Losing My (State) Religion – Part IX

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It’s an aphorism that’s become a cliche, and for good reason; it’s so applicable to so many things.

In the first seven parts of this series, I detailed a string of events that helped me on the way from being a public school proponent to a solid detractor.

But like jalapeno peppers in a burrito, the events were just the accents, the major mile markers along the way that tipped the hand of the underlying context. The refried beans…well, there were plenty of them, too.

The tipping point for me wasn’t the gruelling parent-teacher conference about my daughter’s “failure” to comply with her school’s demand for emotional transparency. It wasn’t even chasing my son down to the police station to find out if he was going to be charged with making a “terroristic threat”, and the Kafkaesque nightmare that followed.

The tipping point – the moment when I officially gave up on the public school system – was a meeting with my son’s fifth-grade teacher, a social worker, the assistant principal, and two or three special ed specialists.

For the umpteenth meeting, I heard the refrain I’d been hearing non-stop since Kindergarten; Zam’s a bright boy, but…

But. But he didn’t sit still when he was told to. But when the teacher said it was time for math, he kept reading. But when the system said zig, he zagged.

Not that he didn’t know the material; merely that he didn’t learn it according to a schedule set down in a curriculum planner’s office intended to be the least common denominator for teaching a class of 28 kids.

I lost it.

“So the problem”, I said, too depressed to really care about decorum, “is that school is a factory. The factory is designed to turn out thousands of identical sausages. Each of those sausages must be identically-shaped. If any of those sausages doesn’t fall into the assigned shape, fast enough, you take the sausage off the assembly line and call it “special” and and send it the subliminal, but really overt, message that he’s an abnormal bit of sausage. And you take that little bit of sausage aside so it doesn’t gum up the assembly line for all the other bits of sausage”.

Probably not a moment that the Saint Paul Public Schools are going to put on their brochure. I was exhausted and depressed…

…and realizing, bit by bit, that “school” has very little to do with teaching children.

Think about it.

At age five, a child has just finished doing something you, an adult, probably could not do today; become fluent in a language. From scratch. On his/her own. With no help but whatever his/her parents contribute, beyond simple mental osmosis.

Watch that child nosing around the house, playing around the neighborhood, hanging around with other kids; they are learning machines! You can not stop them from learning!

And you can’t help but notice how they learn; in fits and starts, with peaks and valleys of interest, ranging from not caring to intense obsession with a topic, whatever the topic is.

Of course, every child is different. There some patterns that apply, of course; some people learn by doing; others by having people help them do; others by watching something being done, still others by sitting and hearing how to do things, or reading about how to do things. For still other people, from childhood on, the learning style varies between intellecual and tactile skills; I, for example, readily learn history or philosophy or other intangible things by reading, but need to actually do tactile things like carpentry, preferably with someone showing me what I don’t know, to really absorb it. And I’m a multi-tasker; I like to be learning three or five things at a time; on the little shelf in my bathroom, I’ll have two or three or four bookmarked books on several subjects sitting in progress at any give time. I was the same way as a little kid, all the way through college and, of course, today.

Not in elementary school, of course. There, the “model” is that a child will spend 30-60 minutes having reading explained to him or her. Followed by 30-60 minutes of math. Then 30-60 minutes of “social studies”. Then 30-60 more of science. No matter how the kid is wired to learn. No matter that the 45 minutes of math may light a fire that’d best be stoked for, say, four more hours for her to really absorb it and retain it; if the curriculum says it’s time to move on to social studies, then it’s time to put the math away.

Putting a rigid, set time on when to learn what is not how (most) people learn.  It is how systems – factories – work.

Some school systems – the Sudbury Valley school, which is the model for a couple of dozen similar schools around the country – recognize the absurdity of this “model” of learning. Indeed, they reject the idea of telling kids how to learn at all; Sudbury schools don’t tell kids what to learn and when, to the point of never even telling students they need to learn to read.

And yet every kid at a Sudbury school learns how to read. No matter what their style, no matter what their background (Sudbury schools are crowded with special ed kids that the local districts and private schools have given up on), they learn. Some learn from the staff; others learn from older kids; some even synthesize the sounds of the ABCs into reading words all by themselves with little or no help whatsoever.

More importantly, kids at these types of schools – like many homeschooled kids – learn the most important thing of all; that learning, for its own sake, is not drudgery. It is not (or needn’t be) a stop-start-stop-start routine full of mindless, niggling restrictions (Asking to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water? What the hell? How many of you would put up with that at your day job? And even if you do put up with it – all of you astronauts and brain surgeons and infantrymen out there – you’re a volunteer!).

It is not “one size fits all”. Why should it be? Life isn’t!

