Fixing Our Schools

[Former Labor Secretary William Brock leads the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce.]

Secretary Brock:

How can we fix American education?

In the last 25 years, spending rose 240 percent and performance has barely changed. Only 68 percent of students graduate from high school.

We need the very best among us to become teachers, and we need to ensure that standardized tests of rote knowledge don’t drive education away from the very things that have made America special: critical thinking, creativity, innovation and teamwork.

www.andersonschool.net

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The Crisis Today!

In frequent discortations with other private school educators, I found a highly consubstantial love of what we call a relaxed and informal atmosphere, combined with a real commitment to academic freedom. If you are old enough, you may actually recall having teachers who were trusted enough to make decisions and conduct the business of counseling, motivating and teaching children. Oh, these were the good old days! These were the generations of educators that enabled the children of this nation to make the United States the envy of other nations. These teachers empowered us to become the only remaining superpower on earth, to acquire more than half the wealth of the world, while comprising only six percent of its population and to realize that not locating a Starbucks could be a significant life-altering dilemma. How does the saying go, “Only in America”!

We shared an abhorrence of those things that distract children from academic and thoughtful pursuit. Their love of reading meshes beautifully with our first love. We forbid homework and ask our students instead, to spend this precious time establishing a life-time habit and love of reading – with a requirement that each child read or be read to, for at least one hour each evening.

As with the Finns, we believe that overly strict rules do not translate into dedicated scholars. We harbor only three rules: to be kind, to be kind and to be kind. And when you think about it, that covers just about everything.

At the Anderson School visitors are sometimes mildly shocked to find such things as: barefoot boys (and girls) fluttering down the hall (they really do feel more relaxed and at home this way), or a child asleep in bed during the school day (why fight Mother Nature – if you are tired, rest! After a nap, children are energized and ready again to learn and play) and a mild, low-grade level of chaos.

This is normal behavior for the young and can become highly productive. It provides opportunity for the interplay of ideas and hopes and dreams as kids banter back and forth. And there are intangibles that result: the modeling of creative flux, improved self-esteem and self-confidence and the intrinsic motivation generated by the children themselves. Since our bright students are busy teaching and working with each other, the tendency is toward non-stop communication, as they group themselves according to interests, not age. Typically, you find a very young scholar teaching older types and excited to share knowledge.

At our school students keep the same teachers for many years. We actually get to know them and we treat each other like family. Why not? Are we not really related in many ways? We promote self-reliance and autonomous learning, minimize competition, assail perfectionism, promote informality and a relaxed home-like atmosphere, remove the harmful and potentially devastating emphasis upon grades (no grades or report cards are provided – scholars are expected to perform at a mastery level of 90% without time constraints) and, importantly, we eliminate homework. As educators we have had plenty of time during the day to get the job done.

And parents are essentially not qualified to teach at home and do not have the time or patience. They worked hard all day and the boss did not assign them homework. Parents would not tolerate this. They would find another employer. But your children cannot simply find another teacher. They are riveted to a desk, with little hope of finding the time they need to do the real work of kids – they need to play.

We also provide the freedom to do such things as: progress at your own pace, allow children to prepare their own meals and dine whenever they like (some “graze” throughout the day) and play whenever they complete morning or afternoon assignments (a few will work all weekend so they may play at school). This is real academic freedom and allows for the independent use of personal judgment. We want our children to practice making many, many decisions while they are young and under our guidance.

After all, they will be making every decision regarding their own lives, and our own lives, and in a few years. So be very kind to your children, for in the end, they will be all you have left.

And don’t be shocked if your children can’t survive on their own in the near future, if you did every thing for them and made their every decision. They may become so dependent that they NEVER leave home. It happens.

Some schools are largely successful because they truly realize that, “Less is more”. To be less demanding equates to more time at home with mom and more time to play and this always leads to a more psychologically healthy person – someone who really WANTS to go to school the next day (and perhaps more importantly, knows how to play).

Our children are more relaxed, energized and ready to study, rather than being burned out, bored, fatigued and more deeply depressed than they will ever say – which can result in their becoming anxious, obnoxious, angry, rebellious and unwilling to continue what has evolved into drudgery and a loathing of going to school.

And when you think about it, wouldn’t you rebel if you were stressed out, overly assessed, classified, compared, bored, structured, selected and sorted ad nausium. Why, revolutions have occurred for less – revolutions of the mind and of the family. We see many children today who are dropping out mentally, socially, emotionally, physically and in other ways that more frequently become destructive.

