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Posted at 11:00 PM ET, 01/10/2011

Has American education peaked?

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Marion Brady, veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author. His latest book is What’s Worth Learning? from Information Age Publishing.

By Marion Brady
American education has peaked. Accept it. It has serious SYSTEM problems, and the present crop of reformers is making those problems worse. We’re not going to get the schools we need by doing longer and harder what we’ve been doing for the last 150 years.

The notion that we’re on the wrong education road is a really tough sell. President Obama doesn’t think so. Neither does Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Congress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Governors Association, the think tanks, the mainstream media, most of the general public. Neither, sad to say, do many educators.

Maybe selling the need for another road isn’t even possible. The conventional wisdom about how to educate is limited by our imaginations, and our imaginations are limited by our past experience. “Just try harder” is in our blood. “Quit and try something different,” isn’t.

But let me suggest an alternative to doing what we’re doing in education, not claiming it’s the best one, but pushing the walls of possibilities farther out.

Begin by simplifying the task and focusing it more sharply. Over the last century and a half, public schools have taken on responsibilities only marginally related to academics---fielding sports teams, teaching kids how to drive, sponsoring myriad clubs, staging artistic productions, developing technical and occupational skills.

Those programs meet important needs, and deserve better leadership than they often get from public school systems. Hand responsibility for them over to organizations designed to maximize their benefit, and give them the school building to share as they think appropriate.

Next, make communities the basic centers of learning. Rent or lease locations within easy walking or short-commute distance. Keep them open 24/7. Create various-sized places for dialogue, and for older learners to teach younger ones. Equip them with adequate technology. Staff them with four or five people who used to teach in the given-away school building who, together, have expertise in the basic skills and major fields of study. (Make sure they know enough about educating to wait until asked before sharing what they know.) Invite everyone from great-grandparents to pre-schoolers to come often, stay late, and do everything possible to encourage them to talk to each other. Put no one person or group in authority.

Then, give them all an assignment---to know their community as a community: particular people, together in a particular place, acting and interacting in particular ways, with particular problems, needs, fears, aspirations, dreams, and hopes, all fitting together to form more than the sum of the parts. Encourage them to be creative---to organize their thinking, and tell their community’s story in words, statistics, diagrams, even artistic productions.

The assignment will develop the skills and knowledge necessary for understanding not just themselves and immediate experience, but the wider community of which theirs is a part.

Allow no outside or higher level of authority to check attendance, require that particular subjects be taught, administer tests, keep scores, attach labels, demand accountability, or otherwise interfere with the operation of the centers.

That’s it.

Giving that kind of responsibility to ordinary citizens is unacceptable to most of today’s reformers, many of whom are hell-bent on super-standardizing schooling and nationalizing it. Notwithstanding the fact that the most influential of them think government should keep its hands off whatever they’re personally involved in, when it comes to education, they’re control freaks.

(The reasons for this ideological inconsistency bear investigation.)

There was a time when I’d have been on their side, in favor of just getting on with the job, and administratively imposing on schools what I thought were good ideas. Looking back, I think it was conversations with a neighbor that undermined that tendency of mine.

The neighbor was Rufo Lopez-Fresquet, Fidel Castro’s first Minister of the Treasury, whose younger son was in my high school American history class. Rufo had left Cuba in a hurry when it became clear that Castro wasn’t going to listen to him.

After we got acquainted, I suggested that maybe Cuban life under the American-supported dictator Fulgencio Batista wasn’t the best preparation for the sort of flat-out democracy he favored. Maybe, I said, there needed to be some sort of transitional government to move the people gradually toward democracy.

He couldn’t have disagreed more. If you want people to learn how to act responsibly, he insisted, you have to give them responsibility. Sure, they’ll screw up. And then they’ll screw up again. And again. But in the long run that’s necessary if they’re to grow in wisdom.

He caused me to pay better attention. Now, when I see a 10- or 12-year old kid in some poor, isolated part of the world taking responsibility for rearing younger brothers and sisters because the parents have died or been killed, it tells me Rufo was right.

When I witness a teacher (a rare one who hasn’t yet drunk the test-prep Kool-Aid) challenge adolescents with a dilemma, an anomaly, an incongruity, a question with no clear answer, and listen as the kids become so involved they groan when the bell rings, it tells me Rufo was right.

When it comes to education, we’re not putting our money where our mouths are. We give lip-service to democracy, but devote so little thought to what it takes to maintain one that we see nothing wrong with an educational system that’s hierarchically organized, centrally controlled, and unabashedly authoritarian.

Worse, that authority is merely “legitimized” by our governing bodies. It’s actually shaped by the bigger-than-governments corporate interests that have confiscated American democracy and hollowed it out.

