Observations about some parts of the U.S. public education system
by Mario Llorente
Americans are used to the idea that they always have choices. More choices mean a better system. Many people in the USA assume that they have the undeniable right to always make a choice. This is the most defining aspect of the U.S. life. The word "it's my right" is in the U.S. consciousness like a God-given thing, separated from the concept of "responsibility to society." Many U.S. people will exercise their "rights" to the best of their abilities, and be happy with their choice.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the picture above. In the end, isn’t that what everybody is looking for, the ability to choose what’s best for their lives?
Observation 1: I noticed that a fine teacher, initials SX, was let go from a charter school. If Mr. SX is not renewed in an organization, the organization has a problem.
I come from a country, a system, and a political side where most everything is make-believe: Cuba is a "showboat," with no substance behind the facade of the building, a Potemkin village. A style of political and civil affairs we came to call “the showcase effect,” which was similar to the fake villages that Minister Potemkin arranged to erect along the road between Moscow and St. Petersburg so that the ruler would be greeted with crowds of admirers standing in front of freshly painted homes and storefronts (the keyword being "front" since there was no real village behind the facades). We will never let you see weaknesses in Cuba and we’ll do anything possible to show how are choices are definitely the best ones, and by doing so, expose the superiority of our system over any other form of social stratification or organization. Therefore, I am very sensitive to such tendencies. I can see them miles away.
Observation 2: Instead of welcoming surprise visits from the outside authorities, some charter schools are given time to prepare for visits by inspectors. The result is a fake school where fake procedures are put on show while the owners parade through the classrooms.
Of course, there’s a human tendency to clean the house when the visitors are coming. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is nothing similar to where showcasing has taken effect in the typical educational systems of the U.S. today. In some schools, teachers are given a warning of several hours or more before a visitor comes to evaluate a classroom.
Understanding the Educational System of any country takes a bit of homework; maybe even a little bit of history on how this good was originally manufactured and sold to the public. The charter school system, particularly in Florida, is very cunning, I shall say. Nobody today even dares to wonder why it is that we ended up buying education for our loved ones. Almost nobody challenges the idea that spending $100,000 dollars or more on a child’s education up to and including a Master's Degree might be a very bad investment.
These ideas gets us into the vexing question of how effective and valuable is the investment in Education. What are the guarantees a college graduate has in today’s developed world? Why is it necessary to continue paying up to a Master’s, and then, up to a Doctor’s degree to only be halfway into financial stability? Is it because the good of education is so common that it has ceased being an advantage? Is there an inflation where the benefit of a Bachelor's degree in 1970 needs to be a Master's degree in 2010? Or that the very low quality of the product leaves everybody just a little bit dumber than at the start? How did we end up having to pay 25 times more for an education and find out that we can guarantee that only one in four graduates will be employable? What kind of business is that we have fallen into?
Umm… maybe an answer could be that the world has become incomprehensibly more technological. We have to go to school for many years to be able to know what’s the best Playstation brand, and not let our kids trick us into buying the most expensive ones, and that in turn, our kids have to go to college to learn how to play them in the best way. Oh, and for the good of pragmatism, we’ll not teach them poetry, philosophy, or civics, which are not much use in gaming, clubbing, or any other entertainment.
Note: Mario's "mind sparks" about public education in the USA come from observing a charter school in Florida. The following talking points are in response to his comments and in hope of showing him that there are aspects of the US system that, if properly nurtured, could turn the "good" of Education into a valuable asset.
Observations by Steve McCrea
1) Observation: Teachers who read. One of the disappointments of my journey in U.S. schools is the rare element of the teacher who reads backwards and widely within education texts and widely in other fields. Who can quote from John Dewey? Who has heard of HighTechHigh.org, Thomas Hoerr, Dennis Littky or the people who influenced Bill Gates? Why are there so few people in education who have heard of Daniel Pink, Thomas Friedman's "The World is Flat" or Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, Outliers and The Tipping Point)?
2) Observation: Gardner
Many teachers can quote Howard Gardner, but incompletely. Teachers can look back 25 years to describe Gardner's Many Ways of Learning, but what about many ways of testing? If there are many ways of absorbing information, how about allowing students many ways of performing their understanding?
3) Observation: What do we see coming out of the school?
Education is pulling OUT something, but many of us have a notion that teachers need to present something to students. "What are you going to teach our students?" The wrong answer should be "the florida State Standards." The correct answer ought to be "I'm going to develop in our students the seven global skills so that they can discover for themselves and together the curriculum that the Legislature wants them to learn."
Dennis Littky asks (as many pioneers have asked), "What will you pull out of the students?" We assume that students are blank slates and that there is information that we teachers have and the students don't have. Burkina Faso is somewhere, probably not inAsia, but is this valuable information? What's the best way of getting that information in the students?
4) Observation: What would Deming do?
Charter schools are following rules that are created for them. They are part of a system. W. Edwards Deming, the quality management guru, often remarked that an organization is best viewed as a system, not as people who have made errors. Change the rules in the system and you'll get different results. Change the people and the system's rules will shape the new people's behavior, leading to very similar results under new management.
Mario Llorente brings to his "mind sparks" a mind set that comes from a different system. By judging the U.S. education system with his standards, the U.S. system falls short. How could a school possibly be organized in this way if you have the freedom as a charter to look like an alternative to the traditional public school? Llorente wonders, "Why do you follow the same procedures as the school down the street?" We have to study the system.
In Florida, money follows the student. When the student leaves a traditional public school and moves to a charter school, 90 percent of the money (perhaps $5000) is shifted to the charter school ($4500) while 10 percent is left with the district to use as a fee for monitoring the charter school's progress. If you operate a charter school and need to be approved by the district, it will make your survival easier if you can make the charter school's procedures similar to the traditional schools in the district.
