September 15, 2010

What the President got right, and wrong, about education

Posted in Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized tagged , at 9:36 pm by chavisory

President Obama gave his second annual start of the school year address this week to the nation’s students, and many media sources have noted the general absence of the paranoia and outrage that marked the occasion last fall, including accusations of injecting politics into education, socialist indoctrination, and parents threatening to pull their children from school for the day lest their vulnerable minds be contaminated by whatever inflammatory thing the President might have to say to 3rd graders (I’m still at a loss as to what these parents really feared he might say).  But I’ve actually found both years remarkable for the almost utter lack of attention paid to the substance of the speech itself.

I was thrilled to hear Obama openly acknowledge the realities and difficulties that many students are facing: financial insecurity and family tension, the wars and the recession, wondering if they’ll be able to afford college at all.  I always resented being talked down to or having the truth soft-pedaled to me as a kid so I was appreciative that he didn’t even try.  I was glad to hear him ask students to reject bullying and show kindness and respect each others’ differences; I’m not sure it would’ve done a lot of good but that’s something I would have loved to hear a President say when I was in middle school.  I think the President spoke with an awareness that childhood bullying, unchecked, grows up into the kind of much more dangerous bullying behavior–lying, smearing, contempt, character assassination, open disregard for the rights or dignity of opponents, even violence–that we’ve seen all too much on display in our political process lately.

I was glad to hear him tell students that “nobody gets to write your destiny but you.”  I wish this was the #1 lesson that we imparted to all students: that no one else gets to tell you who or what you are, or what you can or can’t do.

The two big (and almost completely predictable) things wrong, however: the near-equation of education with school success, and the lauding of “hard work” as the key to nearly all success, in education, life and career.

The fact is that the school system we have now is, for many, many students, a tragically counterproductive system or simply a bad learning environment.  It has no respect for learning differences, for individual ambition, or for independent thought.  Its goals are standardization and submission to authority.  By constantly punishing students for their deficits rather than encouraging them and letting them go as far as possible in their strengths, it forces most students to be mediocre in most everything.  Schools confer diplomas, not education.  When the school system does not serve the goals of education or of the individual student (which was usually, in my experience from kindergarten through 10th grade), then our encouragement of students to fulfill their full educational potential might need to include encouragement to leave school behind and pursue their own education.

And we need real schooling options which will take into account the individual learning styles, desires, and goals of students when those are at odds with what’s considered acceptable by the current school system.  The schools we have are failing too many kids.  Asking them to keep playing along is not a solution to anything.

“More and more, the kinds of opportunities that are open to you will be determined by how far you go in school.  In other words, the farther you go in school, the farther you’ll go in life,” Obama stated, as if this is a foregone conclusion.  I hope it isn’t.  I think that this is a vision of the future that we should and can reject and turn back from.  With the exception of highly technical, scientific or medical career fields, there’s no particular reason that it needs to be true.  Indeed, this faulty outlook that everyone needs more and more schooling–that everyone needs a college degree–to be successful and comfortable is, I think, is largely responsible both for the explosion of college costs and the increasing meaninglessness of a college degree.  And to look at the number of our geniuses, innovators, artists and business successes who were school failures or dropouts or who avow that their formal education had little or nothing to do with their eventual success, is a pretty strong refutation of the presumption that length of schooling is deterministic of how far anyone can go in life.  Whereas I worked hard and did well in school and found myself graduating high school with all A’s and almost no skills, something that I had to take it upon myself to fix.  People who can teach themselves, on the other hand, who are always learning and adapting, are never confined by their schooling.

Hard work, of course, is a necessary ingredient to most success, but not a sufficient one.  We have millions of people out of work right now, and not for any aversion to hard work.  Likewise, millions of people are desperate for any job and more than willing to take menial or physically demanding ones, but find themselves disqualified (or “overqualified”) by advanced degrees.  Most of them, I’m sure, have worked hard their whole lives, doing what they thought they were supposed to do, believing that hard work would keep them safe.  It’s one of our most intoxicating and stubborn national myths, that hard work is the primary necessary condition for material success and security; it’s our way of saying that life is fair at its core and that people ultimately get what they deserve.  But it isn’t, and sometimes they don’t.  Often, the people who work the hardest struggle the most for their entire lives.

What’s going to restore America’s vitality and point the directions in which we need to go next in so many areas–energy independence, health care, job creation, healing our ecological situation, just to name a few–in addition to hard work, are ingenuity, creativity, critical and fiercely independent thinking, judicious willingness to take risks…and ethical leadership.  All of which are precisely the things discouraged by the predominant way in which we currently educate children.

