April 18, 2005

How To Save Public Schools

When I hear blowhards like Nick Coleman ranting about how Republicans want to "abolish the public school system", I get a chuckle. I grew up in the public schools - Dad was a high school teacher, and a great one. As far as conservatives go, I was long in the "we can fix the public schools" camp.

Of course, a huge percentage of the biggest proponents of mandatory public school for all - Coleman, Jay Benanav, Billary Clinton, and on, and on - are either private school products or have their children in private schools.

Anyway, since I've had kids of my own, I've gotten more depressed every year with the way schools in general - but especially the public schools - do their job.

There's an obvious, and I suspect workable, solution out there. It's inexpensive, and, best of all, tens of thousands of years of human experience shows that it works.

Let's abolish elementary school.

The more I watch schools, and the more I read about the history of the public schools and the assumptions on they are built, the more convinced I am that elementary school in particular does more harm than good. I'm talking specifically about the "Sit your little butt in the chair for six hours a day and learn what we grownups tell you to learn" model of education.

Let's be blunt; Elementary School is a bad idea for several reasons.

  • It's unnatural
  • It turns everything about human psychology on its head.
  • It's unamerican.
Let's start at the top.


Let me throw out a couple of parallel ideas here:

  1. Language is one of the highest-order functions of the human brain. It involves a level of logic that the most powerful computers are only able to ape in the most comical fashion. Next to learning language, things like the scientific method, critical thinking and logic are child's play, so to speak. And yet nearly every child in the world is functionally fluent in at least one language by age five, with no more help than mere untrained, uncredentialled parents, family members and friends to help. Barring profound mental and physical problems, it's nearly impossible to keep a kid from learning languages, to say nothing of every other thing that they can get their little fingers on. Reading? Pffft. Nothing to it, in comparison; it's just assigning symbols to the sounds that the child has already learned to associate with the ideas that their little brains have been busy compiling since shortly after birth. You have to wonder - if kids do that well with something as wondrously, gloriously, impenetrably complex as language with mere parents, siblings, extended family and playmates to help them, imagine how well they would do if they had experts with PhDs in cognitive development to help them...!
  2. they do with reading, for example. How is it that the same kids who learn one of the most complex cognitive processes known to mankind with almost no difficulty then toddle off to school and spent the next six, even twelve, years struggling and often failing the relatively simple tasks of reading, writing, adding, subtracting and simple arithmetic?
Imagine if your children were taught (by force of law, mind you!) to speak by professionals, rather than the way they've learned to speak for all of human time; imagine, further, that they were taught speech the same way they're taught reading, math and history, by being herded into a room, plunked at a table, told to LEARN SPEECH NOW and don't you dare go to the bathroom without raising your hand and getting a travel slip first. What'd happen? We'd have a boom market in speech pathology professionals, national concern about "why Johnny can't speak", academic programs dedicated to special speech problems, and demands for more money to solve our nation's speech education crisis.

Absurd, right? And yet that's exactly where we are now. Kids below age 12 would be better off out of school than in it. Note that this has nothing to do with "problem schools"; even if you leave drugs, crime, and all the other highly-publicized dangers of our time out of the picture (and if you live in the inner city, you know that you can't), and assume that all teachers are literate, caring, inspired practicioners of a noble craft, and that all administrators are boundlessly capable and unfettered by the pinheaded impedimenta of a system that, like all systems, is more concerned with self-perpetuation than mission.

Question: Where is the scientifically-valid evidence that a child who sits through six years in a classroom is any better "educated" than a child who spends six years just being a kid, learning what he or she needs, learning responsibility and reading and manners and math the way kids always have - by doing?

Start looking. I'll help you out. There really is none.

I have a few friends and acquaintances who are involved in various alternative school systems; Sudbury, Waldorf, Montessori - and more that homeschool their kids. The literature on the Sudbury system - which, essentially, lets kids learn whatever their curiosity drives them to learn, coupled with a strong dose of individual responsibility for maintaining their obligations to others - is fascinating. Nobody tells the children at a Sudbury school "now is the time we learn to read" - and yet they all do. Nobody says "You will all learn math" - but when they decide they want to learn it, they frequently learn the math that takes kids six years in a classroom, in a matter of weeks.