Consider the experience in Rhode Island: Dennis Littky was invited by the commissioner of education (Peter McWalters) to come to the state and sety up a charter school. Littky declined, saying that only way he would make such a move would be if Littky could create the school in any way he pleased. McWalters insisted that Littky would have free rein -- and in the first years, McWalters claimed, "I could have shut your school down because your school was not following what we expected, but I didn't. I saw that there was something in the eyes of the students and the teachers and so I was patient." The result: see Metcenter.org and learn about the college acceptance rates of Littky's students (above 90% compared to 50-60% in traditional schools in Providence).
5) Observation: students in many charter schools do not produce better results than they did in their previous school.
The assumption is that Charter schools are not producing the results that we taxpayers want. If you are looking for higher test scores, the answer is "charters do worse." However, are there other areas that might prove helpful? Look at the results that Littky's schools are getting. the response is "get different teachers."
Again, look at Deming's point about systems: The rules of the system control the results, not the people in the system. Ninety-four percent of the variation and error in the system comes from the rules of the system; six percent of errors are from human error. Deming talks about creating a system that focuses on changing procedures rather than disciplining the person. Can we change a procedure to get the results?
Perhaps a student is not passing an algebra test. There must be a problem with the teaching method. Let's reteach or change the teacher. Deming says, "Change the system." Is this part of algebra needed? Can we substitute something else? Can we use a video? Can we ask students to teach each other and perhaps create portfolios instead of using computer-scored tests to check understanding?
Instead of getting the person to conform to the system, how can we change the working conditions to get the results that we need?
Again related to the point about reading widely, few teachers and principals have heard of Deming -- yet thousands of teachers are trained by Donna Wilson in BrainSmart.org and she mentions Deming's 94/6 rule in her workbooks.
6) Observation: Pain is the source of a lot of impetus for reform.
Something bad happened to us and we don't want it to happen to students. Or we see pain in last year's crop of non-graduates (30 to 40% of ninth graders are likely to drop out). Transforming a school means changing the system; reforming schools means shifting something without changing something fundamental in the school. Abraham S. Fischler discusses the difference between "trying something new" and making a fundamental change so that teachers are retrained. He asks us to consider using computers to present information to students and let teachers check understanding by facilitating projects and discussions. See TheStudentIstheClass.com. When students fall asleep, we currently have a meeting with the student and bring in parents and the guidance counselor to develop a program of changing the student's behavior. Instead of discipling the student and perhaps asking the teacher to make a lecture less boring and more engaging, can we rather change procedures so that the lecture is eliminated (for those students who don't absorb info in that way) and the students instead are engaged in gaming and simulation and partnerships with peers to discover the same basic information that the lecture was covering?
7) Observation: Imposing new courses and requirements.
Let's say the bill is $16.21 and I hand the clerk 17.01. Someone observed that graduates of high schools were not able to respond correctly. Perhaps 79 cents are delivered and then the confused clerk makes it 78 cents. What is the state's response? Four years of math. To compete in the global economy, every student should be trained for college. What was called "shop" and "woodworking" was actually project-based learning. Why did we get the idea that hands-on learning was somehow taking students off the track to a profession and a decent salary?
Dennis Littky asks, "What is relevant to the student?" Instead of asking the students to follow the standard curriculum, can we create individual education plans for each student?
The Pain that Ken Robinson points out is about being artists. Ask a class of 7-year-olds "Who likes to draw?" you might see almost every hand in the air. What happens nine years later when you ask the same question to teenagers? Perhaps ten percent of hands go up. Robinson asks in his several Youtube videos, "Do schools kill creativity?" What would happen if thousands of teachers heard Robinson's analysis? Could it be possible for teachers to shift slightly how they teach by asking, "Can this requirement in the curriculum be met by allowing some guided freedom to the students? Can we allow some drawing to create the answers that are needed?"
Ken Robinson asks us to plan for creativity. Being creative is often the result when a set of procedures is nurtured and followed. Learn more on youtube.com: "Ken Robinson creative."
8) Observation: Some teachers have quotes from Dan Pink in their classrooms.
Why are some of the leading business writers (Gladwell, ) offering educational curricula? What can teachers learn from reading these innovative authors who are embraced by many business school professors?
9) Observation: Boring.
Can we lecture less? No more boring classes? Surveys of students reveal that the word "boring" is associated with "school."
Happily, there are charter schools in Florida that have flexible rules about attendance and dress code. "We pick our fights with our students," says Kurt Rudy, assistant principal at Hollywood Adult Student Center. HASC's off-campus learning centers resemble the computer-centric structures of many charter schools, but the student-centered procedures (allowing for variability in teenagers' arrival times) have made a difference in the acceptance of the programs. What is remarkable is that HASC is a traditional public school, operated as a part of the traditional public school system, but the off-campus centers appear to be independent and similar to for-profit charters -- with improved results.
This essay began with choleric observations by Mario Llorente which he collected in his months of teaching in a for-profit charter school. It is important to have someone say, "This is not working," so that we can look and find out why it's not working and to find some other similar schools that are working.
10) The way forward through quotations
In several well-rujn schools you can find the follow five rules on classroom walls:
Tell the truth
Trust each other
Do your best
No put downs
I saw these words at New City School in St. Louis, Mo., managed by principal Thomas Hoerr, whose staff has created checklists for including multiple intelligences in portfolio building and other innovative procedures.
Because his staff has the foundation of trust and truth-telling, active listening and personal best" has supported the difficult task of asking students to create their text books and their own record of their progress. Portfolios are proof of the letter grade in the transcript. "Here's HOW I got that B."
