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The 93% Solution

Public education is in the midst of a perceptual crisis. The public-school-as-smorgasbord proponents, the privatization faction, the voucher believers, the private school crowd, and the transformers—those small but vocal minorities who insist that every public school is mediocre at best and that students do not stand a chance in today’s competitive market after graduation from these dumbed-down anti-God institutions that are little more than attendance monitors for minority students—all proclaim loudly their way is better and will lead to the miraculous and marvelous reinvention of our failed system of public education. Choice seems to be a constant theme in these insistent complaints that public education has failed us and that our way of life, our political system, and our form of government are at risk because we cannot educate every child to the point he or she can have a seamless entry from secondary school into work or college.  Baloney. My personal belief is that segregation is the driving force behind many of these movements and their proponents and that their focus on the 7 percent of students not in public education rather than the 93 percent who are is misplaced, but we will save that argument for another day. The issue at hand I believe to be one of context.  
We have been given—and accepted—the daunting task of attempting to educate every child using a system that was designed to educate the privileged few. Public education, at its inception, was never intended to educate all children, and the model of standardized curricula, standardized testing, standardized attendance requirements, and standardized teaching methodology does not serve to meet the personalization so desperately needed to overcome the effects of poverty and low expectations. Public education in our country was designed and intended, in its early years, to be for the privileged 10 percent or so who were the sons of wealthy families and would be required, sooner or later, to take up the family business, manage the family estates, and simultaneously serve as community leaders. Until the 1970s no real effort was made to insist that high school was for everybody. Those who could not or would not fit the mold were overtly encouraged to find employment at the grocery store, the local service station, the construction site, or in any occupation that would take them away from school. Teachers and administrators were openly and actively engaged in pushing out students who, for whatever reason, could not conform to the strict rules of behavior in the halls and achievement in the classrooms of the day. Lecture was the primary pedagogical tool in the classroom, and students were expected and required to sit still, take notes, study those notes, do homework every night, follow teacher instructions, and, above all, succeed. Those who didn’t were quickly labeled as “troublemakers” or mentally deficient in some way and, after a series of negative experiences, eventually got the message they were not wanted or needed or expected to continue their education. Academic success was largely a matter of temperament, birth, race, and the chance that somewhere along the way those that fit the mold, followed directions, modeled good behavior, and did their homework religiously would find a teacher, usually in the lower elementary grades, who took a personal interest in their success and achievement. That catalyst was, especially for many of those in my neighborhood, a teacher whose high expectations, insistence on “following the rules,” focus on reading skills, and encouragement built upon our belief that her expectations were important for us to reach. For those who were slow to read, for whom math was problematic, who for whatever reasons did not do homework or work diligently to please the teacher, the “reward” was a sympathetic smile and a quick move on to the next student—effectively labeling them as “slow.” Remediation was not a buzzword, and if you failed to catch up on your own you were not headed anywhere except to a slower class in the same grade the following year. Whether or not they had the mental capacity to achieve, these students just didn’t fit into the blue birds or the yellow birds but were relegated to the lowest group of achievers of whom not much was expected and, predictably, not much was received.  
Special education students were almost nonexistent in schools until after the early 1970s, and teachers then would have reacted in shock and horror if they could see an inclusion classroom today. They firmly believed that education was not for everybody, and if you couldn’t measure up there was a job or a group home somewhere with your name on it. The prospect of attending college was limited to a very small percentage of primarily white males. Women were not encouraged to attend college (unless their agenda included the Mrs. degree) and minorities stayed on their side of town, went to their schools, and were not expected or encouraged to finish high school or attend college. Integration hasn’t done much to raise expectations. The belief that all children could learn was nonexistent and would have been seen as a waste of time, effort, and taxpayer money. Those sentiments still exist in many places today.
So to sum up the big picture, we are using a system designed to educate a few in an attempt to educate everyone. We have migrated from small, local efforts to provide an educational experience designed to tailor education on a personal level in a personal way for a few lucky students to gigantic bureaucracies whose function is to make sure that every individual is treated exactly the same way regardless of differences. Our students have gone from being the societal elite in the 1800s to the white middle class in the 1950s to EVERY child today. Since we are not successful at educating everyone—our stated goal—we are convicted by public opinion and through the eyes of the unenlightened as being unsuccessful at educating anyone. Once again, baloney. We are educating more students and a greater variety of students to higher levels than ever before in our nation’s history, but statistics, probability, and human nature make it impossible for us to achieve our goal of educating everyone. We also have to factor in that most elusive of human variables, motivation. Every reformer, every value-added proponent, every fire-the-teachers-and-the-principal model, every let’s-get-rid-of-bad-teachers-they’re-the-real-problem strategist assumes that every student comes to school enthusiastic about being there and excited about learning and academic achievement. Let’s be honest here: how many of you would look forward to coming to a place where you were “talked at” by adults for six to eight hours per day, you had to sit in a desk, you weren’t allowed to go to the restroom or the pencil sharpener without an adult’s permission, you weren’t allowed contact and communication with your peers, you were yelled at for not bringing a book or a pencil or paper or not completing your homework, and you received no real incidents of positive reinforcement except the occasional global expression to the class. Negatives are almost always, by the way, done in a personal, individual context, and positives in the general direction of one group or the other. Fear of failure is still, in far too many places, expected to be the primary source of motivation for students.
