In his book The Underground History of American Education, and again in Weapons of Mass Instruction, author, homeschooling advocate and former NYC Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto says that one of the main reasons that our public education system will not change, no matter how much money or ‘reform’ we throw at it, is that it has become an enormous jobs project. To change it, even a little, would mean putting a lot of people out of work. And that, in our current economy, ain’t gonna happen, my friends.
In last month’s Atlantic Monthly Magazine, former NYC School Chancellor Joel Klein wrote an article titled, “The Failure of American Schools” in which he talks about the political corruption rampant in our school system, from unions who strong arm the politicians, mediocre teachers who are just putting in the time until they can cash in on their generous pension, and all the other usual suspect we hear about and which never change. Mr. Klein thought he could change it, and he tried, but was defeated by the powers that be. He quotes Albert Shanker, the late head of the UFT (United Federation of Teachers) as saying, “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”
None of this should come as a surprise to anyone, especially after the last 18 months or so, when films such as “Waiting for Superman” and “Race to Nowhere” became hot topics in and out of schools, and upheaval in Wisconsin and to a lesser degree in Indiana called attention to the enormous tensions between lawmakers and teachers unions. It’s the ‘what to do about it’ part that is the real mystery. Because of all the things that both Gatto and Klein talk about, the public school system is unlikely to change, barring a wide scale revolution on the part of the majority of the citizenry. And for a country loathe to get off our couches even to vote for President, how likely do you think that is?
As an aside, I must relate something that Maya’s friend Greta, who attends one of the more respected public middle schools in the city, told us earlier today. At her school, she said, it is not allowed to use the word ‘dice’. Why? Because that word is related to gambling, of course! Instead, teachers and therefore students are required to say ‘number cubes’. (Thankfully, Greta also said that her teacher said it’s a ridiculous rule and she will continue to use the word ‘dice’ in the classroom.) But truly, this is the kind of attention to unimportant minutae that is rampant in schools and that, along with everything else already mentioned, make actual learning a secondary (at best) consideration. After Greta told us this story, we began thinking of all the other words that might be considered suspect. How about ‘cards’? Maybe you could call them ‘rectangular paper number indicators’. Or, as Ben pointed out, what about ‘money’? After all, money is used in gambling! Hmm, what could you call it? Would ‘currency’ be ok, or would you have to say something like ‘paper monetary indicators’? AND, what about the expression “I bet” as in “I bet my teacher assigns a lot of homework over the weekend.” “Bet”? TOTAL gambling word! Forget the even older expression, “I’d wager” as in, “I’d wager that most of the teachers do the same.” Instead you’d have to say something like, “I’m reasonably certain”, which is fine and possibly even a better use of vocabulary, but not if you are using it because the word police have outlawed ‘bet’. How many gambling addicts look back and say, “Yes, I can trace my addiction to the sixth grade and my teacher’s repeated use of the word ‘dice’.” If anything, by making students aware of the connotation and forcing them to use a cumbersome replacement, schools are emphasizing the very thing they are trying to discourage.
But back to the matter at hand. If I could lead the revolution (not a job I think I would actually want, but still), schools would simply cease to exist. The Department of Education would be defunct. The government could hire all the millions of people currently employed by schools to tear down the existing buildings and replace them with parks or playgrounds or nature trails all centered around voluntary learning centers. These would be modeled after public libraries; anyone can come in and learn about anything they are interested in. People will be on hand to provide guidance or help when necessary. Think of it as an Apple store, except the subjects will go beyond how to use iMovie or any of the other Apple apps. In fact, the Apple people are really onto something with their One to One system. Want to learn more about your computer? Set up an hour long one on one tutoring lesson with one of their staff. What a great way to learn anything! It’s open to anyone, of any age, on any subject related to any product Apple offers. Why couldn’t the same type of thing be set up for History, or Science, or any other subject you can think of?
Needless to say, in this system there would be no testing, no so-called “standardization” and no segregation based on age or perceived intelligence. People of all ages could learn according to their interests. Apprenticeships would become commonplace, with companies hiring in through an apprenticeship program, and based solely on practical ability, not GPA or degrees earned.
If I could lead the revolution, or conversely, had magical powers, that would be my solution. But since I don’t, and such a thing is about as close to impossible as it gets, we’ll continue our own mini-revolution called life learning, right here at home. We hope you’ll join us.