The mother of all school reforms, let the kids be free.

Efforts to reform the public schools are not new. They’ve been tried and retried, again and again, almost since the beginning of free and compulsory public school education in Massachusetts in the mid 19th. century. And they have all failed.

Why? The problem then and still the problem now, is that the “products” of public schooling, the graduates, not to speak of the ever high number of dropouts, are not, following 8 to 12 years of mostly sitting in public school classrooms and in some cases actually listening to a teacher, the thoughtful, knowledgeable, morally upstanding, well prepared prospective citizens of the country we would have liked.

So we try one reform after another. And we target everything in and about the schools. Often the schools themselves, the physical plant in need of repair; the curriculum that we’re always changing, always a subject of controversy; the length of the school day and school year (shorten the day we say because teens need to sleep, lengthen the year because they also need additional instruction). Now the biggest target may be the poor teachers themselves who are being held accountable for their students learning or not learning. The students, on the other hand, have never been the target of our reform efforts, although being the most important element in the teaching learning mix perhaps they should have been.

At the moment we seem to be experimenting with several reforms, three or more of them simultaneously, and certainly not for the first time. And furthermore the current spate of reforms is led not by the Federal, state and local school departments themselves, but by private foundations, especially what I call the big three, the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations, the three with the most money at their disposal.

Some of the most talked about targets of these reforms are school choice, or enabling parents to choose their children’s schools, vouchers, that will permit parents to decide themselves where to spend the monies allotted for their children’s education, the content of the curriculum, now reduced to a common core of subjects that all children will study and learn, and finally greater emphasis on testing, that which among other things will hold the teachers accountable for their students’ learning.

Of course what is left out of the reform efforts, a kind of elephant in the classroom, are the students themselves. They are the proverbially horse that we’ve brought to water and that is not drinking. We now realize that the students, too many of them, are not learning. When will we see that the reforms have little or no effect because the structure we’ve created for the education of our children is clearly the wrong one?

One has only to ask oneself what are the most important characteristics of a real learning situation, in order to then understand why not more of this is going on in the schools. For learning to go on, yes, there has to be a learner and a teacher (the teacher doesn’t have to be a person, and in fact it’s often not), and you might say in that regard the schools have it right.

But what the schools have overlooked, what they still overlook, is on the one hand the readiness of the student, the readiness for learning which includes an interest in learning, and on the other hand, the teacher’s, at least to some substantial degree, mastery of the subject being taught. Go into almost any classroom and you will see little interest of readiness on the student’s part, or subject matter mastery on the part of the teacher.

Ask yourselves where do schools seem to be working well, that is, where are there motivated and interested students who are learning with the help of knowledgeable and skillful teachers, those who are teaching, or better sharing with the students what they know?

Here are three examples of where it does seem to work: Most elementary schools, where children younger than 8 or 9 bring right into the classroom with them the excitement of learning all kinds of things that has been going on within and about them almost since the day they were born. The bottle neck is of course the 3rd or 4th grade, for at that point too often the natural and spontaneous learning about themselves and about the world around them comes to a halt and for most kids it never returns, at least in school in class.

Other areas where the schools do seem to be working: what I will call the “electives,” the subject areas that the children have chosen themselves in line with their own interests, activities and subjects such as theater arts, music, athletics, the fine arts and crafts, and if we would allow it to happen more in our schools, shop, or the vocations. These are the areas where schools as presently constituted could succeed, turning out graduates having acquired the appropriate skills to go on into an area of their own choosing.

What was it that enabled this to happen? The interest, the motivation on the part of the students, and, on the part of the teachers, the fact that they themselves were active practitioners of what they were teaching, —be they musicians, basketball players, carpenters, artists,…

And of course it is not surprising that these are the very subject areas that the school authorities will hold up to the public as being proof of the successful operation of their mission. How many times have we read about the high school band or theater group competing in a regional competition with credit going to the school administrators?

So why do we have the so often referred to “failing schools?” Because in the 19th century the school for all reform, the original reform that would do away with only some children learning to read at home by candlelight and others growing up illiterate, seized hold of the schools and made them into local, state, and Federal compulsory school programs that would turn out those thoughtful, knowledgeable, and morally upstanding and responsible citizens of the Republic that Thomas Jefferson et al. believed the new country couldn’t do without.

And this became the principal mission of the schools, and it failed of course because it was doomed to fail. Basketball we can teach, but virtue, responsible citizenship, we cannot not. The school founding fathers ought to have known this, and not placed this terrible burden on the schools at their very beginning and from which no reform could ever set them free.

What happened was this. Certain subject matters became important to the country’s leaders, and these subjects then (say in the beginning Greek and Latin, history, geography etc.) and now STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), these matters we just had to teach in our schools and the children, all of them, just had to learn them. Otherwise we were, as they say, putting our country at risk.

And of course it was not to be. Most children in the schools were not going to learn even Jefferson’s original “reading, writing and arithmetic” to any significant, let alone liberating level of mastery. Yet we continued to make them take these subjects and they continued to fail in the process.

What should have happened was that most children ought to have been helped to become better at doing what interested them (music, shop, and math) and not be forced to pretend that, say, “critical thinking” was all important to their lives, and in particular their lives as citizens of the country. How many great athletes or musicians are also “critical thinkers?” How many great Americans are even critical thinkers?

My subject is rapidly moving away from me. It’s much too big for a single blog entry. But if we wanted to bring an end to our failing schools the single “reform” that would do this would be to allow schools to be there for the kids, to free the kids, to help them realize their own potentials, and to stop trying to make them into something that would be useful to us, to the country.

And as I’ve said, this can’t be done anyway. And as others have said many, many times, a country’s strength ultimately is something else entirely. A country’s strength is the infrastructure, and infrastructure includes those people who are able to do well that which they were meant to do, as well as the number of bridges that will carry us safely to the other side.

As a footnote to all this, I take the following passages from a Google search of Thomas Jefferson writings on education. In very different words, and attitude, what Jefferson says is not too different from what I’ve been saying:

Among Jefferson’s drafts for new legislation was the celebrated “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” but there was another piece of legislation that Jefferson viewed as even more important: “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” In Notes on the State of Virginia (written in 1781), Jefferson summarized his educational plan as follows:

This bill proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor [i.e., superintendent], who is annually to choose the boy of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools [high schools, in effect] of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of [Virginia], for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go.

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