“All fallen leaves should curse their branches for not letting them decide where they should fall.” – David Bazan
The problem that I see with our current attitudes toward public education cannot be blamed on any one entity. I truly believe the real solution to educational reform begins, not at the federal or state governmental levels, but in the homes of our citizens. Please don’t misunderstand me; I feel that our governing officials have good intentions. After all, who doesn’t want to see successful, independent, and intelligent young people? However, the government’s main concern is the bottom line – numbers: percentages of passing and failing, of graduating and not, of how much money per capita is spent to get the results that make us look competetive with other industrialized nations. These are valid concerns, but the truth is, an independent thinker is hard to quantify. Every revolution begins from the ground up, and educating our children is no different.
First, let me dissect the consequences of maintaing the status quo. What I believe many teachers are observing is a generation of increasingly less motivated young Americans. Students are increasingly dependent on others to make decisions for them, provide answers, and supply needs. Independence of thought or action is a foreign concept, and, unfortunately, our education systems work to reinforce this mindset. We can see this attitude evidenced with my own generation of “Boomerang” children who returned to their parents’ homes after college without goals or a desire to be independent. This is simply a symptom of a bigger problem in our nation.
Now, I will try to put this as apolitically as possible: We have created a society of dependence on others which perpetuates this attitude. On a grand scale, the government, in the name of providing for the cannots, provides much for the will-nots as well. With regard to schools, there seems to be a pervasive attitude that the school will provide everyting a student needs to be successful in life, both tangible and intangible. We’ve gone from helping those who need it with free lunches and school supplies to such extremes as providing healthcare and extensive counseling. Some schools have eliminated extras like field trips because they have been told they cannot make students pay for these extras. Our attempts to level the playing field for those who need it have swung to an extreme that was never intended, and our students’ education suffers.
I want to emphasize that I line I am walking here is a thin one. We must understand that any extreme position here is the wrong idea. I also do not want to put blame on students – they are learning what we are teaching as a society. As stated before, the solutions begin in the home. It does, as one prominent politician said, take a village to raise a child. That village begins with the family, though. Character is taught at home and practiced at school, but when a student has never learned discipline, self-respect, and humility, he or she cannot achieve in school. Those not born with intrinsic motivation must learn it, but the schools cannot compensate for what’s not given at home, no matter how good the teacher.
That leads to the next point, which is that a student’s intellect (which includes character) cannot be fully measured by a test, nor can a teacher’s effectiveness. I understand that we must have a measuring rod in education, but we also must weigh that measure carefully when looking at the big picture. It is a fact that some students do not test well. It is also a fact that you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. This is especially true in middle school, where students have very little reason to perform well, and some are easily swayed by their emotions or attitudes toward the teacher or school. Some of the best teachers I know have low-scoring years, and some of the worst consistently have high scores. When we are required to teach to a test we cannot review ourselves, when standards of curriculum change with each academic year, and when the standards of achievement change with each election year, we are left with little option but to push the curriculum the best way we know and pray what needs to sticks.
My last point is this: If teachers are the most influential measure of a student’s success, as the studies report, educational reform should be led by teachers and by administrators, not by legislators. As stated above, they have good intentions, but a government, with all of its other problems to solve, cannot micro-manage classrooms. The people most qualified for that job are the ones on the frontlines, the ones who have dedicated themselves to people-building. And, they should not have to run for school board or congress to do it.
I don’t have all the answers, and I’m sure my thoughts will offend some. Please forgive me. I am tired of sitting around a table in my twenty-minute lunch talking with like-minded folks about what we are seeing. And I am scared for this generation. We need change, and we need it soon.