The Missing Part of the (Educational) System

Technology is wonderful. By that I mean electronic technology. Without it I wouldn’t be able to scribe my thoughts here at bent spoon. Well, bent spoon could still exist, but the process of producing it would be a lot more time consuming and definitely more expensive. Many unintended consequences have arisen from the rapid proliferation of electronic technologies over the past decades.

Where I’d like to spend a moment today is how the current process  of learning and methods of teaching today have influenced the development of technology, and the positive feedback loop that it creates, which, oddly enough, ends up slowly cutting parents out of the process of teaching their own children.

Whoa. Cutting parents out? How did you get there?

Well, think about this scenario: kid pops in Sony Walkman headphones and tunes out parents. Yes, the older cultural reference was intended. Flash forward to that child with the Walkman being a parent, and understand how we are already primed for allowing our children to slowly, and arguably further distance themselves from us.

It started with Baby Einstein videos, then moved onto “educational” television programming, then onto a Leapfrog Leap Pad, followed by the Nintendo DS, but that was OK because our children were playing educational games like Brain Boost. During this time the Wii came out, and of course that was better than a Playstation, or PS2 since with the Wii the children had to actually move their bodies.

Slowly, however, we break down our own barriers of acceptance, particularly when we come into the living room to see our seven year-old successfully playing the Wii and barely moving, commanding the avatars on the screen with subtle and perfectly timed flicks of his wrist. The battle has been lost then. Why not let a now eight year-old immerse himself in massively multiplayer online games, where he is living in a virtual world surrounded by innumerable numbers of other anonymous children: at least you hope their honestly children.

So how does that slippery slope scenario come to pass, and how does the current teaching pedagogy feed into it?

When 60% of the US population eventually enter college (half of whom actually graduate), they’re faced with an environment that, for the most part, is built for specialization. There are interdisciplinary programs in many colleges and universities now, but our society isn’t built to sustain those either.

When you get out of college, or decide to forgo the education and jump into the workforce, you become labeled: I am a writer, or a butcher, or a carpenter, or a professor, or a banker. It’s understandable. How else do you excel at something if you do not specialize? The system is built this way for a reason.

The unintended consequence, however, is a compartmentalization of our thought and our lives that often times does not allow us to see answers to questions, even when those answers lie at our feet.

Educators and parents noticed over the past decades that academic standing of the USA (as gauged by SAT scores and other metrics) has slowly slid in comparison to the rest of the world. The number of children who are not able to read at grade level has slowly increased year over year, and our scientific acumen is lagging as compared to other nations.

What do responsible citizens do when they see a problem? They react! They do! They make! They decide! They act!

The leading thinkers in education decided the books were obsolete, so the books are on a cycle of constant revision even when none is necessarily needed. They tinkered with teaching methods, introducing new teaching methods to school districts every six years in some cases.

Those ideas didn’t work as quickly as anyone wanted so they started testing: hello No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Why was testing started? Because if new methods and new books weren’t working, then the problem MUST be the teachers. And like any MBA problem the way to uncover the problems in any system is to measure. When NCLB was started, and even today, the testing is not done for the benefit of your children, it is an employment metric, which at its very core has an unattainable goal: having 100% of the students in a school meeting standards. The cruel hand of genetics insures that goal can never be attained unless the “standards” are dropped low enough for everyone to be able to pass. An unfortunate number of good teachers have lost their jobs over the past decade because their test results, not because of how their children have performed, but because of the degree to which their numbers have gone up every year, and once a teacher reached a particular threshold, getting above that threshold is practically impossible for any teacher, unless they are in a private school, which has the luxury of telling lower-performing students to not come back to school.

Policy makers segregated and aggregated, defined and labeled, tested and tested, and still the metrics keep showing that the US is slipping.

The system is broken! So Charter Schools were born, yet if you read books by experts like Diane Ravitch you will see that a Charter School is not necessarily a magic potion. Private school isn’t even a panacea. Private schools cannot even be used as a fair barometer or gauge since they are able to jettison any children who do not perform to their pre-determined guidelines.

If it’s not the books, and it’s not the methods, and it’s not the teachers (now that the bad ones are being fired), then it must be the children. They learn differently today than we did before the Internet.