Of course, I tell this to many people – by no means all of them teachers. I get a lot of responses.

  • “It sounds like you’re talking about a Voltairean State of Nature, complete with noble savages, rather than reality!” Hardly. I’m talking about letting children do what they are wired to do by God, Nature or whatever you believe in; learn things. As opposed, I must continually point out, to learning how to act within an artificial system designed more to facilitate and perpetuate itself than to actually “educate”.
  • “Kids gotta learn discipline and responsibilty somehow!”. Oh, they will. They always do. Parents have been teaching both for millenia! But in fact, putting kids in long rows and marching them around in long lines and making them raise their hands to go to the bathroom doesn’t teach responsibility; quite the opposite, it teaches them to be conforming, compliant, un-thinking automata. “Well, that’s how school was when I was a kid” is less a defense of the system than a rationalization for intergenerational hazing; just because you survived something stupid doesn’t ennoble stupidity.  “But what about the parents who don’t teach responsibility?”  Do you honestly think school has any effect on that (in general, I mean?  Of course exceptions may exist)
  • “Maybe you’re right, but I’d like to see how you make that work in a school with 2,000 kids”. Then how about we explore the possibility that putting 2,000 kids in a building might not be the right way to “educate” them? If you harbor any doubts about the idea that the “factory” model of education – treating education like an assembly line and children like little Mr. Coffees rolling down the conveyor belt, with unionized adult workers tacking bits of knowledge onto them as they pass by – is the best way to help children learn, then you certainly need to wonder if the “big box” school is the wisest way to approach the job.

In the past, I’ve advocated for the abolition of elementary school. In point of fact, I do think those six years would be better spent almost anywhere than in school; at the community center, at the church, at the “Y”, at 4H, at karate class or piano lessons or in their yard watching ants build things, at the library, at home, anywhere, as long as they’re simply learning to learn without all the attendant baggage of learning how miserable learning in school is. The way kids are wired to be, anyway.

“But what about the kids whose parents are on crack and who can barely function? Who’s going to reach these kids and teach them to love learning and to become good citizens?” Put away your copy of Freedom Writers/Dangerous Minds/Stand and Deliver/Mr. Holland’s Opus; nobody’s reaching those kids now – and by “nobody”, I mean of course someone, sometime, reaches some of those kids. To every rule there are exceptions; there are kids out there from grossly-dysfunctional families who a teacher, of all people, manages to reach and whose life is changed.  As individuals, it’s a wonderful thing.  But I’m talking about raw, broad numbers here.

And among the extreme “crack baby” and “meth mom” set, how many of them respond to the one-size-fits-all, factory model school? I’m suspecting the number is somewhere between “Har di har har” and “it exists only in Hollywood” – and in any case, the question is actually an argument for abolishing elementary school. How can one institution both attempt to “educate” and try to fix four generations of welfare-state dysfunction? Abolish grade school, and spend the money actually focusing on dealing with the noxious fall-out of the welfare state, for crying out loud, instead of trying to build a saw that’ll drive screws!

But I digress.


My kids’ mother and I pulled Bun and Zam out of their schools – their high school with 2,500 kids and the junior high with nearly 2,000 more – and put them into a couple of charter schools with no more than 150 students in each. The disciplinary problems are almost too minimal to count, and not serious in any way. All of the adults know all of the kids by name; all of the kids know each of the adults, and usually have all of them in some kind of class or another every day. They’re around kids of all ages, older and younger; older kids help out younger kids, younger kids help moderate the older kids. Each kid is better-educated, for a fraction of the cost to the taxpayer of keeping them in the public schools for a year. No metal detectors. No lockdowns. No unfunded mandates.

Just learning.

“But try that”, say some of the people who’ve differed with me on the subject, “in a big school”.

No. Don’t. Make the schools smaller.

Quit building big-box buildings as monuments to the sitting school board.

Make schools neighborhood institutions, accountable to the parents, subservient to local boards elected from parents and citizens, as opposed to former teachers beholden to the union and the educational-industrial complex, whose primary goal is to safeguard the union’s sinecures.

Require schools to have less than 200 students. Require the principals to know the names, and parents’ names, of each student.

Then – and when we get past the lunacy of segregating kids by age, and trying to force them to learn in a style that might “work” for 10% of the kids – the public school system might have a chance of doing more good than harm.


Too idealistic? Feet firmly in the clouds? Too pollyannaish?

No. The true “pollyanna” response is to continue to assume that a system that is designed to “repel” children from learning, that is tailor-designed to turn the notion of “learning” into a lifelong metaphor for misery, can be tweaked and nudged and tuned around the edges (and be flooded with tax money!) and suddenly, voila, work.

