15 Brutal Mistakes In The Development Of Public Schools

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Teachers are the hardest working professionals I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. My own experience as a teacher in rural and urban public schools has shown me that (almost) every single moving part performs with the best of intentions and extraordinary effort that is easy to miss for anyone outside of the walls of the school building.

Of course, we’re past the point of moral victories in public education. While there are no easy answers or fixes, looking back on how we got to this point might be enlightening.

15 Brutal Mistakes In The Development Of Public Schools

1. Focusing on curriculum and assessment rather than learning models and support.

This is likely the worst idea public schooling has taken on. The idea here is that by using a standards-based, outcomes-driven, direct instruction model, real-life content can be parsed without neutering it. In this model, understanding be anticipated, data can be gleaned, and resources can be shared in tidy little Data Teams and PLCs to improve learning for all. Unfortunately, this only encourages teacher compliance and serves to homogenize learning in a way that makes it unrecognizable for students, and foreign for most parents and community organizations.

School has trumped learning.

2. Adopting Scripted Curricula

This is perhaps the most symbolic adoption by public schools struggling to keep teachers and students “on the same page.” For now, let’s skip analyzing the desire to have all teachers and students “on the same page,” and focus instead on the naive idea that a learning experience can be planned in another state by a corporation with zero knowledge of the personal lives and cognitive identities of students. The hubris! And shame on school districts for falling for it in the name of abstract ideas like “college readiness.”

3. Growth

Growing from one-room schoolhouses to sprawling campuses with as many as 5,000 students seems like a natural “development,” but was a recipe for disaster. Size obscures nuance, numbers challenge personalization.

4. Moving from local to federal control

When this happened, the government—local, state, and federal—became involved, giving us gems like No Child Left Behind, National Standards, and Race to the Top. All well-intentioned, and all train-wrecks that cost billions of dollars, ironically distract from the students themselves, and reduce the autonomy of the best teachers.

5. Adopting textbooks

At some point learning left the homes, families, and communities and ended up in textbooks. Textbooks can be excellent sources of information, but they are brutally awful sources of learning.

6. Handing out letter grades instead of fruit baskets

We’ve talked about this one before, but essentially letter grades are overly reductionist—distill impossibly complex realities into a signal symbol that is then over-reacted to by students, parents, and colleges everywhere.

7. Giving exams

Assessment makes sense; implying that students can adequately demonstrate what they know on a teacher (or corporate)-made exam is, at best, problematic. The point of assessment is to find out what the student understands. This places the onus on the exam not the student, but unfortunately it has gotten reversed at some point. Today, grades and tests trump understanding and learning habits, and no one seems bothered.

8. Busing students

Hey, here’s a great idea. Let’s wake children up at 6:30 a.m., pile them by the dozen into yellow monstrosities of mass transportation, and send them bounding into neighborhoods they’ve never seen to be taught by teachers they don’t know. They’ll be home by 4, in time for parents to patronizingly ask what they learned in school today, and then ignore the warning signs when their child can’t even begin to answer convincingly. But what can you do? Send them again tomorrow and hope for better results!

9. Grouping by age

And once we get them to that school, let’s group them not by theme or project, community or technology, learning model or even learning needs, but rather by their date of birth.

10. Adopt one set of “national” standards

So much confusion occurs when Florida sees a standard one way, and Washington another, am I right? Some states even see content differently, which means Uncle Sam and corporate America can’t “expect” a common body of knowledge from students. This causes chaos for everyone, and forces Apple to manufacture iPads in China. To be a nation of 21st century learners, we all have to be on the same page!

11. Make it free and compulsory

Talk about de-valuing a good thing. Philosophically, this makes sense. And charging for education would seemingly be an even worse idea, but truant officers can tell a different tale entirely. If you have to require something by law, it’s probably being marketed wrong and widely misunderstood, yes?

12. Forcing parents out of the classroom

Many parents know frustratingly little about education—which is why they need to be in the classroom, not pushed away from it then lured back in twice a year with free chili and balloons.

13. Experimenting with gender-based classes

This beaut has to be the result of “data,” because only data–or over-worked teachers struggling to “manage” students–would say that separating girls and boys is good for learning.

14. Put 30 students in the room with one teacher

This one is a matter of economics, I’m afraid. I’ve seen data that shows that class size matters little unless you can get the number of students below 15 (so whether you have 17 or 30 doesn’t really impact learning). As budgets are cut, sacrifices have to be made. Tell the custodian to bring in another desk, there’s room for everybody.

But think about it for a moment: if the data says that class size only marginally impacts students’ learning, shouldn’t that tell us something about every bit of the learning process–from the curriculum planned to the assessments and studies providing that data.

15. Grouping classes by “content areas”

Schooling helpfully categorized the universe into “content areas,” but in doing so made students think they hate stuff—like numbers, ideas, and great thinkers—that they really don’t hate. Year after year students casually aggregate every teacher, letter grade, test, girlfriend, boyfriend, school, or bad project under the label of a certain “content area” in unconscious acts of misplaced aggression. So “Math” becomes this emotionally drenched daisy-chain of insecurity instead of way of seeing the world through numbers.

Because that’s just the kind of shift we want students to make.

Image attribution flickr users usdagov and antonyadolf