That’s not a promising foundation for a system of education. It’s hard to see how it could turn out kids smart enough to save themselves and America.

Forget calls for a “rigorous curriculum,” for national standards for school subjects, for non-stop testing, for developing “21st Century workplace skills,” for elevating in importance science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), for “enhanced, data-driven decision making,” for blah, blah, blah.

Wrong road. The first order of educational business is to understand our individual and collective selves. If we’ll design an education that does that, the rest will take care of itself.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 10, 2011; 11:00 PM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Marion Brady, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  21st century skills, arne duncan, marion brady, obama school reform, president obama and school reform, school curriculum, school reform  
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Encourage democracy - fire Obama.

Posted by: educationlover54 | January 10, 2011 2:53 PM | Report abuse

The late quality management expert W. Edwards Deming, for whom Japan named its top industrial prize, was once interviewed by the Wall Street Journal back in 1970.

WSJ: Are there any exemplary large companies out there?

Deming: Not that I know of. But make one thing clear: Everybody is doing their best. And that's the trouble. Hard work and best effort - and doing it wrong. Without knowledge - there's no substitute for knowledge. And we don't have it. What's the aim of the school of business, for example? They teach students how business is conducted today and how to perpetuate it. Any wonder we're in trouble? They ought to be preparing students for the future, not for the past.

The Obama, Duncan, Gates, Broad, etc. reformers are precisely the people "Without Knowledge" that Deming warned of. They just want to do the same thing we've always done that didn't work.

Posted by: zoniedude | January 10, 2011 3:05 PM | Report abuse

I couldn't agree more that schools are being asked to do too much. The business-oriented "reformers" should like the idea of streamlining education so that schools focus only on what they do best. I love the idea of a "well-rounded" education that includes exposure to the arts and, especially, preparation for citizenship. But I now know I'm not going to win that battle. So why not shorten the school day and have schools focus on their core mission? Communities will have to step up and provide opportunities for other kinds of learning.

I do worry, however, that Mr. Brady's proposals for local control might lead to parochialism, both in terms of what kids learn and how education is funded. ("Why should I pay taxes to support the education of kids in the rest of the state when I don't even know what they're learning?" Which might really mean, "Why should I pay to educate those black or brown kids?") But I agree that to expect young people to learn the lessons of democratic participation in an authoritarian educational system is ludicrous.

We have to trust teachers and students. They will make mistakes, as Mr. Brady writes, but as someone who has provided support to both groups to engage in service-learning, I have seen teachers and students do amazing things that connect them to their communities, teach them problem-solving and leadership skills, and give them context for their classroom learning.

We have to make choices about education, but we have to remember that we are not limited to the menu of options given to us by the "reformers."

Posted by: jefferyjmiller | January 10, 2011 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Zonie makes a good point. Jeffery said something that was passed over instantly. "Streamlining" comes from business; it has never been part of education. Education is not about streamlining as much as going beyond every boundary.

As for the "peaking," We are looking at this wrong, and teaching our children the wrong methods. Back to what Deming wrote, pounding a nail with a wet noodle harder will not make the nail move faster. That has been our approach with grades, money, politics, and business.

Learning needs to take its course instead of pounding it in every head. There is some "Darwinism" possibly. Going back 150 years will tell us the "family tree" of learning. Neither of my Grandparents could read or write. None of their children attended high school, I am the first to complete college.

Some came along faster, some didn't. Life. Live with it!

Posted by: jbeeler | January 11, 2011 7:43 AM | Report abuse

Encourage them to be creative---to organize their thinking, and tell their community’s story in words, statistics, diagrams, even artistic productions.

?EVEN artistic productions?

While I love the whole emphasis on the communal aspect of education, to make artistic productions sound like they are an afterthought is an unfortunate statement. To wit:

- Theater is known as the 'social art' and
with good reason. 1) Either the group
works together or the show doesn't go
on. 2)The development of theater, from
the Greeks to puppetry to Shakespeare to
community theater to television has
shown not only the interest of the
public but the enormous capacity for all
kinds of teaching and learning to take

- Music is our universal language, and
much of what was written about theater
can be applied to music performances.

- Ditto for poetry, often considered to be
a form of music.

- Dance - the body's joy of expression is
also a universal 'visual language'.

- Visual art often shows us our world in a
new way, and allows myriad opportunities
for personal expression, communication
and conversation.

Too often the arts are seen as commodities to entertain or as a means to fame, but when everyone is invited to participate, all kinds of human quantum leaps and connections may happen.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 11, 2011 9:11 AM | Report abuse

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