My homeschooling friends tell the same story; if they leave the door open for their kids' own fascination to drive them to learn...whatever, it will not only get learned, but learned at a pace that dazzles the parents, most of whom came up through the traditional public system.


So what's wrong with school?

What could be wrong with an institution that:

  • Strictly breaks up the day into learning time and play time, conditioning a child to know, forevermore, that learning is drudgery. Unlike all the learning they'd done so far in life, this sucks!
  • Imposing an external schedule on learning. Rather than following their own rhythms and attention spans - which happen to be the ones they actually learn by - we force kids to cut short the stuff that actually benefits them, and then jam their little butts into seats, pretty much arbitrarily, to shift gears and do something completely different. It runs Setting student's mental agendas for them, telling them the subjects they "should" care about, regardless of what interests them, and when, and where.
  • Setting arbitrary standards that mean nothign to students (and, judged empirically, mean even less to grownups
  • Plop a kid into a system where they're at the bottom of a complex, arbitrary hierarchy - teacher's aide, teacher, principal, union, superintendant, school board - with them, pretty talk aside, at the bottom. If you have to go to the bathroom, you have to ask permission. You stand in long lines for food, water, the rest room, recess, field trips, to see the nurse, the principal, to get out of the f*****g building after the whole miserable day is over! If you don't feel like keeping your twitchy seven-year-old butt in that hard friggin' chair, you get labelled "ADHD" or "special ed". You move when the bell tells you to move; you sit when the bell tells you to sit; you repeat the process for twelve years, like an assembly line - only you're the product, with the unionized factory workers bolting on little bits of knowledge at pre-programmed points on the line, regardless of whether that's where your brain is at the moment. And you'd damn well better show up, or have an excuse that's acceptable to that arbitrary and unreasoning authority, or you will be shunted into the "bad kid" track, and even into the fascistic, niggling cousin of the criminal justice system, which will make damn sure you keep your ass in that chair, at the risk of criminalizing yourself and your parents. If such a system were applied to adults, they'd call it prison. If it were a nation, it'd be North Korea. If it were an employer, every TV station in town would be bum-rushing the place with hidden cameras. And yet that's where we send our kids.
  • You are a part of a group; you travel with the group, stand on line with the group whenever you leave your chair, are punished and rewarded as a part of the group, until such time as you learn to play the paper chase game well enough for the system to reward you - not so much for your learning, as for learning to play the system to your benefit. Those kids will go far. For the rest? Labels, concerned shrugs, and eventually a resigned sigh; they fell through the cracks, even though they had so much potential.
  • Your education is separated from your "real life". Even some of your crustier elders, in unguarded moments, will say it in as many words; "Wait'll you get out in the real world". School is totally unreal; the experiences and knowledge are all diluted through external filters; textbooks, teachers, state-approved curricula. The economics are diluted; it's "Free", so the children get no sense of the opportunity cost that goes into their education, nor of their responsibility toward those paying the cost (qualifying them to be DFL legislators, anyway).
  • Worse, the kids' lives - and the lives of their families - are geared toward the rhythm the institution demands; up at 6:30, to school by 8, keep your hyperactive little ass in the chair until 3 with a couple of dingy, pre-approved breaks (if you behave, and if your school hasn't been swept up in the "no recess" bandwagon), get dinner eaten by 6, do two hours of homework, be in bed by 9AM to repeat the process the next day, ad infinitum, for 12 years. There's a meteor shower or an Aurora Borealis late at night? Don't wake the kids, for crying out loud, they'll be tired for their spelling test!
  • Which might be worthwhile, if there were any validity to the idea that it does kids any more good than the alternative - no school at all.
The question shouldn't be "what's wrong with the system". It ought to be "what's right?"


Let's go back to the "North Korea" bit.

When De Tocqueville came to the US in the early part of the 19th century, he found a population that was staggeringly literate by world standards. What was the "system?" There was none. People learned to read, write, do math, and function in society by any means necessary - at church, at community schools, from neighbors or siblings, or any way they could. They did it because, to participate in our democracy, they had to. And they did.