Remember my slippery slope? We must adjust and adapt to the digital world, and catch up to our kids, because, as Frontline defined three years ago, our children are Digital Natives, and because of their exposure to technology from birth, they obviously think differently, and, therefore, learn differently than we do.

So we build Apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Droid. We place educational content in the Cloud. We have to accommodate for today’s learner: Silicon Valley speak for “let’s make some money in this new market place.”

But I ask, and I feel silly asking this because when you look back it will seem so obvious, “What consistent thread in this description of our failed and failing education system is not mentioned at all?”

Parents.

So here we dumbfounded yet concerned parents stand while we watch the system fail our kids, the kids fail further, and the system continues to search for answers as to why kids are failing. There are PTAs and PTOs on which parents can serve. Many school districts use these organizations as fund raising tools, which ironically places them at odds with the community. When PTA Presidents look to build participation, the parents who are not involved shy away, afraid the PTA is going to ask them for more money or time cutting paper cut-outs for a holiday party. Parents can run for school boards, but if you’ve ever seen the inner workings of a school board you realize that the bureaucratic rats nest that is politics bogs down many potentially helpful initiatives. Couple that with tight local budgets and the school board process is even more daunting today. School Site Councils have very little control and say any more; they’re lucky to have $50,000 to manage, and even then money for school budgets is so tight that the decisions are limited and obvious.

It doesn’t take long for parents to feel disenfranchised from the system, further removing them from the process of educating their kids, after which the system creates more programs to try to stimulate student interest in learning, which further separates the family from the equation, and the cycle repeats.

Education is an industry and a very large machine: something with a lot of parts. Despite the best efforts of many educators and volunteers, well meaning proposals for helping kids get lost in that machine, which leaves the door open for well funded groups to come in touting the ticket to your child’s global success.

And that’s the thing. Different for-profit groups have attached themselves to language – global, 21st century workforce, success – that has well-meaning parents paranoid that their kids are going to pumping gas for the rest of their lives. I argue, that for some kids that’s actually not a bad life, as long as they do it well, and they like what they’re doing. That’s hyperbole, by the way: another way of saying every kid does not have to aspire to go to Harvard.

Kumon. Mathnasium. Sylvan.

All of these companies are out there making a buck (a lot more than a buck) off of our fears that our kids are going nowhere. What about teaching our kids to work hard, to take chances, to learn, and to think it’s OK to… *gulp*…fail? The big caveat?! As long as they learn something from the failure.

A recent New York Times article talks at length about it. Great read if you have a few moments. The article actually goes on to chronicle how some of the most successful people – using the metric of going to college and excelling both there and after school – are people who did not do so well in high school but all of whom had strong character traits: things we’ve learned for millennia through books like the Torah, Upanishads, and the bible, and through our communities and families.

But you can’t get an App for that. You can get a bible App, sure, but who is going to help a child integrate that anecdotal knowledge with a science project? A child can study the Torah for her baht-mitzvah, but who’s going to help her take the lessons of citizenship and apply them dealing with bullies on the playground?

Education in our country is currently a behemoth of a machine, and most its current elements are necessary for it to be successful, but it’s missing one crucial component: parents.

Oddly enough, however, I don’t think that parents should be involved through the entire process of education: principally during their child’s elementary school education. After that, kids need to learn how to do things on their own. Otherwise you have the nightmare scenarios of helicopter parents who do the homework of their children even in high school to make sure the child is getting good grades. Who is THAT helping?!

In our move we luckily fell into a school system where parents ARE a part of the equation. Communication is succinct. The district lets the parents know the expectations that the district has of them: and they are distinct expectations. Even more telling is the level of support that the district provides parents for the basics. On the school district website a parent is no more than three clicks away at any time for parenting resources: mental health resources, good parenting techniques, parenting workshops, how to effectively parent small children. And yes, these are all geared towards parents with young children.

Even if no parents are taking these classes, the message is out there, and the message that parents are an important part of the equation trickles down into the community from the moment the parents enter the school district. The message colors everything.

Why can’t we do that in other districts? In districts where parent involvement is non-existent or restricted by economics, why can’t money go into outreach programs to give parents the messages of support? The request being made of parents is not necessarily to be helping a child with homework, it’s to have the parents support the message of the district that academic success is important for many reasons: mostly for the child. It’s time for districts to look at parents as a partner in the process, to expect them to be a partner, and for parents to understand their accountability in this partnership.

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