Posted in musings, quotes

it seems that our school system is failing everyone these days…

As the teacher walkout continues here in Arizona I feel like I’m just beginning to process the events and come to an opinion about it all. It’s an interesting topic for me, since I’ve always been an outsider to the school system and maintain that self-directed learning is better ideologically than the authoritarian traditional educational model we have in the US – and yet, at the same time, I recognize that the majority of children are in public schools and as a Christian who desires the good of my neighbors and community I want those public schools to be the best that they can be for the sake of the children in them. In a perfect world the school system would be fundamentally different, and I believe it is important to work towards those deep system-level changes – but in the meantime, there are children in the schools now who deserve the best our society can give them instead of being neglected in the pursuit of future goals, and pragmatic changes for their short-term benefit are a good thing.

One of my friends shared the following image on Facebook:


That really does sound like a horrible job description. If this accurately describes teaching, then the fact that teachers are walking out to protest the lack of support (both in staffing and supplies) for their students and schools is completely understandable and will hopefully be productive!

But honestly my first thought when I read that was, ok, this really seems like an indication of deeper problems that aren’t going to be solved just by bringing the number of students down a bit or increasing funds for desks and school supplies. Maybe the goals themselves need to be different; maybe trying to get kids to sit still and be quiet isn’t the best way to transmit knowledge and enable lasting learning; maybe focusing on test scores instead of meeting children in their uniqueness as fellow humans isn’t the best way to make the connections that will interest and engage students. The best teachers, after all, always seem to be the ones who go above and beyond their job description and create personal connections with their students – which in turn help their students to connect to the subject matter and contextualize it in their lives.

Debbie Reber, in her book Differently Wired, drives home the point further in her discussion of the effect of neurodiverse students on the classroom environment, and the effect of the classroom on them:

“There’s simply no way one teacher can adequately meet the criteria of each child’s IEP or 504 Plan (if they even have one) in the long term and on the fly while simultaneously teaching a bevy of antsy elementary students how to apply the order of operations.

“One of the biggest challenges regarding the education of neurodiverse students is that they typically require more support, resources, and effort to reach their potential. Simultaneously and consequently, they may detract from the learning happening for other kids in a classroom, since having a handful of children monopolize a teacher’s attention because of disruptions or their falling behind affects every student’s learning. On top of that, as dedicated, hardworking, and passionate as teachers may be, most don’t have the tools, training, or knowledge for best supporting their neurodiverse students. As schools attempt to become even more inclusive, the challenges for teachers will only increase.

“[…] the overwhelming majority of American schools are rooted in this traditional educational model – one that sees students as passive absorbers of information; uses teacher-centered methods; is based on external criteria such as test results; focuses on linear and rote learning, memorization, and skill mastery; delivers content through lectures, worksheets, and texts; and measures progress through grades. As long as this model is held up as the standard, or at the very least, is the primary option available, children with neurological differences will always be at a disadvantage, because these schools weren’t conceived to support different ways of learning.”

In other words, as difficult as the school system is for teachers (struggling to deal with the needs of their students and the demands of the bureaucracy), and as non-ideal as it is for neurotypical students (who are separated from the wider community and forced to perform to someone else’s standards and values), it is even more difficult and less ideal for neurodivergent students. And considering that those students are now estimated to be 1 in 5 of all children, maybe it is time we started considering consigning the traditional educational model to the shadows of history. Would it really be that hard to begin experimenting with different educational models and philosophies? Or is our society so attached to its institutions of control that it will continue to attempt to bandage their corpses with promises of ever-increasing funding?

If you liked the quote from Differently Wired, read my brief review of the book here and check back in June for the giveaway!

4 thoughts on “it seems that our school system is failing everyone these days…

  1. 👏👏👏 I love this! I, too, see all this as symptomatic or deeper system issues.

    When I recently had a conversation with a mom considering homeschooling, I noted that it usually doesn’t take as many hours of the day to cover and learn new material as it does in a traditional classroom. You touched upon why that is here: each child is better able to learn according to their style and needs and less time (for each specific child) is “wasted” on the teacher trying to address the needs of others. And, of course, antsy kids can literally stop what they’re doing and run around outside for half an hour if they need to. Or, better yet, learning itself can be moved to something more kinetic. Simply none of that flexibility is possible with the current educational model.

    And, on the political side of things, there is very little incentive for the government to enact change. All they see is dollar signs when it comes to research and implementation of a new model. And, as is true with many purely government run things, they tend to be even more financially wasteful implementing things than a private entity would be.

