Education U.S.A., #SoProgressive!

At my father’s funeral in 1996 the last song played was “My way” by the Three Tenors. “I did it my way” is a wonderful expression of what autonomy is. Many loved ones choose to play a version of this song, mostly the one of Frank Sinatra, in remembrance of someone dear they have lost. Like my mother did. The notion of autonomy, making your own road and choices, your mark on the world is a very powerful thought and feeling. You’re an unique being and everyone you love is an unique being till the end of life.

However, on many issues you can connect with others and find common ground to fight for. Being autonomous doesn’t mean you have do everything alone. People have mutual interests which they can stand up for together. Expressed ideas, naming things, giving meaning to words gives people a framework of reference from which they can move forward as a group to get those shared ideas realized. If someone can give a clear voice to what needs to be done it has the potential to mobilize a lot of people with a personal interest to fight for that idea.

For many years many teachers and students have expressed their unhappiness with the education system they find themselves in. More and more they’ve lost the autonomy to drive education in the direction they want. More and more the direction of education is decided by the corporate interests, and not by professional and personal interests. It seems to get worse by the decade. You start to wonder when enough is really enough. How much more people are ready to accept as “normal”, before they really fight back as a group.

When it comes to education your champions are often not the politicians. Hopefully this will change in the future. This doesn’t mean you cannot find other people who can make a strong argument for a different and better education system. Education advocates which can help you put your concerns on the political agenda and who you can help to push the message forward. Or, maybe, you are an education advocate yourself and you with others can mobilize people to get politicians to do what’s right. Whatever your (possible) role in the education movement, the time is now: election times.

“Because when you actually care about something, you want to lead. Apathy’s not so cool any more,” said John Legend in his commencement speech for the University of Pennsylvania. Legend has a heart for education. He hosted an hour-long Ted Talk special on education with many interesting speakers. You can find this video below this blog in the list of “Views on Education”.

My hope is that this blog can help those people who are still on the bench to get on the field and join the fight for a better education system. It is not my objective to be complete in this blog. When you start thinking and writing on education it is like the “neverending story”. My goal is to give you a place to start and some general ideas to think about with regard to the education system in the United States of America or in another place of the world. Ask yourself the question if the education system in your country is working for you, your loved ones and society as a whole.

In his bestselling book “DriveDaniel H. Pink tells us that the secret to high performance and satisfaction―at work, at school, and at home―is in the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world. The question is if the education system in which you find yourself increases of decreases autonomy of a particular person. Who has the power to decide what is taught and how it is done? Who decides what the outcomes should be? Students, their parents and teachers or other forces? If we want to direct our own lives we need to be on the steering wheel which is setting the course. We need to be able to influence what is going to happen to us.

Let’s say one goes to school at the age of 4 or 5 and stays in education till one is between 22 and 30 years old. Someone is then in formal education between 17 and 26 years. That we would like some control of our education system is not only normal, it is totally justified. This is a very big part of our lives. We’re in education in our formative years. Our educational experience has a big influence on the rest of our lives. On who we become and what we do. Not to mention the way we experience education during those years.

The comedy program “Last Week Tonight” did a revealing episode on charter schools. Schools which get money from public funds, but are privately run. Charter schools have more room to choose their own direction, because charter schools don’t have to follow the same regulations as public schools. A charter school has more autonomy. Which in itself can be a very good thing, if the particular charter school is centered around the needs of their students and teachers. Unfortunately, many charter schools are more centered around making a profit.  

In the “Last Week Tonight” John Oliver shows that a number of charter schools had to close doors in the middle or even the beginning of a school year. As if a business is going bankrupt. Leaving students and their parents with the problem of finding a new school and an educational gap for the time lost. He shares examples of school officials using the public funds given to the schools for personal interests, in other words fraud. Oliver explains that in some states real oversight over charter schools does not exist. He also made clear that charters schools don’t do much better than public schools overall when it comes to the quality of the education.

More autonomy of a school does not always equal a better education. More autonomy for a school does not always equal more influence for students and teachers. If control of the school switches from the government’s hands to corporations this often leads to less autonomy for students and teachers. If the main goal of a school is no longer “teaching and learning”, but “making a profit”, then you’re in dangerous waters. Another problem could be that schools are not run by qualified teachers and school officials. It is a profession which not everyone has the talent, experience and qualifications for.

William Deresiewicz explains in his book “Excellent Sheep” how an education system can destroy the passion students have for ideas and themselves. The pleasure of learning is killed if the only reason to learn is to get your degree. Sir Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica claim people are most happy at work when they’re in their “element”. The point where your natural talent meets your passion. Being good at something, but not having a passion for it doesn’t work. Having a passion for something, but not being good at it, doesn’t work either. You need both to find something you might excel in, and “have a sense of identity, purpose and well being”.

Is finding out what your “element” is not something we should be stimulated to discover during our years in education? Isn’t that much more important for what we’re going to do with our lives than just the particular degree we might have achieved without consideration for our own (undiscovered) inner desires and talents? What is an education for if not that?

