Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Education Reform Needed

Democracy Should Seek
The Development of the Individual

I last wrote about a speech by Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota’s governor, concerning school reform, and expressed the idea that school reform should be based on sound ideas about motivation.
Wow. It's the school's job to motivate students? I suppose that's so if students are all hatched in test tubes and, having no parents, are wards of the state. Failing that, it is, to put it simply, the job of parents to motivate their offspring, by any legal means at their disposal, for you see, children don't always comprehend what is best for them and tend to give little thought to the future. It is a student's job to take full, daily advantage of the educational opportunities provided for them by their teachers.

It should go without saying that teachers must provide that opportunity. Of course teachers should be encouraging and should work to present interesting and engaging lessons, but ultimately, learning is not all about entertainment and the classroom is not a movie about a motivational football coach who takes a group of losers to the state championship on the force of his personality. Learning takes work. If a student is unwilling to do that work, no amount of teacher motivation will prevail.
Mike | 03.14.07 - 12:20 pm | #

These thoughts, by Mike, above, I’m sure would be welcomed by many school professionals on the front line of school work, who, regardless of their best efforts, are experiencing much student failure. Failing schools usually have quite a long blame list: society, TV, drugs, the culture. Much blame goes to parents, and, the biggest blame for student failure is often put on the individual student, himself or herself. As Mike writes: “Learning takes work. If a student is unwilling to do that work, no amount of teacher motivation will prevail.”

Mike’s comments seems to say that the system is fine -- that the problem is the individual within the system. I’ve come to believe the opposite. I believe it is the system, itself, that is the chief determiner of system success and that, therefore, our school system needs major reform. Students achieving far below their potential, at both low and high levels of achievement, I believe, is a symptom of system fault.

Pawlenty expresses the fear that today’s lackluster high schools will imperil our future economy, and, as a solution, he recommends an increase in student requirements and sanctions. It hard to imagine that Pawlenty’s reform idea is serious. Even if it works, and some students begin to function at new minimum levels, it makes no sense that our future economy will be saved. The future will demand great leaps in the educational levels of our citizenry, not simply marginal improvements.

These great leaps will not come about via new government regulations, but by allowing a clear vision of educational purpose to direct the redesign of public education. Winning -- making good grades, getting awards, getting scholarships, etc. -- seems to define current educational purpose. The argument pushing current school reform is that the system needs to be changed so that there are more winners -- no child left behind -- and fewer losers.

The problem with the current system, however, is not that there is not enough winners. The problem is that a system that uses its authority to define winners and losers is probably not a system that produces quality. The old Soviet system identified “winners,” who were allowed to shop at “dollar stores,” and who were assigned the best government apartments. Producing more winners would not have solved the Soviet’s overall problem. The Soviet system did not produce quality -- even for its winners.

Those of us who are winners, because of the present education system, usually want to think that public schools are working fine -- particularly for the good students. We want to think that the public schools’ sorting of winners and losers is appropriate: Why fix what is not broken? But the truth is, a lack of quality pervades the entire system, and a poor quality of education encumbers winners and losers alike. Winners and losers, alike, are often learning at a level far below their potential. Winners and losers, alike, are often involved in wasteful tasks that contribute nothing to their individual growth or maturity.

School reform must start by answering some basic questions, the first one being: what in the world are we trying to accomplish? Our answer must be centered in democratic values, and must be the type of answer that would not be embraced by the North Korean Ministry of Education. Our schools must do much more than guide students to align with authority, much more than train students to be society’s future workers.

The purpose that should guide education design, it seems to me, is simply this: the development of the individual. Our democracy continues to fund public education because democracy depends upon the strength and wisdom found within each individual. New levels of human maturity will be needed to meet the challenges of the future. We need a system of public education that can answer this challenge.

No comments:

Post a Comment