    The good that public schools do in providing an opportunity for education without the hurdle of a price tag desperately needs to be balanced out by more prudent management of funds (an entire school district administrative staff for a single school is wasteful) and more individual school freedom to try new learning models, thus allowing parents to choose the school that best suits their children’s needs. Such freedom and school choice would (hopefully) encourage more schools to imitate whatever model seems to be creating the best learning environment.

  2. I’m a little bit more of an “insider” now into public/private mainstream education, and I have to say, I think it’s a misrepresentation of the school system to say that “the overwhelming majority of American schools are rooted in this traditional educational model – one that sees students as passive absorbers of information; uses teacher-centered methods; is based on external criteria such as test results; focuses on linear and rote learning, memorization, and skill mastery; delivers content through lectures, worksheets, and texts; and measures progress through grades.”

    I’m fresh out of teacher training, and while we were definitely pushed to use data-driven models for measuring our efficacy and student growth, the old lecture model with the teacher at the front of the classroom is not industry standard. Sometimes rote learning and memorization is required (Verb declension, anyone?), and I as a student loved a good worksheet (remember Mom’s “pi” worksheet where we measured circles around the house?), but overall teachers are trained to lead student-driven classrooms where each new concept is presented in a myriad of ways for a variety of learning styles and student needs.

    I think it’s naive to say that elementary school classrooms don’t allow for kinetic learning or for kids to run around when they need to. In fact, good elementary school teachers are pros at incorporating kinesthetic learning and free movement into their days. Have you visited a variety of classrooms to see the options available to students? Additionally, homeschooling doesn’t automatically guarantee freedom for students or guarantee that they will have individualized instruction – my husband Chris’ homeschool experience was sitting at a literal desk copying out of books. In my opinion, it’s more about finding a good match between each student’s learning styles, a school’s philosophy, and the skill set of the teachers. I’m definitely pro-school-choice in that way!

    You’re of course right that there are benefits to having individualized tutor-pupil style training for children. It’d be amazing if each student could have a personal teacher for each subject. But in reality that’s not sustainable and not feasible for the vast majority of families. I for one think it’s clearly in the state’s best interest to have a well-educated and cultured population, and the school system is a great place to make that happen. I’m all for paying higher taxes so students can receive a top notch education no matter what their family’s socioeconomic background may be.

    One more quick personal example: While homeschooled, I struggled with science and didn’t enjoy it. My knowledge of physics and chemistry, for instance, is super lacking because I struggled to individually learn those subjects. However, when I took Human A&P and Biology at the community college, I discovered a love of science and flourished in those classes. I credit a lot of that to the group learning environment – as an extrovert and verbal processor, I was able to thrive in a way I hadn’t been while I was at home, alone (even with indivudal tutoring).

    1. Well, the quote is from a woman who really struggled finding a school for her son, even after trying many good schools in the Seattle area. She did not come to parenting with a homeschool mindset (and offers critiques of homeschooling later in that same chapter actually). So I don’t think it’s fair to call her assessment naive.

      I’m glad that the newer generation of teachers is trying to make things more student-led! It’s kind of luck of the draw for any individual child as to whether or not they’ll get this kind of teacher, though, especially in poorer schools. And the teachers still have to deal with a testing mindset from politicians 😛 which is a big problem in my opinion.

      Chris’s experience was not student-led learning; it seems he unfortunately fell into the control-centric camp of homeschoolers which I think is just as bad as the mainstream school system academically, and just a trade off as far as social problems. And I do think the school choice should be reassessed for each child each year.

      But early childhood? Science shows that play is ideal, and there are only two play-based preschool/kindergartens that I know of in the valley, both of which are private and thus expensive. So at this age I honestly do think homeschooling is the best available option.

      But I do think schools should be funded well enough for the social good they ought to be providing. I just wish they could change the structure of schooling altogether – not to provide individualized tutoring as I don’t think that is ideal – but to allow for age-mixing, for deep focus on areas of interest, for freedom of expression and choice of study for the children. I think children deserve freedom too.

      Have you heard much about the Sudbury model?

    2. Also, it seems disingenuous to call teaching “student-driven” when really you just mean trying to make the teacher-chosen topics more palatable to different types of students. The students still have no choice about what they learn or when they learn it.

      And it is also still very correct to say that the mainstream model uses grades to group and progress students. I think that age segregation is harmful for social development, and I also think it’s silly to say that all these kids are nine now so they must be ready to learn division and essay structure, for example. Grades are very artificial ways to group people.

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