I have been asked why the educational systems are imploding? What’s broken and what can we, as parents and educators, do to fix it?

Essentially, our educational systems are imploding because:

1. Our schools are now devoid of essential academic freedom,
2. They are saddled with the ineffective and truly oppressive No Child Left Behind Act and its sinfully negative byproducts and
3. Schools lack the fiery furnace of competition in the free market place.

The solutions are simple but, in our present static state of mind, probably unavailable. However, if ever we do decide to act we know what to do:

We need to provide each student, through their parents, the funds to purchase their schooling wherever they choose to go. The natural and highly beneficial effect of competition for this money would produce results similar to every other commodity in the marketplace. Beautifully crafted, thoughtful and productive products in the form of innovative and dynamic curriculums and remarkable institutions of learning would be engineered by our gifted educators in competition with each other. But importantly, regardless of the outcome, they would serve to please our parents and children.

But we have become imprisoned to the precept that government can extrinsically motivate schools and teachers, utilizing the negative bias of assessment and with such harsh and punitive prerogatives as the loss of employment for teachers and administrators, virtually worthless and shameful labels, accusations, inevitably harmful performance evaluations and even the unthinkable closure of entire schools. Such closures are so severe that one can imagine less damage being inflicted to a school community even in time of war.

This punitive, fear based system shall never produce overall sustainable positive results, especially for those children most in need. This system is far beyond broken. It poses a very real-time danger to our society. This obviatedly biased bent toward negative reinforcement is a conceptualization rejected many years ago in the study of child behavior.

Our boat is now sinking by the bow and no longer in sight of the shore. We seemingly cannot even identify the real problems with our schools. But we act like we do really know who or what is to blame. So we keep felling the trees around us in order to glimpse a sliver of the light of understanding from above and do not even know there is a fragile and endangered forest all around us.

For our underpaid, overworked and unappreciated educators should never have been marked and targeted. They are not to blame! And our children should never have been used as pawns in this unintelligible game.

We now find it virtually impossible to patch our ship of state, in light of the large, gaping holes created by fear, a focus upon self-serving and selfish interests and an inability to locate words such as equitable, fair or open-minded in any dictionary to be found in our capitals of government in Austin or Washington.

What can parents do to help children attain success and be the best they can be?

Well, if your child is truly suffering (and can you believe you are paying for this abuse with your taxes or tuition?) I recommend removing them from any oppressive and harmful environment immediately (that means today!).

Then, you may want to take them for refreshments to a fun place (they may actually remember having fun). There you can apologize for not sheltering them from the storm, for not protecting them or truly being their advocate and being there for them when you were needed. It helps to let a child know you are human and make mistakes.

It will also help if you let them know that you will now and forever more be there for them and not allow anyone else or any other school to make them so unhappy and miserable again. After you wipe the tears from their eyes, take a moment to wipe away yours. And remember, if your child forgives you, it is in the past. It is over. Now you can go forward and forgive all those who transgressed against your beloved children. Just don’t vote for them again. Have mercy on the next generation.

Now, plan the future. Let your child help you. Explore the many other avenues available (and there are many). Remind yourself how thankful we all are that Thomas Edison’s mother removed him from such a school at a very early age. Now that’s what I call – seeing the light! With over 1100 patents to his name, we can all be thankful that she removed him from school, which now enables us to watch a great movie tonight, with sound and the ability to record it. A compassionate decision for one deeply loved child, has led us all out of the dark and into the light. Thank you Mrs. Edison! So just follow her example and start by stopping the pain.

Next, you will need to examine what happened to our schools and to your child. And that is a complex journey fraught with unbelievable intrusions into the coliseums and colloquiums of academia.

Special interests, and not so special lawmakers, intruded into the sacred spaces of our children’s classrooms, their home away from home, assuming they knew more than highly trained and devoutly dedicated educators about what your children needed. When in fact, teachers were well qualified and simply needed to be left alone.

Lawmakers could have helped the wonderful, beautiful, caring and ever-giving teachers by paying them a decent wage and providing more money for materials (many, many teachers have spent their own meager funds on your children and without you ever aware of it). But we, as individuals, elected people who obviously did not know how to educate children, and much more importantly, how fragile they are or how to care for them. Their pride went before our fall.

Simplicity

I fondly remember many years ago my good friend, who was a State Representative, Homer Dear, a wonderful and loving retired school teacher and administrator, calling to ask what should be done, in my opinion, legislatively.