11) Let's learn how to use tests to help with the learning.
I've noticed that standardized tests generally are not given back to students so they can see what questions they answered incorrectly and what they might learn from the correct answer. Why not only give tests that will help students learn something today?
Vocabulary lesson: I've had to learn the phrase "formative assessment" while looking for a good procedure for using portfolios and exhibitions instead of written exams. Let's use a testing procedure to help "form" the student's understanding - -since we sit with the student after an exhibition or presentation and look at the video recording. What was the purpose of the last eight weeks of study, what did you do, what did you miss, what can you focus on during the next eight weeks? That's the essence of a formative assessment. The high-stakes standardized test is a summary assessment, given at the end of the term of study so we can see what the student has learned since the last summary test. Guess which one is thought to be more valuable?
More observations will be placed on the website www.GuideOntheSide.com
You are invited to comment on these remarks and to give feedback to these "mind sparks." Mario and Steve invite responses that help clarify the points and we especially want exceptions and alternative viewpoints to be shared.
Please skip the next six pages.
Please do not read this page. It is filled with negative images.
Stay focused on the positive tone of this book and do not continue reading on this page.
Please turn the page three times, move ahead six pages and look for the next chapter.
You don't follow directions very well, do you!?
Look at the pictures starting in the next chapter.
We asked you not to look at this section.
(A negative view)
Sometimes it is easier to state things in negative terms. Do not step on the grass.
We could tell people, "Sit on the bench, sit somewhere else. Do not put anything on the grass, just look at the grass."
Take only photos and memories, leave only bubbles and footprints.
Instead, the negative version is more direct: "Do not kill fish."
Sometimes putting it in the negative is important.
"Oh, why didn't you just say that?
Why didn't you tell me that I'm not allowed take books from the classroom
please read these book
please enjoy these book and leave them here for other people to read.
Do not speak in the library
Do not take books.
Prohibition is sometimes important for communicating the culture of a school or organization.
We are told to communicate in a positive way, since the positive creates an upbeat attitude: "Have a nice day!"
Don't forget to take out the garbage.
Positive: Remember to take out the garbage.
do not leave the building.
Positive: Please enjoy your stay here.
Negative: Do not waste time. No music. No video games.
Positive: if you are bored please talk with the teacher.
Use time effectively. (These "happy" directions do not guide students.)
By telling people WHAT to do, you can often point out positive things, but you'll overlook items that could thwart the program. You also need to tell them what not to do.
Positive: eat more broccoli, eat one serving of broccoli with every meal. (Even saying this command with a smile does not assure that the person will counter act
DO NOT EAT SUGAR
if I tell you to eat three things,
give your dog water and meat
give you dog a multiple vitamin
You didn't tell me not to give my dog chocolate...
sometimes we have to use the negative. Which is why four of the five rules are positive and ONE is a "do not" prohibition.
tell the truth
trust each other
do your personal best
The single negative:
no put downs
Do not put down anyone.
No more boring lessons
Let's lecture less.
When I say that i'm a guide on the side, NOT a sage on the stage, I'm saying,
"Go ahead, be something, but don't be the other thing."
I am an EX teacher. A teacher is a preacher, "I have a message to get OUT."
However, a facilitator and guide on the side is more receptive to the needs of the student, to call out, to evoke something inside the student.
We want to grow something in side the student and encourage it to emerge rather than to impose or profess and plant ideas into people's minds, i would rather neuritis the soil.
Add fertilizer, and procedures, I'm not giving them seeds.
They can choose the seeds that they want to put in. The rules are a fence around the mind.
I'm not imposing specific facts on the students. Let them hunt the maps and reference books and websites. I'm not pumping music into their minds. They can do that with their music and their
I want to show them the lecture so fDaniel amen, but i won't require them to listen to Amen. His cds are available.
There are some items that are required for exposing to the students. how to call 911 when to interrupt the teacher, etc.
We can practice specific procedures.
Sometimes lecture, preach and required indoctrination is a good thing. This is ;how it feels to be told what to do. here is how we will walk…. the Ron Clark walk.it is cool to be part of a marketing band. it is cool to be in sync with your partners. We a re a team
I gotta be me! the penguin dancing on the ice? the exception is funny, but it looks unstructured if there isn't a look of discipline
That's why we have structured rapping with written words, not freestyling.
I'm given procedures for discovering creativity procedures for encouraging initiative entrepreneuring. I'm not telling them what business they will start, but i'm asking students to think about what business you will start. the scaffolding is support to help the students
I'm using the structure of the eight global skills to say, "These are procedures you should know about so we will memorize them. We know that there is power in memorization and people can be impressed when you can regurgitate powerful words. MLK's speech, quoting the content of they character not the color of their skin. Can you pull phrases from famous speeches?"
I might not tell you WHICH phrases to remember form WHICH speeches, but I will be a model to you by quoting great phrases of great speeches I'll tell you where I got the phrases so then you will have a choice.
We don't' have to emerge as a particular plant but we can be a field of daisies together or we can create a symphony of 45 species of flowers and then in a second we can connect all together.
The prohibition against negatives has the downside of not drawing the line. Sometimes we need to draw a line. if the student is bored, the system needs changing. not the student. If the student falls asleep and it's not a biological issue inside the student (perhaps the student didn't get enough sleep or the student is hungry or weak), then let's first find the issue behind the event. It could be (94% chance that something in the system needs changing, including retraining the teacher to reach that student. Ongoing continual learning, even by 20-year veteran teachers.
Six percent of the problem is the student. Maybe the stunt is lazy, why do we start with the assumptions that it is the lazy student? Is there a 94 chance in 100 that we should have given the student some interesting options.
