Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Circus is Leaving Town

The roustabouts have packed up the tent and the performers are shuffling onto the train out of town, looking a little dazed, wondering how the crowds that adored them could have just melted away. The land where the big-top stood is parched and dusty. The back fence is littered with trash. No one seems to care about picking it up. The townsfolk have gone back home. They are watching their televisions. It’s too hot outside to do anything else.

The New Deal is headed out of town. It was a good show while it lasted. Some say it had gotten lazy and soft, and not as many people came as used to, but still it’s hard to believe it’s leaving. No one knows what the town will be like without it. One thing is certain: there won’t be another place where average folks can gather to make their lives a little brighter. They’ll have to make do on their own now.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Back to Kindergarten

My granddaughter Sadie started kindergarten this year. Again. She went to kindergarten last year at a private school. Now she will be attending public school, and under the district’s rules her September birthday makes her a few weeks too young to start first grade. So it’s back to kindergarten.

It’s a very nice kindergarten. The teacher is nice. The other kids are nice. They sing the alphabet song. The only problem is that Sadie doesn’t need practice learning the alphabet; she can already read. She’s bored to tears. The principal asked her how school was, and she said, “School is great, it’s just too babyish.”
the last lazy days of summer
This is an inauspicious start to a life of loving learning. Who among us loves things (or people) we find boring? Our minds crave stimulation. If school doesn’t provide it, we seek it elsewhere; and elsewhere isn’t always the best place to get an education, whatever that is.

I say “whatever that is,” because I’m just not sure anymore. I think I understand the desired outcome, but I am less and less certain about the optimal process. For a few years now I have been following the education debate: No Child Left Behind; Race to the Top; Charter Schools. We are trying to figure it out, but it’s not clear we are making much progress. Maybe the problem is resistance from entrenched interests, like teachers’ unions; perhaps it stems from niggardly public funding; or parents working two jobs (or none) who can’t adequately support their children in school. Sometimes it seems that our teachers are exhausted with the effort. For every Jamie Escalante (“Stand and Deliver”) there are many more who are just trying to survive in poor physical and socio-economic conditions.

Our approach to educating children isn’t too different from the one Henry Ford took to building cars. He cranked them out on an assembly line. You could have any color, as long as it was black. Like Henry Ford’s manufacturing system, our model for educating children was developed in response to the evolution of our society from agrarian to industrial. People moved off the farms and into towns, and we committed to educate their children. It was a marvelous and noble national undertaking: free education for all. It would raise up not only our children but our entire nation. The veil of ignorance would be drawn back and a literate and civilized society would emerge.

And, in many respects, it has happened that way. Especially when you take into account the tremendous diversity that goes with being a country of immigrants, we have done a pretty good job. Not as good as some smaller more homogeneous societies, perhaps, but pretty good.

But pretty good won’t be good enough for the future. The choice is no longer between plowing the fields or working in a factory. Today’s jobs require highly adaptable workers with enthusiasm for new challenges and the emotional skills to work well as part of a team. Preparing them for that, and for their roles as informed citizens in an interactive democracy, is no longer a utopian goal, but a national economic and civic necessity.

And yet we are, for the most part, still cranking out black Fords. Who can blame anyone on the assembly line for being fatalistic? The exceptions---in wealthy school districts or at the odd magnet school or charter school---are like specialty hot-rod makers: they turn out cool-looking cars, but not in numbers large enough to meet the needs of more than a few.

Perhaps it is time to consider doing something fundamentally different. I hate to even say that for fear it may cause you to stop reading right here, thinking: Oh, great, another hopelessly idealistic idea for how to reform education. Look around, fool, nothing is going to change.

But that’s not true. Our society is changing all the time, for the better in many ways. Unfortunately, I don’t think education is keeping up. At a time when we are more diverse than ever, when access to information and technology is exploding, when we should be entering a new era of literacy and civility, we are still making black Fords.

Kids start school at the same age and by and large march along in lockstep, studying curricula designed to be appropriate for the average student. But many are brighter and could do more if offered the chance; and many are struggling to keep up. On both ends of that spectrum, the result is the same: boredom. The bright kids find their excitement outside the classroom, and so do the struggling ones.

I don’t know what an average child is. After raising five children, I don’t think average exists. Each of us is infinitely more complex than average. Our behavior may match some typical pattern, but not our thoughts. Our thoughts are our own, no one else’s, and they are what drive us. Our families, our peers, our teachers are all just screens onto which we project ourselves. We determine who we are and what we will do. No one else. We are more headstrong and self-directed, and from an earlier age, than we realize. Our families and friends and teachers can influence us, but they do not really guide us. We guide ourselves.

