances of the larger community that a young person is growing up in, whether privilege or poverty, is compelling educational curriculum.  To choose to ignore that curriculum in favor of a generic standardized predigested math, science, language arts and social studies is a political decision.

To simply pass a state law that every public school large or small must be able to accommodate the developmental needs of every sort of young person with every sort of special need is a political act.  This is a bureaucratic approach that allows state educational leaders to say that they have solved the problem of equal educational access for all students, while in reality imposing an impossible mandate on many smaller schools, particularly charter schools.  A very different political approach to this issue would be to empower each local community to provide an array of schools and other alternative educational venues to accommodate those special needs, but not all needs accommodated by all schools.

The Need for “Many Paths”

To sum up here, I continue to be convinced that the solution lies in each community being able to provide for many educational paths, by providing an array of profoundly different educational venues, rather than just many instances of the same OSFA schools.  I do appreciate that this goes against the grain of conventional educational thinking that the majority of us are caught up in.  Our society has embraced educational standardization for nearly two centuries, and any number of generations of Americans have experienced only this conventional type of school.  Given that long embrace of such a limited view of how to facilitate human development, it is little wonder that the promotion of educational alternatives is such an arduous task, despite the mounting evidence of the failure of the OSFA school system.

But the fact that our our society has begun to embrace cultural diversity does give me hope that we can now finally embrace educational diversity as well.

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