Not only charter schools, but also universities are becoming more corporatized. In his book Deresiewicz focusses on the elite universities: the Ivy League. They’re the standard-bearers, and a lot of other universities follow their example. The title “Excellent sheep” says it all: these students do what is expected of them to make it in life instead of creating their own lives. Deresiewicz writes: “We all know about the stressed-out, overpressured high school student; why do we assume it gets better once she gets to college?”

One of the major factors of stress in high school is too much standardized testing. In their book “Creative Schools” Sir Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica also address the testing and educational support industry:

The testing and educational support industry is booming. In 2013 it had combined revenues in the United States alone of $16,5 billion. To put that in context, the entire U.S. domestic cinema box office gross in 2013 was a little less than $11 billion and the National Football League is currently a $9 billion business.

The reason I mention this example is the same as the example of charter schools from “Last Week Tonight”, it makes clear how making money is a very driving incentive in the society we have created. Not only in education. Robinson and Aronica explain that one of the reasons for testing is to increase competition between students, teachers and schools with the aim to improve standards. This means students and teachers are judged based on the results of all these standardized tests. Schools are ranked on how they score on these tests. How you do on these tests is crucial if you want to get on one of the elite universities.  Students are already “Excellent Sheep” when the arrive at college, Deresiewicz states:

The endless hoop-jumping, starting as far back as grade school, that got them into an elite college in the first place - the clubs, bands, projects, teams, APs, SATs, evenings, weekends, summers, tutors, “leadership”, “service” - left them no time, and no tools, to figure out what they want out of life, or even out of college. Questions of purpose and passion were not the syllabus.

In their book “Most Likely to Succeed” Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith give an example of how crazy things have gotten in education. A kindergarten informed parents that its school play was cancelled in order “to devote more time to preparing its six-year-old students for college and the workplace.” Wagner and Dintersmith also state the following:

Most U.S. high schools are focused exclusively and obsessively on two things: college preparation and teaching to the state tests. Driven by an ambitious parent community, affluent schools for decades have defined their value in terms of test scores, AP courses, and matriculations to elite colleges. Schools with high dropout rates and few college placements (synonymous, tragically, with our lower-income communities) are now forced to emulate their more affluent cohorts, as the mantra of “all kids, college ready” has, in effect, become national education policy. The impact of college admissions criteria reaches beyond high school, as middle school must now work to prepare students for high schools.

Deresiewicz went all around the United States of America to talk about his book. In one of those talks he said that students are forced to choose between fulfillment and success. He also said that students feel unequipped to direct their lives. They are not taught or stimulated to be autonomous persons. Where Robinson and Aronica say you have to be in your “element”, Deriesiewicz says you have to build a “soul” or a “self”.

Wagner, Dintersmith, Robinson, Aronica, Deresiewicz all ask what is education for. This question is important whether you talk about kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, high school, community college, university and everything in between. Be mindful, it is also a chain, one prepares for the other. All these different levels are connected and part of one education system with its own purposes and objectives. The question if an education is only to get a job always comes up. Deresiewicz writes:

Of course money matters: jobs matter, financial security matters, national prosperity matters. The question is, are they the only things that matter? Life is more than a job; jobs are more than a paycheck; and a country is more than its wealth. Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP, no matter what the rhetoric of politicians or executives would have you think. To ask what is college for is to ask what life is for, what society is for - what people are for.

Robinson and Aronica write in “Creative Schools” that education has four purposes: economic, cultural, social and personal:

  • Education should enable students to become economically responsible and independent.
  • Education should enable students to understand and appreciate their own cultures and respect the diversity of others.
  • Education should enable young people to become active and compassionate citizens.
  • Education should enable young people to engage with the world within them as well as the world around them.

Wagner and Dintersmith give the following suggestions for the overarching purpose of education:

  • Teach students cognitive and social skills.
  • Prepare students to be responsible, contributing citizens.
  • Build character.
  • Help students in a process of self-discovery.
  • Inspire students through the study of humanity’s great works.
  • Prepare students for productive careers.

Wagner and Dintersmith themselves state that the purpose of education should be:

The purpose of education is to engage students with their passions and growing sense of purpose, teach them critical skills needed for career and citizenship, and inspire them to do their very best to make their world better.

When was the last time you saw your political leaders discuss the purpose of education and how to achieve those goals? How do you build character? Which cognitive skills and social skills should young people learn? What is a productive career? What does an active and compassionate citizen entail? What should young people have to learn of the cultures of others? All these questions, and many more questions, can be answered in multiple ways. It is a political discussion which we should have, especially in election times.

Professor Andy Hargreaves held a presentation at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (the RSA) in which he divided education systems in four groups:

Specific and Less Bold: Education systems which have relatively specific goals which are easily measurable. Think of subjects as literacy, numeracy and other conventional subjects. Often in a competitive environment around specifically designed standards. And with a culture of “name and shame” with regard to teachers and school officials. This kind of an approach can be found in for example England, United States of America and Sweden. 

