Tear down the wall!

If you’re like me, you’re really frustrated with the public education system.  One of my biggest gripes that I think underlies all other problems is that it is a broken system that doesn’t work for everyone. Even though high school graduation rates have experienced a slight increase in recent years, the graduation rate is still about 82%.  National standardized test scores, which is a flawed measure but nonetheless one we use, have increased or stayed the same over time.  What’s interesting to note is that the scores of 17-year-olds has remained virtually the same despite increased scores for 9-year-olds. (This is long range data, so we should have seen higher test scores for high school seniors by now.)  What this tells us is that a significant portion of the population is not being served by our current education system.  And while the measures themselves are flawed and reveal very little data, they do tell us that we can do better.  So what’s happening with this 18% that don’t make it to graduation? Why aren’t test scores increasing for high school seniors? And why do people feel bad about public education?

Our public education system doesn’t work for everyone because it wasn’t designed to work for everyone.  There is an utter lack of individualization in our children’s education. Sir Kenneth Robinson, a leader in education and creativity research, describes our education system as an industrial assembly line.  But he isn’t the only educational researcher who has pointed out that children learn better when instruction is tailored to their needs and interests. In fact, many researchers over time have developed and tested a concept known as differentiation. (Here is a great summary of differentiated instruction.  Here is a great Scholastic article about it written by a teacher who employs differentiated strategies.) The research shows that children learn better and retain more knowledge when a teacher attempts to teach to that child’s particular strengths and when children have ownership over what they’re learning. This kind of teaching is largely missing and even discouraged in the assembly line system.

The problem for many teachers is they falsely believe it takes more classroom time to differentiate, but also teachers worry about differentiation being “messy.”  A messy classroom is a classroom where students are not sitting in rows, students aren’t all doing the same thing at the same time, the classroom could be noisy, and the teacher is not seen as “teaching” in a traditional sort of way (in front of the classroom lecturing).  Educators and even parents tend to shy away from messy classrooms because you can’t pinpoint one goal for the entire class or quantify the learning that happened on a particular day.  Short term, the learning can only be summarized in a narrative of a certain student’s activities and goals. Long term, however, students do as well or better on standardized tests, feel better about themselves and their education, are more creative, and are better problem solvers.

Educators also tend to shy away from messy classrooms because it simply looks bad.  Does the teacher have control?  What are the children doing? These apprehensions take over and scare teachers away from teaching techniques that actually get better results.  They opt for the “neat” classroom where everyone is doing the exact same thing at the exact same time, everything is in its place, and there’s one definitive process in place for students to follow.  This is how education turns into an assembly line. Sadly, we know that differentiated instruction is important not just because students are more engaged. It’s better because students are able to receive instruction in ways that play to their learning strengths.  For example, some students learn well by reading and writing reports. Other students learn well by playing games.  Other students learn well through group projects and creating something related to the material being learned.  Any activity a teacher picks in order to teach a particular concept will never reach 100% of the students in that class because not all students internalize information in the same way.  So one-size-fits-all lesson plans aren’t the best way to teach no matter how neat and orderly they are.

These ideas that teachers must have control and that everything must be measured in some standardized way leads to classroom and school policies that crush individualism and creativity. Instead of choosing policies and procedures that motivate and inspire, teachers create policies that include public humiliation, peer pressure, and punishment in addition to instruction that only reaches one kind of student.

One great example of this if from my son’s classroom.  His teacher has a homework chart.  Students who complete a homework assignment get a star prominently displayed by their name for all to see.  Let’s put aside for the moment that research on homework shows that it is of little to no educational value and focus on the problems with displaying this type of information.  If you ask my son’s teacher, the purpose of the homework chart is to motivate students to complete homework and turn it in.  But what if a student doesn’t turn in their homework for any number of reasons including not being able to complete it?  They don’t get the star, and everyone knows it.  Now that homework chart is a source of shame and humiliation.  Other students who don’t want to be shamed or seen as dumb, scramble to do their homework but for the wrong reason: fear.  These students resent the whole process and see it as an affirmation of their lack of intelligence or as affirmation of their teacher’s authoritarian style.