I have no faith that the system can be salvaged any time soon, at any cost, no matter what our society’s commitment of time, money and moral capital. As long as schools treat children as widgets on an assembly line, the system is irredeemably broken.  And for all of teachers’ good intentions – and of this I have generally little doubt – that is exactly how the system treats things.

My kids are off the assembly line. Bun is learning to love learning again. Zam is a work in progress.

But every morning, when I drop them by their charter schools, I think “they’re safe”. They’re off the conveyor belt. They’re kids, as opposed to work product, for the first time since I can remember.

And with that out of the way, dealing with my kids as kids, as opposed to problems that a system has to deal with, is a whole lot easier.

13 thoughts on “Losing My (State) Religion – Part IX

  1. AC, that remark wasn’t Nice. It wasn’t Sensitive. Saying that didn’t make Mitch feel good about himself.

    Remember, AC: we don’t use Rude Put-Downs here, we only give encouraging and constructive feedback.

    Now, please try again, like a good little boy.

    Or else you’ll have to go to Re-education Classes along with Ann Coulter.


  2. On of the long standing cries of the education establishment is that we need to make class sizes smaller – all the while the same education establishment keeps building bigger and bigger schools. I like the big box analogy Mitch because that is exactly what a lot of these schools are.

    The Junior Logician “learned” much better when he was in a smaller elementary school. Now that he is in the Middle School with several hundred other kids, he is struggling. I am hearing echo’s of our meetings with his teachers in your posts Mitch and I realize what I am up against! The problem is my only options are private schools (no charters in our school district) if I want to stay in our town as there are no charter schools in our town.


  3. Thank you for the personal testimonial; you have opened my eyes. Here I have been, all these years, TRYING to get schools to operate like a business, holding costs down while improving productivity and quality. Silly me. The facts are that we haven’t had a productivity improvement in education in 150 years (it still takes one teacher 12 years to “build” 25 or fewer HS graduates), and that costs have tripled while “reject rates” (those not graduating, or graduating without knowing anything) have continued to rise,

    The current public school system is a monopoly. High costs and low quality are inherent in a monopoly. That it is a government-run monopoly with a mandatory “customer base” only makes it more arrogant, wasteful, and generally obnoxious than the phone company ever thought of being before it was “broken up.” Let’s break up the public school monopoly.

  4. The move to smaller schools was discussed – believe it or not – on NPR this morning as part of Morning Edition. It’s part of the series “Tales for Northwestern High”; title of this segment is Troubled Schools Turn Around by Shrinking.

    It pretty much agrees with exactly what Mitch is saying – big doesn’t work. From the acticle – Nettie Legters of Johns Hopkins University says smaller schools actually reduce overhead.

    “In a large high school, you’re going to have more security guards, more coaches,” she notes. She says smaller schools tend to be safer, so they need fewer staffers devoted to keeping order.

    Link to story – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9485120

  5. Coming from a family of teachers (many many teachers), I’ve always supported the public schools even though I hate the unions. Wisconsin schools are closed shops, you quit the brotherhood, you are fired.

    One of the things that changed my mind was something I heard from family members this weekend, at Easter dinner. One school district had a referemdum voted down. Another one the teachers didn’t get as large of a pay increase as they wanted. At the first, the teachers talked about how they weren’t going to “give their 100%”. At the other, the union sent them a letter and told them to only do the bear minimum of work. That they should not particapate on any committees, for example.

    I work in private business. If I demand a certain amount of pay increase and I only get 75% of the requested increase, and then I say, “well, I’m only going to do the absolute minimum of work demanded of me”, I’d be shown the door.

  6. The schools are broken. Don Samuels is right, and not only about North High. Figuratively, the entire system needs to be burned to the ground and rethought, redesigned and rebuilt.

  7. A milder solution would be to simply take the money the state spends now and give it to every parent, to educate their child as they saw fit. Many, even most public schools would survive, but even the best ones would improve because of the simple reality of competition. The poorest schools would either quickly improve or quickly go out of business. And I don’t care, nor should anyone else.

  8. And I don’t care, nor should anyone else.

    Unfortunately there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihood depends on that very thing not happening, and they have far too big of an influence in the state legislature for that to ever happen.

  9. I think your posts on this topic are doing more for birth control than they are for discussions about schools. You read this stuff and just think, good God! What next? That must have been maddening.

  10. Make schools neighborhood institutions, accountable to the parents, subservient to local boards elected from parents and citizens,”

    This is the system that educated the WWI and II generations. There is an interesting statistic that there used to be something like over 200,000 people serving on school boards while now we have less than 20,000 overseeing far more kids. Public Schools need to be completely dismantled. Hopefully the internet will accomplish this soon.

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