Specific and Bold: Education systems which have relatively specific goals which are not as easily measurable. In environments which focus more on collaboration than competition. The “specific and bold” education system is less measurable because it also has other specific goals besides the conventional subjects such as literacy and numeracy. You can think of goals for achieving excellence, ensuring equity, promoting well being, enhancing public confidence, being responsible citizens and how to become successful learners. Something that comes close to this kind of an approach can be best found in for example Ontario, Norway or Scotland. Hargreaves states this is the education system you want to find yourself in.

Broad and Bold: This kind of an approach can be found in The Netherlands, Denmark and Wales. Hargreaves points out that these education systems aspire to be more specific, but are in danger of moving to “specific and less bold” instead of the preferable “specific and bold”. The reason for this is that these education systems are importing pieces of other education systems which are specific and easily measurable, which means you’re going to be less bold.

The fourth area, Broad and Less Bold, isn’t specifically explained by Hargreaves in the presentation from which I am summarizing. However, I think it is safe to say that it would be the worst of the four education systems.

In my opinion the purposes of education of Robinson, Aronica, Wagner, Dintersmith and Deresiewicz will have the biggest chance of succeeding in an education system which is “specific and bold”. “Character building” or “creativity” for example can be assessed, but are not easily measurable. You don’t have standardized tests for “character building” or “creativity”. And because it is not easily measured, it is more difficult to compare with other schools, and more difficult to have a competitive school culture. Which makes this kind of changes extra hard in the United States of America. You’re not just adding or removing a few subjects within an existing system, you’re changing the education system if you really want to succeed. From an education system which is “specific and less bold” to an education system which is “specific and bold”. 

Another discussion we should have is who’s going to decide in which direction education is going. Who should get the most power in shaping the education system of the future. And how are we going to organize that? Business interests, politicians or professionals on top? In “Creative Schools” Robinson and Aronica write the following on expert teachers:

The role of teachers is to facilitate learning, and that is an expert professional task. This is why all high-performing school systems put such a premium on the recruitment, retention, and continuous professional development of high-quality teachers. There is no system of education in the world that reliably better than its teachers.

Often in education reform the last ones to have a say in the outcome are the teachers and students. Some teachers get so frustrated that they leave the profession, because of the last education reform that was pushed down their throats. Since education is about teaching and learning, a wise policymaker would put students and teachers at the heart of any reform. Not only in lip service, but in actions which show that input of teachers and students is really being used and taken seriously.

The best way to insure this is to have or to create a structure which makes the input of teachers on education policy mandatory. For example, a permanent “Council of Teachers” as was proposed by the Dutch organization Leraar 2032. This council will be there for among other things: curriculum development, sharing education practices, a permanent dialogue with other stakeholders on the content and purposes of education and oversight on implementation of curricula. 

Teachers, students and education advocates can organize their own town hall meetings to discuss the purposes of education and how to achieve them. They can invite politicians to come to their events. Teachers, students and education advocates can use these election times to put their concerns on the political agenda. Force politicians to think outside of their comfort zone. If you want to be on the steering wheel, on the political table, you will have to take the initiative and be demanding. 

I cannot say it often enough: you’re not alone. Many people have many of the same concerns as you do. Find each other and help each other to push your shared agenda forward. As I did in my blog on campaign finance I will share some of my resources, please add yours in the comment section below or send them to me via twitter. I might add them in the below list with reference to you.


Views on Education

Sir Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica: Creative Schools

Sir Ken Robinson: The Element

Sir Ken Robinson: The Inner and Outer World

All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education, a report to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (United Kingdom, 1999, Chairman Sir Ken Robinson)

The Arts in Schools, edited by Sir Ken Robinson

Most Likely to Succeed, Trailer of the Documentary (Directed by Greg Whiteley and produced by Ted Dintersmith) 

William Deresiewicz, Ph.D and David Brooks: What is College For?

William Deresiewicz, Ph.D: Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League

Diane Ravitch on Education: part 1, 2 and 3

Diane Ravitch: Public Schools for Sale? 

Ronald A. Beghetto: Killing Ideas Softly?

Erin Gruwell: Trust and Community

Mark Greenberg: Cultivating Compassion

Peace Summit 2009: Educating the Heart and Mind

Dr. Frans B.M. de Waal, Dr. Richard Davidson, Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, and Brooke Dodson-Lavelle: Secular Ethics in Education

Documentary: Children Full of Life 

Documentary: Magical Moment (in Dutch with English subtitles)

Debra Kidd: an Educational (R)evolution

Nikhil Goyal: Schools on Trial 

Chris Wink: Blue School

Television episode: TED Talks Education

Anne Bamford: Teaching Students

Stuart Brown: Play is more than fun

Daniel Goleman & Peter Senge: Systems Awareness in Schools 

Clyde Hertzman: Agression and Bullying

Bystander Revolution: Break the Cycle

Howard Gardner: Multiple Intelligences

The Dalai Lama and Dr. Kim Schonert-Reichl: Heart-Mind Well-being

The School of Life: Our Curriculum

Kevin Spacey Foundation: Richard’s Rampage Round Up Film

Howard Thurman: What Do You Want, Really

John Lloyd: General Ignorance

Sidney Harman: What is Wisdom? 


Education Channels on Youtube


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