Teachers design policies like this all the time to control students, to force them to participate in the assembly line educational process, not to motivate them.  These policies have no real educational value either.  Humiliating children into doing their homework only teaches students that it’s ok to humiliate those who don’t participate in the prescribed system. And it doesn’t matter if that system is working for you or not.

Just a quick word on standardized tests and the testing culture of the United States.  Most people know that a multiple choice test actually gives us very little information about a person and what they’ve learned.  It’s a snapshot of their learning and a snapshot of only one kind of learning.  Testing in this way gives us the numbers we want to say if an educational program is successful or unsuccessful.  However, just like a picture of a rain drop; you can’t see the entire storm or if there even is a storm.  Our heavy reliance on standardized multiple choice tests for data about our students is changing our schools into test-taking factories.  This can become a big problem when you consider the fact that students who graduate and move into jobs won’t be sitting in their offices taking tests.  Our students shouldn’t be graduating as expert test-takers, but that’s what we’re doing to them.

So how do we change this machine known as the public education system? When I first thought that I might want to teach, I thought a lot about fighting the system from within.  As a teacher, I thought, I had the power to set up my class anyway I like.  I can inspire my students in ways that I was not.  But there are limits to what a teacher can do.  Teachers really only have the power to make changes in their classrooms, not the school culture.  They cannot go against policies handed down to them by the district or school principal, so their creativity is limited.  

On a positive note, many good teachers find ways.  Some even do research and create proposals for classroom activities for their school to try. For example, some schools do something called WIN time (What I Need time). Teachers can do this in their classrooms, or I’ve witnessed a school do this among all teachers in a particular grade.  Students are divided up based on their weaknesses, and each group gets instruction tailored to their specific need.  So students who are struggling with a particular math concept gets the lesson retaught to them with extra practice while a group who needs extra time on a writing assignment work on that.  Who’s in what group and what the groups do changes every day.  It’s still a pretty rigid system because the number of groups you can form is extremely limited, but it’s a step toward individualizing education.  It also serves as a good example to teachers regarding some of the power they really do have. Still, many teachers feel stifled by their school culture and growing class sizes and default back to the one-size-fits-all educational model.

Unfortunately, teachers are the best option for changing education from within. Students have little say, and any student who pushes for change usually has to do so through insubordination.  Administrators rarely inspire change in their teaching staff and are, in fact, rarely concerned about the actual teaching methods used by the teachers in their schools.  Administrators are numbers and data driven. Schools are rated on how many parents show up for conferences, how many students passed an exam, or how many students are on free and reduced lunch.  Making their school look good on paper takes up much of their time. The only time administrators are concerned with actual instruction is when there is a problem.  

So what if a teacher is uninspired to change or is crushed by administrative policies and procedures? Who can fight outside of the system and how?  Reforms that come from outside of the educational system are rare simply because there aren’t enough vested parties outside of the system.  Federal, state, and local governments, including school boards, are a part of the system.  And, like administrators, they are largely numbers and data driven.  Nothing gets done that can’t be measured in dollars or standardized test scores.  People without children often don’t feel comfortable speaking out about problems with our education system or don’t remember what those problems are.  They are no longer a part of the system and are not invited to participate in it.  

The only people left are parents, and despite lip service to the contrary, schools actively seek to keep parents out. For example, my school refuses to meet with parents outside of normal school operating hours.  Many schools tell parents that they shouldn’t ask for accommodations for their child because it makes their child different and will stand out.  The other students will notice that your child is different, and you don’t want that!  Your child might feel bad about being different. Parents are told that they are not education professionals and to leave it to the professionals.  And they are also told that if their child isn’t successful, it’s their fault, which is quite the double edged sword.  For example, when students fall behind in reading, schools put a lot of pressure on parents to make their child read more at home, and if that doesn’t work out, they force parents to pay extra for that tutor (even if that student has an IEP).  Some parents are told that their child is hopeless and can’t be expected to ever do grade level work.  Parents get told not to challenge a teacher’s policy because it might tarnish their relationship with their child’s teacher.  In other words, don’t hurt the teacher’s feelings, or your child will suffer. Sometimes, parents are told that an accommodation they are seeking will not help the student despite educational research that says otherwise. 