We are going to orient you. This means transferring procedures and rules to the new person, what works in our organization, what doesn't work in our system.
One of the purposes of this book is to collect in one place many of the procedures that experts have shown to work. Ken Clark's 55 rules is an example of a linear, sequential method of communicating a set of procedures that support the transformation of teenagers into adult.s
then that teacher instead of going into a training session (sitting for 90 minutes to receive instructions), the new teacher listens to audio CDs, stories, rads materials, watches a DVD, perhaps sits with other people who are triaging, too, and then they come together in a room or by Skype conferencing to PERFORM THEIR UNDERSTANDING of the organization's rules.
I volunteer at a local museum and one of the core elements of the volunteer's life at the museum is the collection of required orientation sessions. There are volunteers who do just the orientation session. Why ask someone to speak again and against hoping that the very moment of speaking is when the new recruit is ready to hear the information/? Why not instead ask the trainee to regurgitate what he has heard, seen or read about? perhaps the trainee has walked behind and learned by observation. The orientation session is not a presentation and passive receiving session for the trainee. No, the trainee stands up and performs her understanding of the procedures of the organization. The trainer uses his time better by listening and gently correcting the misconceptions…
We know that the audio delivery of instructions, without gesture and and video support, is forgotten within a week unless there is reinforcement -- perhaps by asking the student or trainee to listen to the audio CD a second time, and THEN come to the "Performance of understanding or "exhibition of what I learned about the procedures of this organization"
I don't look forward to training sessions or orientation because I'm watching a movie, I'm not in the movie. When we teachers push a marker on a vertical white surface, putting marks that we hope will be copied on paper or in the minds of our audience, we are engaged in a movie that the audience is watching. They are outside the movie, they can enter the movie only by asking questions. or thinning about questions that they want to ask. Why not engage everyone in the audience and plant them in the movie called "Orientation" and rename it "Performance of understanding." All audience members are encouraged to ask questions and make corrections. The teacher sits back and waits when there is an error, or makes a hand motion to indicate that an error was just made. Can someone in the audience/participance make a correction? Can someone in the movie participate, please?
I am certified by how many hours I spend sitting in an orientation class and by the written test that I have to give and perhaps eventually by being observed while i give a tour of the museum.
Students should ask teachers, "Why not engage me more fully by putting me on the spot to reproduce what I know? Don't stuff my head, ask me to produce something."
Let's think about three words you don't hear in many schools: Continuity, Portfolio, Storage. The key phrase that I hear at the end of school year is "We will need a new start. We don't have room for these posters that the students made in the past six months. Throw them out. We will need a fresh start when we start the new academic year."
The school work done by students is not truly valued. The work was done for a grade and then the teacher tosses it.
What do you have in your classroom closet? What do you have in storage? What do you have in your garage? If you are like me, you have student work. Do you have artifacts from your middle school and high school? I have very little. I have more pictures that my money saved from elementary school than I have notes or papers from high school. No portfolio to show my understanding.
Howard Gardner talks about performances of understanding. Thomas Hoerr at New City School in St. Louis, Mo., talks about portfolios. Some teachers use the phrase "formative assessment." I had never heard of this… but it seems to be testing that helps form the mind since formative assessing takes place continuously during the course. The opposite is summative assessment, taken at the end of the course and meant to measure rather than be part of the instruction.
We're looking at student work on an ongoing basis, not a high stakes one-time test. In continual testing, you get to see the answers and work to understand how the questions yield those answers. But in a high-stakes test, you never get to see the answers. Oh, no, we wouldn't want you, the student, to see the standardized test! That would throw off our ability to predict results.
Perhaps you took the SAT test and three years later the results are released showing the answers. What value is it for you to have this test three years after taking the test? What could you learn if you could get the questions from the test?
The ongoing criticism by Llorente and McCrea is compiled from readings in Vykovsky, Gardner, Dewey, Littky,, Daniel Pink and others. Using these readings, we can show this criticism to parents, so that they know that some teachers are not happy with the way things are evolving in the school.
What are you doing with these talking points? What can you do to push reform in your school? Let's talk with the principal, the school board, the governor. How can we transform the system? This is an opportunity to say, "Let's look at the current situation. Let's see what works, then figure out what we can do to improve things." Llorente has identified some items that frustrated him during his work at a charter school and now he wants others to know what he has seen.
We have to applaud the test makers, who take pride in creating obscure questions that cover every part of the curriculum (useful or not). It's not important for the curriculum to be connected the seven global skills. No. We reward the test maker with "how closely did you follow the curriculum?" and "Do your questions follow the standards for the curriculum?"
Do your questions help us predict how students are likely to perform?
Have you created a sufficiently difficult test so that the questions can be used to separate those who understand material and those students who need remedial work?
Are the tests really checking understanding of material that is preparing the students for life (or just the next stage of schooling)? If a student does well in this test, does the student do well in non-academic areas, too? What is the link between the Eight Global Skills and the test?
Perhaps that;s not the purpose of the test. Perhaps we don't need this test. We don't need people to do well in algebra. We need people who can access and analyze information. Does algebra help in this work? Perhaps (algebra helps us interpret relationships). We need people who can flexibly use numbers, take initiative and create entrepreneurial situations and collaborate. Are you able to think creatively and critically? Can you see that 19 x 21 is the same as (20+1)(20-1)? The difference of two squares? 20^2 - 1?
What could we have done better? Would we have done better giving you some phrases in another language?
If you are interesting in learning more about techniques, consider these important email addresses
JohnCorlette@gmail.com and the JC Society (innovative pioneer of education in Switzerland)
search youtube for "Dennis yuzenas"
Dennis Littky, MetCenter.org
Serach Youtube for "Dennis Littky" and "NPR Dennis Littky Small School"
Enrique Gonzalez firstname.lastname@example.org
Principal of a middle school
nightingale middle school
Read the work of Dan Pink, particularly his essay in 2001 about schools.