It's useful to note that the current model for public schools - the government monopoly with the professional teacher caste and a huge, self-feeding academy - is a product of the past 100 years or so, when people realized that in a nation awash in immigrants, we'd damned well better make sure that all our children are learning the same things. Exactly the same things, lest those filthy immigrants corrupt our society...

And so we have a system of elementary education better suited to the Department of Corrections, or the Prussian military (indeed, Horace Mann modeled many of his ideas upon the Prussian state education system, which introduced the magic element, compulsion, to the mix).

And so, in a system that purports to value individual responsibility, we send our children to "learn" in a system that systematically strips responsibility away (as long as you stay in line, you're fine!). In a system that purports to value critical thinking, we entrust our children to a system that regards the very discipline as forbidden fruit. In a nation that claims to value the integrity, choice and value of the individual, we send our kids to schools that destroy all three.

"But what about universal literacy?" It's worth noting that our society is little more functionally literate, in a practical sense, than it was 100 years ago; the ability of adults to read, write and figure has remained nearly static among adults for the past century, unbudged by changing educational theories, vast increases in education funding, and national fretting on the subject.

"But hey", comes the next response, "I came up through the system. It's not that bad". That's called "Stockholm Syndrome". You owe it to your kids to do better. Saying you "survived" six years of elementary school is hardly a recommendation; saying "I survived it, my kid sure as hell will" isn't education, it's ritualized abuse.


So what exactly do we lose if we abolish elementary school? Say, start kids in school at age 12?

We gain, instantly, a generation of kids who haven't learned to equate "learning" with "misery".

We gain, over time, children who grow through their most formative years free of the distortions to their identity and self-respect that are a part of the canonical tradition of elementary school, undivided into "jocks" and "geeks" and "brains"; they could spend six or seven years as humans, rather than as parts on an assembly line.

As part of that, they would be free to develop the skills that children develop more or less naturally; to think, to analyze, to tear things apart, on their own terms, without having an adult tell them "you're wrong, do it my way" at every turn.

It goes without saying that they'd be free of the suffocating idiocy of too much of the educational/industrial complex - the rotating theories and methods and ideals that at best are just more turd-polishing, and at worst (see Carol Gilligan and the gender theorists) actively, almost maliciously harmful. They'd grow up regarding learning as both an opportunity and, most importantly, their own responsibility. Which is, we're told, the American way.

Inevitable response: "What about kids in lousy situations? Or where both parents work?"

So we take the $10K per student that we currently spend in the metro, and spend it on community centers, or daycare, or anything but elementary school. I don't care if the idea saves not a nickel over what we're already spending (although it inevitably will, in direct spending to say nothing of the social costs of our failing system); it'll be better than what we have now, even for the vulnerable kids, the poor kids from the lousy neighborhoods. What could be worse than being a poor kids from a lousy neighborhood? Being all that, and having any possible love of learning beaten out of you by age eight.

It's not just about the survival of our educational system, or even our kids. It's about the survival of our nation.

Ditch it.

Posted by Mitch at April 18, 2005 07:09 PM | TrackBack

I know a chinese doctoral student that just enrolled their child in a minneapolis high school. In china, their child spent approximately 16 hours out EVERY day six days a week either in school or doing homework. Sundays was for tutoring. Exercise is biking back and forth to school twice a day (home for lunch and a siesta) Going to bed early is 11:00pm. Typical is 1:00 AM.

Play time is non-existant.

I am curious to see how this kid adapts to american life. Sitting in class won't be the hard part.

Posted by: rick at April 18, 2005 03:20 PM

Mitch, great essay. Very provocative.'re a single parent, yes? How do you make this happen with your tribe (2 kids? 3?) and still work (I assume) full time? I

've often wondered about this...but while we only have 1 child - we both work. Not sure how we could make this happen. Plus, with an only...she already thinks there's 3 adults in the house.