What I wish a leader would say to the nation’s students is this: that in order to write your own destiny, you have to take your education into your own hands.  That means being focused and unashamed of what you want out of your life and what you want to accomplish in the world, looking around you to assess whether your educational environment is helping or hindering you in meeting your own ambitions, and taking things into your own hands if it isn’t.  Because playing by other peoples’ rules is no future at all, for you or for the country.


  1. Amy said,

    Have you been in the schools recently? All schools are not the way you are making them out to be. Schools in the last couple of years are trying to provide different options. The school that I used to teach music at, started offering a two track system. One for college bound students, and one for career bound students. I am now teaching elementary music, and the school that I’m teaching at is intent on not letting students fall behind, and increasing achievement in gifted students. My school is one of MANY elementary schools in Wichita, and we were at the bottom of the list when it came to standardized test scores 3 years ago. This year, we are in the top of the list, if not one of the top 5 schools in the district. The teachers at my school are working themselves very hard to see that all students are striving to be an intricate part of society, not just college bound students. I also understand that all students are not going to succeed in college, but it is my job as an educator to get students ready for college, or a career in music if they choose.

    • chavisory said,

      But life doesn’t happen in two tracks. People don’t exist in two tracks. Kids aren’t born into two tracks, and there’s no reason at all they should be put there and stuck there. That’s exactly my point. Likewise standardized test scores. They’re without relevance for real learning and real survival skills. Show me the standardized test that can measure a student’s ambition, desire, resilience, work ethic, independent thinking skills, and creativity, and their ability to use those things in the real world, and then I’ll care about a school’s standardized test scores.

      *Some* schools are trying great things to give kids better options. But most, if I’m not much mistaken, are still sitting kids in rows of desks, locked inside, to be graded on their ability to learn pretty much the same things at the same time as everyone else. The entire mechanism of the system rewards obedience and rule-following and not much else (up until the later years of high school, anyway). And it seems to me that those habits of mind are *not* serving us very well in finding solutions to America’s big problems.

      *Some* teachers are trying to inculcate real critical thinking and problem-solving ability in their kids, but they’re waging an uphill battle within the system, which does not want kids to have those things, because kids who had them, or had very much self-respect at all, would not put up with half the crap that the school system puts them through.

      • Amy said,

        I disagree with you, since I’m in the school setting, teachers do not have students in rows anymore. Cooperative learning, and Kegan training is in most schools in Kansas. Of course, I don’t know about the rest of the United States, but Kansas does have a very difficult teacher licensure program that most other states accept if I would move to another state. I received my initial license in Missouri, and when I moved, I had to complete another test, as well as a huge report within the first two years of my teaching. I absolutely detest standardized testing, however, it was one way to show that the teachers in my school were actually “teaching” the kids how to read, comprehend, problem solve, and be able to solve math problems. The kind of stuff that I wish their parents would know how to do. The two track system was a pretty cool idea, even if it’s only two tracks, because it’s much more different than what was offered when I was in high school. Kids would have a lot more skills leaving high school when they’re not going into college.

  2. b said,

    I agree that you’re overgeneralizing what schools look like today – but only somewhat. There are bright spots here and there, individual schools that are forging new paths and individual reforms that are becoming more widespread, but overall, across every school in the country, those are still in the minority. Some states’ laws make it easier or harder to do that – to take gifted ed as an example, Virginia has, across the board, some of the best policies in the country, while California only recently made it legal to provide gifted services outside of the regular classroom.

    Other than that, though, I agree with nearly everything you’ve said here. The overemphasis on four-year college is a major problem these days. So many jobs now require a college degree that really shouldn’t, making it an expensive necessity for people who shouldn’t need it. Even if they want to learn college-level material, with the internet there are many ways to do that for free as long as you don’t need a piece of paper to show to your employer afterwards.

    • chavisory said,

      I agree–I over-generalized a bit out of necessity, lest the post be twice as long as it was and go wildly off topic. I do hear about some schools trying great things, like gardening programs, and the Kansas City, MO school district, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, is doing away almost entirely with age-grading in favor of coaching kids individually through each subject at their own pace. New York City’s Harbor School just got a new location on Governor’s Island, from which its students will be able to practice on a daily basis real professional skills and knowledge in marine sciences. There are some really promising things happening–but I don’t think that the vast majority of the nation’s schoolkids have that kind of access or choice in their own districts. Which is not to say that there aren’t wonderful teachers who do their best, but the mechanisms of the system are against them. For the most part, the way we educate kids, and the things we tell them about relying on “hard work,” are failing us.

  3. chavisory said,

    Amy, I’m thrilled to hear that Kansas schools are trying to do things differently. But it’s not the norm, by a very long shot.

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