Get ready for the new age of individualized education
Here's a riddle of the New Economy: When-ever students around the world take those tests that measure which country's children know the most, American kids invariably score near the bottom. No matter the subject, when the international rankings come out, European and Asian nations finish first while the U.S. pulls up the rear. This, we all know, isn't good. Yet by almost every measure, the American economy outperforms those very same nations of Asia and Europe. We create greater wealth, deliver more and better goods and services, and positively kick butt on innovation. This, we all know, is good.
Now the riddle: If we're so dumb, how come we're so rich? How can we fare so poorly on international measures of education yet perform so well in an economy that depends on brainpower? The answer is complex, but within it are clues about the future of education -- and how "free agency" may rock the school house as profoundly as it has upended the business organization.
We are living in the founding of what I call "free agent nation." Over the past decade, in nearly every industry and region, work has been undergoing perhaps its most significant transformation since Americans left the farm for the factory a century ago. Legions of Americans, and increasingly citizens of other countries as well, are abandoning one of the Industrial Revolution's most enduring legacies -- the "job" -- and forging new ways to work. They're becoming self-employed knowledge workers, proprietors of home-based businesses, temps and permatemps, freelancers and e-lancers, independent contractors and independent professionals, micropreneurs and infopreneurs, part-time consultants, interim executives, on-call troubleshooters, and full-time soloists.
In the U.S. today, more than 30 million workers -- nearly one-fourth of the American workforce -- are free agents. And many others who hold what are still nominally "jobs" are doing so under terms closer in spirit to free agency than to traditional employment. They're telecommuting. They're hopping from company to company. They're forming ventures that are legally their employers', but whose prospects depend largely on their own individual efforts.
In boom times, many free agents -- fed up with bad bosses and dysfunctional workplaces and yearning for freedom -- leapt into this new world. In leaner times, other people -- clobbered by layoffs, mergers, and downturns -- have been pushed. But these new independent workers are transforming the nation's social and economic future. Soon they will transform the nation's education system as well.
The Homogenizing Hopper
Whenever I walk into a public school, I'm nearly toppled by a wave of nostalgia. Most schools I've visited in the 21st century look and feel exactly like the public schools I attended in the 1970s. The classrooms are the same size. The desks stand in those same rows. Bulletin boards preview the next national holiday. The hallways even smell the same. Sure, some classrooms might have a computer or two. But in most respects, the schools American children attend today seem indistinguishable from the ones their parents and grandparents attended.
At first, such déjà vu warmed my soul. But then I thought about it. How many other places look and feel exactly as they did 20, 30, or 40 years ago? Banks don't. Hospitals don't. Grocery stores don't. Maybe the sweet nostalgia I sniffed on those classroom visits was really the odor of stagnation. Since most other institutions in American society have changed dramatically in the past half-century, the stasis of schools is strange. And it's doubly peculiar because school itself is a modern invention, not something we inherited from antiquity.
Through most of history, people learned from tutors or their close relatives. In 19th-century America, says education historian David Tyack, "the school was a voluntary and incidental institution." Not until the early 20th century did public schools as we know them -- places where students segregated by age learn from government-certified professionals -- become widespread. And not until the 1920s did attending one become compulsory. Think about that last fact a moment. Compared with much of the world, America is a remarkably hands-off land. We don't force people to vote, or to work, or to serve in the military. But we do compel parents to relinquish their kids to this institution for a dozen years, and threaten to jail those who resist.
Compulsory mass schooling is an aberration in both history and modern society. Yet it was the ideal preparation for the Organization Man economy, a highly structured world dominated by large, bureaucratic corporations that routinized the workplace. Compulsory mass schooling equipped generations of future factory workers and middle managers with the basic skills and knowledge they needed on the job. The broader lessons it conveyed were equally crucial. Kids learned how to obey rules, follow orders, and respect authority -- and the penalties that came with refusal.
This was just the sort of training the old economy demanded. Schools had bells; factories had whistles. Schools had report card grades; offices had pay grades. Pleasing your teacher prepared you for pleasing your boss. And in either place, if you achieved a minimal level of performance, you were promoted. Taylorism -- the management philosophy, named for efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor, that there was One Best Way of doing things that could and should be applied in all circumstances -- didn't spend all its time on the job. It also went to class. In the school, as in the workplace, the reigning theory was One Best Way. Kids learned the same things at the same time in the same manner in the same place. Marshall McLuhan once described schools as "the homogenizing hopper into which we toss our integral tots for processing." And schools made factory-style processing practically a religion -- through standardized testing, standardized curricula, and standardized clusters of children. (Question: When was the last time you spent all day in a room filled exclusively with people almost exactly your own age?)
So when we step into the typical school today, we're stepping into the past -- a place whose architect is Frederick Winslow Taylor and whose tenant is the Organization Man. The one American institution that has least accommodated itself to the free agent economy is the one Americans claim they value most. But it's hard to imagine that this arrangement can last much longer -- a One Size Fits All education system cranking out workers for a My Size Fits Me economy. Maybe the answer to the riddle I posed at the beginning is that we're succeeding in spite of our education system. But how long can that continue? And imagine how we'd prosper if we began educating our children more like we earn our livings. Nearly 20 years ago, a landmark government report, A Nation at Risk, declared that American education was "being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity." That may no longer be true. Instead, American schools are awash in a rising tide of irrelevance.