My immediate response was mandate relief. The volumes of dictates from our zealous state agency and the legislature were so voluminous that no one on this planet even knew everything that was required of a school. He then sponsored a bill to provide such relief. Naturally, it was defeated. No one is going to tell the legislature that much of what they did is actually too much and leading toward a dastardly day of self-destruction (this is the impending implosion). But in essence Homer knew what needed to be done. And now you know.

Freedom

Simply stated: remove nearly all of the governmental laws, mandates (typically unfunded-thank you), guidelines and regulations relative to education, substantially realign and reduce the size, scope and budget of the state regulatory agency (eliminating well over a billion dollars that funds this unbelievable megalopoliptic and essentially counter-productive enterprise) and get every one, and I mean every one out of the teacher’s way and out of the teacher’s classroom. On your way out, buy her (or him) a cup of well-earned coffee.

This can significantly contribute to the academic freedom that Dr. Reed Dawson, a beloved Baylor professor of mine, warned in 1973, was perilously close to death. He was right. The infamous and highly destructive Texas Assessment of Basic Skills test, and its destructive off-springs (T.E.A.M.S., T.A.K.S., etc.) was about to be unleashed upon our unsuspecting and naive populace.

Academic freedom, as with all the productive and beneficial benefits that any freedom provides, was about to be targeted and totally destroyed. And it began with this blunt instrument of institutional sin in 1980. Simply stated, this oppressive test now needs to be abolished and accompanied by an apology to all of its victims, and there are many.

Now, after you give back freedom to teachers to teach, come back in one year and you and child will be well on the road to being happy. Trust me, teachers knew what to do all along. How many years did our educators spend in a college or university preparing to take an oath of poverty, so he or she could have the honor of teaching your child?

Yes, the teacher can do the job. Just get everyone out of her (or his) way. Remember, in the successful schools, such as Finland, less is more. And it always has been. Isn’t that even in the Bible? Simplicity must replace the absolute mess that we have today! By the way, Finnish schools, the highest achieving in the entire world, value exactly this – simplicity.

Finance

Finland sets the example for us again, in providing roughly EQUAL per-pupil funding. The gap between the best and worst performing schools in Finland was the smallest tested.

So what happened to our free enterprise system and the competitive market place? You know, the one we preach about from on high in every school in America. The system that created such wealth for us, that we have reached record levels of obesity, consumption and waste. Why is the competitive marketplace of our free enterprise system provided an exemption in the marketplace of knowledge? Do we not yet realize that competition is the primary catalyst for excellence in our economic society, that it is the engine that drives us to unsurpassed prosperity?

Or are we not willing to vote for people of courage and conscience or recruit those rare individuals to run for public office who are willing to sacrifice an innate defensiveness and desire for self-serving interests for the sake of what is most precious in our lives – our children.

To date we have not mustered enough courage or votes to really change anything. And my fear is that we may never do so! This boat full of unwilling and highly dependent people who will soon need to have everyone bailing the waters of indifference, and neglect. The perilous sea has already reached the water line and mighty Casey has struck out. Stay tuned, the game will resume overseas. What’s that gurgling sound?

Can you even imagine educators from other countries observing that our system of public education strives to, “leave no child behind” while we post a drop out rate for Fort Worth I. S. D. of 46 percent, 25 percent nationwide and almost 80 percent along the border? Let’s compare that to 4 [that’s FOUR] percent for Finland.

Ladies and gentlemen, we left half of our children at the starting gate. And we did not just leave them behind, we abandoned them with no hope that they will ever truly flourish and prosper (but, on the bright side, we meagerly raised the minimum wage with them in mind, didn’t we?).

Ultimately, these lost children will never even be able to sustain themselves, much less impact this system that has been so neglectful to so many. And the system we created and perpetuate to this day will, one day soon, not be able to support them or their children. The weight of so much water will cause this listing ship to topple over. (Have you ever tried to live on the minimum wage?)

We left many of our children with little hope that they will ever truly thrive in our highly competitive economy. Our focus upon minimum skills for all has evolved into a minimum wage for many.

Our mediocrity has become merit to us, the mediocre. And our children did not deserve this! They are the victims of our now tired, cowardly, self-centered neglect.

It is a sad commentary that our fear to change what needs to be changed
is now the driving force behind the fall of twenty-first century Rome.

Dr. William C. Anderson, Co-Director
The Anderson Private School for the Gifted, Talented and Creative
817-448-8484
andersonschool.net