If that is true, what does it mean for education policy? I suggest it means we need to quit treating our children like cattle to be herded from one pen to another, or cars to have their parts installed and their exteriors painted black. We need to permit them to be individuals, to guide themselves.

Sadie’s dad, my son Grant, told me he hoped Sadie would be permitted to help some of the other kindergartners who weren’t as far along in reading as she; he thought that might give her some stimulation and be good for her self-esteem, both of which should make her school experience more satisfying and enjoyable. It sounds a bit one-room-school-housish, but I think he’s right.

So did Maria Montessori, the founder of the Montessori school movement in the late 1800s. Her ideas were maligned by the education establishment and have since been marginalized as something like bohemian incubators. Still, some of what she championed makes a lot of sense. For instance, she said children of different ages should be taught together, say 6-9 and 9-12. This not only facilitates growth at the pace that suits the child, it also permits the kind of mentoring Grant hopes Sadie can offer her classmates.

Sadie will be okay. Her mom has talked to the principal about getting her some special learning opportunities, going to the library to read, that sort of thing, but what about all the other Sadies out there? What will they do when they are bored in school? Will their parents go to bat for them, or will they just figure, as so many of us do, that the school is doing its job? After a while, the kids stop complaining. They want to fit in. Their peers become their teachers.

Sadie’s dad knows all about that. He was bored all through high school. His solution was to drop water balloons off the school balconies and toss smoke bombs into the classrooms. If we had lived in Watts or the south side of Chicago instead of a white-bread L.A. suburb, his restless antics might have had more unfortunate, life-altering, consequences.

It seems to me that we have gotten into thinking that if we set up the facilities and staff them and force the kids to attend we are doing our job of educating our future generations. I just don’t think so. The Sadie’s aren’t getting enough challenge, and the students who are having a hard time learning, or just aren’t interested in what is being taught, are biding their time until they are old enough to tell the school system to fuck off.

The goal of classical education is to create Renaissance men and women. But how many remember what they learned in high school? How many use that knowledge later in their lives? How many are better citizens and neighbors for what they have learned in school. Instead of Renaissance men, too often we are generating dropouts who matriculate to prison rather than college. Even our high-achievers badly lag other countries in math and science. We don’t seem to be getting it right on either end of the scale.

Somehow we need to create more flexibility, more choices, more paths. We need to take that eagerness and wonder that almost every five-year-old brings to the first day of kindergarten and cherish it. A way to do that, both for kids who are struggling and for those who are bright and restless, is to give them a chance to exercise some control over their educations. This is what Maria Montessori advocated. She knew we all do better on things we like; and that almost everyone likes something: science, writing, painting, theatre, math, music. Her idea was to let kids, from an early age, begin to decide what they would like to study and to let them spend more time on that. To give them a reason to want to come to school every day to do what they had chosen, what they were excited about. Not just a legal requirement, but a reason: the passion of curiosity and discovery.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon a core curriculum, certainly not in elementary and high school, but I think it can be fundamentally re-examined. History is perspective, but we teach dates. What we need to know about history, so that we are less likely to repeat its mistakes, is what it says about how we interact with one another as citizens of nations. Something we might call social psychology could focus on how we treat one another not as nations but as communities and groups. More than ever, advancing our civilization depends on understanding how we all fit together in our increasingly crowded habitat.

And speaking of habitat, a responsible core curriculum, one aimed and educating citizens capable of being wise stewards of our planet, would explore what we are doing when we burn rain forests and fossil fuels. The time for turning our faces from the skeletal children of drought-stricken Somalia is past, if not on moral grounds then on the very practical grounds that we are all connected now, like a giant weather system; a storm in one part of the world has consequences for the rest of it. We need to understand this. We need to create opportunities for kids to discover it for themselves, to make it their passion.

You can’t measure passion with a test score. A test is a static image of what has been learned, not the thing itself. It says nothing about what the pupil will do with what he or she has learned. It says nothing about whether he or she gives a damn about any of it. Intellectual curiosity---about something, anything---and the excited pursuit of that curiosity to wherever it leads are the flames that must be lit and kept alive in our children. For the sake of the bright kids who are about to be bored, and the struggling kids who are about to give up, those of us thinking about education policy might do well to go back to kindergarten.