Don't get me wrong. In innumerable ways, mass public schooling has been a stirring success. Like Taylorism, it has accomplished some remarkable things -- teaching immigrants both English and the American way, expanding literacy, equipping many Americans to succeed beyond their parents' imaginings. In a very large sense, America's schools have been a breathtaking democratic achievement.
But that doesn't mean they ought to be the same as they were when we were kids. Parents and politicians have sensed the need for reform, and have pushed education to the top of the national agenda. Unfortunately, few of the conventional remedies -- standardized testing, character training, recertifying teachers -- will do much to cure what ails American schools, and may even make things worse. Free agency, though, will force the necessary changes. Look for free agency to accelerate and deepen three incipient movements in education -- home schooling, alternatives to traditional high school, and new approaches to adult learning. These changes will prove as pathbreaking as mass public schooling was a century ago.
The Home-Schooling Revolution
"School is like starting life with a 12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned." Those are the words of John Taylor Gatto, who was named New York state's Teacher of the Year in 1991. Today he is one of the most forceful voices for one of the most powerful movements in American education -- home schooling. In home schooling, kids opt out of traditional school to take control of their own education and to learn with the help of parents, tutors, and peers. Home schooling is free agency for the under-18 set. And it's about to break through the surface of our national life.
As recently as 1980, home schooling was illegal in most states. In the early 1980s, no more than 15,000 students learned this way. But Christian conservatives, unhappy with schools they considered God-free zones and eager to teach their kids themselves, pressed for changes. Laws fell, and home schooling surged. By 1990, there were as many as 300,000 American home-schoolers. By 1993, home schooling was legal in all 50 states. Since then, home schooling has swum into the mainstream -- paddled there by secular parents dissatisfied with low-quality, and even dangerous, schools. In the first half of the 1990s, the home-schooling population more than doubled. Today some 1.7 million children are home-schoolers, their ranks growing as much as 15 percent each year. Factor in turnover, and one in 10 American kids under 18 has gotten part of his or her schooling at home.
Home schooling has become perhaps the largest and most successful education reform movement of the last two decades:
*While barely 3 percent of American schoolchildren are now home-schoolers, that represents a surprisingly large dent in the public school monopoly -- especially compared with private schools. For every four kids in private school, there's one youngster learning at home. The home-schooling population is roughly equal to all the school-age children in Pennsylvania.
*According to The Wall Street Journal, "Evidence is mounting that home-schooling, once confined to the political and religious fringe, has achieved results not only on par with public education, but in some ways surpassing it." Home-schooled children consistently score higher than traditional students on standardized achievement tests, placing on average in the 80th percentile in all subjects.
*Home-schooled children also perform extremely well on nearly all measures of socialization. One of the great misconceptions about home schooling is that it turns kids into isolated loners. In fact, these children spend more time with adults, more time in their community, and more time with children of varying ages than their traditional-school counterparts. Says one researcher, "The conventionally schooled tended to be considerably more aggressive, loud, and competitive than the home educated."
"Home schooling," though, is a bit of a misnomer. Parents don't re-create the classroom in the living room any more than free agents re-create the cubicle in their basement offices. Instead, home schooling makes it easier for children to pursue their own interests in their own way -- a My Size Fits Me approach to learning. In part for this reason, some adherents -- particularly those who have opted out of traditional schools for reasons other than religion -- prefer the term "unschooling."
The similarities to free agency -- having an "unjob" -- are many. Free agents are independent workers; home-schoolers are independent learners. Free agents maintain robust networks and tight connections through informal groups and professional associations; home-schoolers have assembled powerful groups -- like the 3,000-family Family Unschoolers Network -- to share teaching strategies and materials and to offer advice and support. Free agents often challenge the idea of separating work and family; home-schoolers take the same approach to the boundary between school and family.
Perhaps most important, home schooling is almost perfectly consonant with the four animating values of free agency: having freedom, being authentic, putting yourself on the line, and defining your own success. Take freedom. In the typical school, children often aren't permitted to move unless a bell rings or an adult grants them permission. And except for a limited menu of offerings in high school, they generally can't choose what to study or when to study it. Home-schoolers have far greater freedom. They learn more like, well, children. We don't teach little kids how to talk or walk or understand the world. We simply put them in nurturing situations and let them learn on their own. Sure, we impose certain restrictions. ("Don't walk in the middle of the street.") But we don't go crazy. ("Please practice talking for 45 minutes until a bell rings.") It's the same for home-schoolers. Kids can become agents of their own education rather than merely recipients of someone else's noble intentions.
Imagine a 5-year-old child whose current passion is building with Legos. Every day she spends up to an hour, maybe more, absorbed in complex construction projects, creating farms, zoos, airplanes, spaceships. Often her friends come over and they work together. No one assigns her this project. No one tells her when and how to do it. And no one will give her creation a grade. Is she learning? Of course. This is how many home-schoolers explore their subjects.
Now suppose some well-intentioned adults step in to teach the child a thing or two about Lego building. Let's say they assign her a daily 45-minute Lego period, give her a grade at the end of each session, maybe even offer a reward for an A+ building. And why not bring in some more 5-year-olds to teach them the same things about Legos? Why not have them all build their own 45-minute Lego buildings at the same time, then give them each a letter grade, with a prize for the best one? My guess: Pretty soon our 5-year-old Lego lover would lose her passion. Her buildings would likely become less creative, her learning curve flatter. This is how many conventional schools work -- or, I guess, don't work.
The well-meaning adults have squelched the child's freedom to play and learn and discover on her own. She's no longer in control. She's no longer having fun. Countless studies, particularly those by University of Rochester psychologist Edward L. Deci, have shown that kids and adults alike -- in school, at work, at home -- lose the intrinsic motivation and the pure joy derived from learning and working when somebody takes away their sense of autonomy and instead imposes some external system of reward and punishment. Freedom isn't a detour from learning. It's the best pathway toward it.