These are tactics used to keep the most vested outside parties in education, i.e. parents, on the outside, unengaged, and quiet.  And even for the most tenacious parents, these tactics work to make parents feel as though there is nothing they can do.  Also a child’s time in a grade or a particular school is limited.  Schools can simply wait it out until the child of that parent is older.  But these are barriers put in place to protect the assembly line education system.  After all, if you do not have access to the system, you cannot change it.

So what can parents do as reformers working outside of the system?  Because schools put up walls to discourage a parent’s participation in the system, you have to work the few inroads available to you. Ask yourself, who has access to the system and the power to change it? Your child’s teacher is a great place to start. Teachers have some freedom to make fast changes to their classroom. The easiest changes to make are actually in the classroom itself and not so much school wide. Tell your child’s teacher what issues you might have with the classroom or instruction, your vision for education, and/or what changes or accommodations you want made.  You know your child best, and you also know how they learn best.  Share that knowledge to try to encourage teachers to create assignments that allow for individualization.  If you can, volunteer to help set up and run a new activity in the classroom to get the teacher on board.  Here’s some ideas to run by the teacher:

  • Center based teaching, or learning choices.  This is already commonplace in elementary schools but begins to disappear in upper elementary, and it’s completely gone by middle school.  But why?  With center based activities, students travel around the room choosing which activities to engage in. In many classrooms, some centers are a must while others are a choice.
  • Exploratory research projects. (No cool link for this one.)  This is where the teacher allows students to pick a topic to go learn about on their own.  They can demonstrate learning in a variety of ways and still have very clearly defined learning goals and guidelines. There’s a variety of ways to manage these projects as well, including adding a group element which can be helpful when teachers need to take time to advise students on their projects.
  • Tiered assignments. The basic concept here is that everyone is working on the same learning goal but achieving that goal in a different way.  Teachers can create several assignments to choose from, like menu options.  Or teachers can give an assignment based on that student’s needs.  
  • Flipped classrooms.  Time at home and online can be spent in programs that differentiate already for the student as well as lectures, videos, going over examples, and reading.  The teacher then has more time per student to give individualized instruction and feedback.  You can even flip a classroom inside of a class, where half the class works online while the other half works with the teacher.  

Consider involving other parents.  If you have time and are comfortable, join the PTO and try to rally support for your ideas.  The PTO is largely a fundraising entity, but you can ask a teacher to pilot one of your ideas and then ask the PTO to help fund and/or organize it.  Take flipped classrooms, for example.  Ask the PTO to supply laptops or purchase certain programs for a teacher willing to give flipping a classroom a try.  If the PTO isn’t your thing or not possible, then start talking with parents as you run into them.  Tell them your ideas about education and what it is you’re asking a teacher to do.

Push if necessary by involving the principal, superintendent, or school board.  You always want to start positive, so sharing ideas with the school principal might be a great way to go.  But sometimes, things aren’t going well, and you need to challenge what a teacher is doing, like the homework chart hanging up for all to see.  If the principal won’t listen, move up the ladder. You also might want to work on your child’s teacher and the school board at the same time. Use their own data against them.  Stagnant test scores and marginally improved graduation rates are not impressive. If you’re really savvy, attach money to any plan you devise, either by identifying an additional funding source or by showing how your plan is cheaper than the current system in place.  Because you can’t go through a school and restructure it, you have to force others in the system to change.

We’ve known for a long time that a one-size-fits-all education system leaves some children behind, crushes creativity, and doesn’t build a very wide or applicable skill set. It makes sense to move to more individualized education by differentiating instruction in a massive way.  Federal, state, and local governments are only concerned with numbers like graduation rates and test scores, which are flawed forms of assessment.  Those entities are a part of the assembly line education system, a system that currently does not seek to change itself.  Change must come from the outside.  Parents, who are the most vested group existing outside of the education system, have the greatest influence.  However, schools build walls to keep parents away from the educational process.  Tear down the wall.  If necessary, use the system against itself to create change.

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