What we must recognize is that the teaching methodology and the framework we are trying so desperately to use to educate every one of our children were not designed to do the job.  Charter schools, private schools, and parochial schools all generally follow the same patterns and, with few exceptions, are modeled on the listen-and-take-notes-and-do-your-homework-and -do-what-we-say-or-you-will-grow-up-to-be-a-failure method designed to ensure conformity more than foster academic achievement. There is a solution to this.
Our first efforts should be made in leading our children to knowledge rather than attempting to stuff it into their ears. Our students today have no idea what passive learning is all about—that’s not how they spend their time at home, after school, on non-school days, during summer vacations, or with each other. Don’t believe for a second they are not intelligent simply because they learn in different ways or come to us from poverty. Watch a kid with a video game or with sports. They really despise those activities that do not challenge them and do not return to the ones they solve too easily but will spend hours upon hours taking on the challenges of games that stretch their imaginations and capabilities. Their efforts, however, do not translate into valid academic experiences because the intent of the game is to keep their interest and not to educate.  Look at your own background: I’m willing to bet the things you really enjoyed—music, ballet, baseball, kickball, math, reading, you name it—were the ones where you received individual encouragement from a variety of sources and over an extended period. We don’t like, enjoy, or learn effectively from negative feedback or from lecture. If teachers learn to design lessons that challenge our students in an engaging, authentic (real-life) manner, we will quickly begin to solve the problems that begin with, “Class, open your books to page 43 and get ready to take notes on today’s lecture.” Students want to be challenged, they want to be engaged, and they collectively and individually despise lecture and notetaking as meaningless exercises that are more about conformity than they are about learning. That does not mean that every day is a learning discovery day; there are some things that simply must be memorized and some rote learning must take place. It does not, however, mean that those methodologies should be the predominant ones in classrooms.  
Secondly, we must change the sterile classroom environment that has changed very little since the 1800s—one where the “innovation” is an outdated computer that may be used occasionally as a reward by one or two kids during the odd times it actually connects to the Internet. Laptops and desktops are no longer innovative technology in any settings beyond schools. There is no reason we cannot immerse students and teachers in a digital learning environment that challenges their creativity, their achievement, and their engagement. The millions of dollars spent on textbooks alone would serve to begin to transform our sterile classrooms into technology-rich genuine learning environments that would at least have the potential to involve students deeply in their own learning process and allow teachers to serve as directors of learning rather than all-knowing purveyors of knowledge. Learning to design engaging lessons using technology beyond the desktop computer, giving students guidelines for learning that lead to a genuine academic inquisitiveness, and directing that inquisitiveness into discoveries and individual learning paths that have an authentic, tangible relationship relevant to daily issues and problems as opposed to minutia and educational trivia—these are the keys to finding our way out of the lecture-driven, passive learning, test-them-once-more-just-to-be-sure environment we currently inhabit. What do students do the moment they are dismissed from school? They pull out their iPads or cell phones or whatever communicative device they have and restore contact with their social network. They also remain in contact with that network at any given moment EXCEPT when we threaten them with consequences for being connected. Why do we insist on teaching them in an environment almost totally devoid of the two things they prize most; technology and socialization? I am not suggesting making our classrooms focal points for Facebook updates; I am suggesting that using technology as a teaching tool is a more effective way of teaching our digital natives than is lecture.
The third key is the simultaneous elimination of the national dependence upon standardized testing as the single allowable measure of student academic achievement and a valid indicator of teacher effectiveness. The point is not to eliminate testing but to use the data from tests in a professional, reliable manner that does not include comparisons of individuals or groups with data never intended for that purpose. The United States has, since the 1950s, been rated in the bottom 25 percent of every educational rating system imaginable. The fact that our country has set the economic standard for the rest of the world, that our creativity, achievements, and scientific progress far overshadow the nearest competitors would, it seems, lead us toward the beginnings of a discussion about the efficacy and reliability of the ranking systems we seem to delight in using.  Perhaps our seemingly innate desire toward quantification of all things plays a bigger part in our testing mania than any evidence that what we are attempting to test is quantifiable. We have insisted on using a minimum standards test to judge whether or not third, fifth, and eighth graders are ready to move to the next grade. Why are we not trusting our teachers to make these determinations and, just for the sake of argument, why are we still insisting chronological age is an accurate determination of capacity for achievement? I am not suggesting that data cannot be a useful tool; I am suggesting that data must not be the only tool. One of my friends said it best: “We must be values-based and data-influenced.” That concept does require administrative courage in the face of the “data-driven” movement.
Student engagement in a digital environment would make active learning an everyday part of every child’s educational experience. When students are engaged and involved in what we ask them to learn, teaching the test does not become the focus of daily activities; learning does. When teachers are allowed and encouraged to work with each other, to collaborate about student work, and to learn to become teacher leaders, the possibilities for student achievement expand exponentially. I have seen this model at work in many of our schools in Georgia that have principals that have the courage to allow teachers to be leaders. Just don’t ask me to sit through another lecture.

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