Stay with our Lego lass a moment and think about authenticity -- the basic desire people have to be who they are rather than conform to someone else's standard. Our young builder has lost the sense that she is acting according to her own true self. Instead, she has gotten the message. You build Legos for the same reason your traditionally employed father does his work assignments: because an authority figure tells you to.
Or take accountability. The child is no longer fully accountable for her own Lego creating. Whatever she has produced is by assignment. Her creations are no longer truly hers. And what about those Lego grades? That A+ may motivate our girl to keep building, but not on her own terms. Maybe she liked the B- building better than the A+ creation. Oh well. Now she'll probably bury that feeling and work to measure up -- to someone else's standards. Should she take a chance -- try building that space shuttle she's been dreaming about? Probably not. Why take that risk when, chances are, it won't make the grade? Self-defined success has no place in this regime. But for many home-schoolers, success is something they can define themselves. (This is true even though, as I mentioned, home-schoolers score off the charts on conventional measures of success -- standardized tests in academic subjects.)
To be sure, some things most kids should learn are not intrinsically fun. There are times in life when we must eat our Brussels sprouts. For those subjects, the punishment-and-reward approach of traditional schooling may be in order. But too often, the sheer thrill of learning a new fact or mastering a tough equation is muted when schools take away a student's sense of control. In home schooling, kids have greater freedom to pursue their passions, less pressure to conform to the wishes of teachers and peers -- and can put themselves on the line, take risks, and define success on their own terms. As more parents realize that the underlying ethic of home schooling closely resembles the animating values of free agency, home schooling will continue to soar in popularity.
Free Agent Teaching
Several other forces will combine to power home schooling into greater prominence. One is simply the movement's initial prominence. As more families choose this option, they will make it more socially acceptable -- thereby encouraging other families to take this once-unconventional route. The home-schooling population has already begun to look like the rest of America. While some 90 percent of home-schoolers are white, the population is becoming more diverse, and may be growing fastest among African Americans. And the median income for a home-school family is roughly equal to the median income for the rest of the country; about 87 percent have annual household incomes under $75,000.
Recent policy changes -- in state legislatures and principals' offices -- will further clear the way. Not only is home schooling now legal in every state, but many public schools have begun letting home-schoolers take certain classes or play on school teams. About two-thirds of American colleges now accept transcripts prepared by parents, or portfolios assembled by students, in lieu of an accredited diploma.
Another force is free agency itself. Thanks to flexible schedules and personal control, it's easier for free agents than for traditional employees to home-school their children. Free agents will also become the professionals in this new world of learning. A carpenter might hire herself out to teach carpentry skills to home-schoolers. A writer might become a tutor or editor to several home-schoolers interested in producing their own literary journal. What's more, the huge cadre of teachers hired to teach the baby boom will soon hit retirement age. However, perhaps instead of fully retiring, many will hire themselves out as itinerant tutors to home-schoolers -- and begin part-time careers as free agent educators. For many parents, of course, the responsibility and time commitment of home schooling will be daunting. But the wide availability of teachers and tutors might help some parents overcome the concern that they won't be able to handle this awesome undertaking by themselves.
The Internet makes home schooling easier, too. Indeed, home-schoolers figured out the Internet well before most Americans. For example, my first Internet connection was a DOS-based Compuserve account I acquired in 1993. Before the wide acceptance of the Internet and the advent of the World Wide Web, the most active discussion groups on Compuserve were those devoted to home schooling. Using the Web, home-schoolers can do research and find tutors anywhere in the world. There are now even online ventures -- for instance, the Christa McAuliffe Academy (www.cmacademy.org) in Washington state and ChildU.com in Florida -- that sell online courses and provide e-teachers for home-schoolers. Physical infrastructure might also accelerate this trend. Almost three-fourths of America's public school buildings were built before 1969. School administrations might be more likely to encourage some amount of home schooling if that means less strain on their crowded classrooms and creaky buildings.
I don't want to overstate the case. Home schooling, like free agency, won't be for everyone. Many parents won't have the time or the desire for this approach. And home schooling won't be for all time. Many students will spend a few years in a conventional school and a few years learning at home -- just as some workers will migrate between being a free agent and holding a job. But home schooling is perhaps the most robust expression of the free agent way outside the workplace, making its continued rise inevitable.
The End of High School
One other consequence of the move toward home schooling will be something many of us wished for as teenagers: the demise of high school. It wasn't until the 1920s that high school replaced work as the thing most Americans did in their teens. "American high school is obsolete," says Bard College president Leon Botstein, one of the first to call for its end. He says today's adolescents would be better off pursuing a college degree, jumping directly into the job market, engaging in public service, or taking on a vocational apprenticeship. Even the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which has blasted home schooling, concedes that "high schools continue to go about their business in ways that sometimes bear startling resemblance to the flawed practices of the past."
In the future, expect teens and their families to force an end to high school as we know it. Look for some of these changes to replace and augment traditional high schools with free-agent-style learning -- and to unschool the American teenager:
* A renaissance of apprenticeships. For centuries, young people learned a craft or profession under the guidance of an experienced master. This method will revive and expand to include skills like computer programming and graphic design. Imagine a 14-year-old taking two or three academic courses each week, and spending the rest of her time apprenticing as a commercial artist. Traditional high schools tend to separate learning and doing. Free agency makes them indistinguishable.
* A flowering of teenage entrepreneurship. Young people may become free agents even before they get their driver's licenses -- and teen entrepreneurs will become more common. Indeed, most teens have the two crucial traits of a successful entrepreneur: a fresh way of looking at the world and a passionate intensity for what they do. In San Diego County, 8 percent of high school students already run their own online business. That will increasingly become the norm and perhaps even become a teenage rite of passage.