How about friendships, lunch buddies, etc.? Yes, she's in sports, but nobody hangs out and just plays in the backyard anymore...and you don't just meet on the street corner to play kick the can. Which is of course, a loss to society. All the kick-the-can potential wasted out there....

Jane N-B

Posted by: Jane N-B at April 18, 2005 05:56 PM

You're describing the type of "schooling" that would benefit my grandson to a tee. Bright, but not in the sit-in-your-seat way. He is a builder and a thinker. Reading is coming hard to him. On the other hand, some kids like to sit and learn and behave (picture a little girl with hands folded prissily on desk...remember the know-it-all girl in Beaver Cleaver's class?!). I figure those kids could "play" school with whatever neighborhood kids they could round up and boss into submission! Ah, memories!

As the above poster mentions, what would those people who work do with their kids? Well, in the case of two parents, maybe one should stay home. What do working parents do with their kids in the summer?

Posted by: Colleen at April 18, 2005 07:13 PM

Great essay. Although I wouldn't stop at elementary school. Junior High is typically a barbarian Lord of The Flies like experience for many kids. Let's junk that too. High school? Who need it. By that time kids that haven't been trained to a desk all day will have likely found some passion to pursue. let them. It will be far more educational and useful than another 4 years of classroom drudgery. What higher math and stuff a 16 year old needs can be done in community college setting or something similar. Let's make the entire k-12 experience a cafeteria plan, with parents picking and choosing what options work best each year.

Posted by: Chris at April 18, 2005 08:41 PM

You make some good points. I feel the same way about elementary school. But I'd like to read a follow-up essay that gives a more adequate answer to the question: "What about kids in lousy situations? Or where both parents work?"

You briefly address this question in your essay, but based on the responses you're getting, people aren't quite convinced.

Can we have some more details about what happens to the kids from lousy neighborhoods? And those kids that happened to be born to parents who are in and out of jail, parents who aren't quite as interested in learning as you are?

Posted by: Matthew at April 20, 2005 05:02 PM

There are some absolutely excellent thoughts here. And a great sense of snark.

I'm going to have to fess up to a great big quibble with your first point. You use reading and speaking as the primary examples in an otherwise sound argument. The problem is that speaking is a skill that is hardwired into the brain. Humans are born to speak, just as they are born to walk. They are not, however, hardwired to read. This is very important to point out.

There is nothing 'natural' about a reading human. Walking humans, talking humans, eating humans...all those are natural. There are physiological reasons we do all those things. Reading? Not an inevitable or natural thing.

Other than that, I'm with ya. I don't believe in mass-manufacturing humans. They deserve to be hand-crafted.

Posted by: Poppins at April 20, 2005 08:09 PM

Very convincing, rational argument - brilliant! Shall use it when I need to explain the values of autonomous learning cogently.

Re: arguments with. I don't really know what this thing about 'natural' or 'not natural' is - it is not as if the natural state is what people are aiming at achieving as human beings! Or we would stay covorting, screwing, hunting and eating in the fields.

I do understand too that school is a giant state creche; and a lack of school could pose a problem for those who rely on it. However, this problem is not a reason to leave in place something that is coercive and detrimental. Otherwise every infringement of personal freedom could be justified by saying that it benefits some body.

Sounds as though Sudbury like 'schools' could be the way to go in the meantime. I hope to be alive when this is the norm!

Posted by: Hiero at April 22, 2005 07:54 AM

Very convincing, rational argument - brilliant! Shall use it when I need to explain the values of autonomous learning cogently.

Re: arguments with. I don't really know what this thing about 'natural' or 'not natural' is - it is not as if the natural state is what people are aiming at achieving as human beings! Or we would stay covorting, screwing, hunting and eating in the fields.

I do understand too that school is a giant state creche; and a lack of school could pose a problem for those who rely on it. However, this problem is not a reason to leave in place something that is coercive and detrimental. Otherwise every infringement of personal freedom could be justified by saying that it benefits some body.

Sounds as though Sudbury like 'schools' could be the way to go in the meantime. I hope to be alive when this is the norm!

Posted by: d at April 22, 2005 07:54 AM