* A greater diversity of academic courses. Only 16 states offer basic economics in high school. That's hardly a sound foundation for the free agent workplace. Expect a surge of new kinds of "home economics" courses that teach numeracy, accounting, and basic business.
* A boom in national service. Some teenagers will seek greater direction than others and may want to spend a few years serving in the military or participating in a domestic service program. Today, many young people don't consider these choices because of the pressure to go directly to college. Getting people out of high school earlier might get them into service sooner.
* A backlash against standards. A high school diploma was once the gold standard of American education. No more. Yet politicians seem determined to make the diploma meaningful again by erecting all sorts of hurdles kids must leap to attain one -- standardized subjects each student must study, standardized tests each student must pass. In some schools, students are already staging sit-ins to protest these tests. This could be American youth's new cause célèbre. ("Hey hey, ho ho. Standardized testing's got to go.")
Most politicians think the answer to the problems of high schools is to exert more control. But the real answer is less control. In the free agent future, our teens will learn by less schooling and more doing.
The Unschooling of Adults
For much of the 20th century, the U.S. depended on what I call the Thanksgiving turkey model of education. We placed kids in the oven of formal education for 12 years, and then served them up to employers. (A select minority got a final, four-year basting at a place called college.) But this model doesn't work in a world of accelerated cycle times, shrinking company half-lives, and the rapid obsolescence of knowledge and skills. In a free agent economy, our education system must allow people to learn throughout their lives.
Home schooling and alternatives to high school will create a nation of self-educators, free agent learners, if you will. Adults who were home-schooled youths will know how to learn and expect to continue the habit throughout their lives.
For example, how did anybody learn the Web? In 1993, it barely existed. By 1995, it was the foundation of dozens of new industries and an explosion of wealth. There weren't any college classes in Web programming, HTML coding, or Web page design in those early years. Yet somehow hundreds of thousands of people managed to learn. How? They taught themselves -- working with colleagues, trying new things, and making mistakes. That was the secret to the Web's success. The Web flourished almost entirely through the ethic and practice of self-teaching. This is not a radical concept. Until the first part of this century, most Americans learned on their own -- by reading. Literacy and access to books were an individual's ticket to knowledge. Even today, according to my own online survey of 1,143 independent workers, "reading" was the most prevalent way free agents said they stay up-to-date in their field.
In the 21st century, access to the Internet and to a network of smart colleagues will be the ticket to adult learning. Expect more of us to punch those tickets throughout our lives. Look for these early signs:
* The devaluation of degrees. As the shelf life of a degree shortens, more students will go to college to acquire particular skills than to bring home a sheepskin. People's need for knowledge doesn't respect semesters. They'll want higher education just in time -- and if that means leaving the classroom before earning a degree, so be it. Remember: Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, and Steven Spielberg never finished college.
* Older students. Forty percent of college students are now older than 25. According to The Wall Street Journal, "By some projections, the number of students age 35 and older will exceed those 18 and 19 within a few years." Young adults who do forgo a diploma in their early 20s may find a need and desire for college courses in their 40s.
* Free agent teaching. Distance learning (private ventures like the University of Phoenix, Unext, Ninth House Network, and Hungry Minds University) will help along this self-teaching trend. Today, some 5,000 companies are in the online education business. Their $2 billion of revenues is expected to hit $11 billion by 2003. And nontraditional teaching arrangements will abound. One lament of independent scholars -- genre-straddling writers like Judith Rich Harris and Anne Hollander -- is that they don't have students. Here's a ready supply. More free agent teachers and more free agent students will create tremendous liquidity in the learning market -- with the Internet serving as the matchmaker for this new marketplace of learning.
* Big trouble for elite colleges. All this means big trouble in Ivy City. Attending a fancy college serves three purposes in contemporary life: to prolong adolescence, to award a credential that's modestly useful early in one's working life, and to give people a network of friends. Elite colleges have moved slowly to keep up with the emerging free agent economy. In 1998, 78 percent of public four-year colleges offered distance-learning programs, compared with only 19 percent of private schools. Private college costs have soared, faster even than health care costs, for the past 20 years. But have these colleges improved at the same rate? Have they improved at all? What's more, the students who make it to elite colleges are generally those who've proved most adroit at conventional (read: outdated) schooling. That could become a liability rather than an advantage. In his bestseller, The Millionaire Mind, Thomas J. Stanley found a disproportionately large number of millionaires were free agents -- but that the higher somebody's SAT scores, the less likely he or she was to be a financial risk-taker and therefore to become a free agent.
* Learning groupies. The conference industry, already hot, will continue to catch fire as more people seek gatherings of like-minded souls to make new connections and learn new things. Conferences allow attendees to become part of a sort of Socratic institution. They can choose the mentor they will pay attention to for an hour, or two hours, or a day -- whatever. In addition, many independent workers have formed small groups that meet regularly and allow members to exchange business advice and offer personal support. These Free Agent Nation Clubs, as I call them, also provide an important staging ground for self-education. At F.A.N. Club meetings, members discuss books and articles and share their particular expertise with the others. This type of learning -- similarly alive in book clubs and Bible study groups -- represents a rich American tradition. One of the earliest self-organized clusters of free agents was Benjamin Franklin's Junto, formed in 1727, which created a subscription library for its members, which in turn became the first public library in America.
The next few decades will be a fascinating, and perhaps revolutionary, time for learning in America. The specifics will surprise us and may defy even my soundest predictions. But the bottom line of the future of education in Free Agent Nation is glaringly clear: School's out.
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