On June 22, 2016, The Atlantic published "America's Not-So-Broken Education System." Contrary to what we see from too many education writers, the author points out several ways America's education system has improved slowly and steadily: improved teacher training, a more cohesive curriculum, and certain measurable outcomes. We could dispute his case and even the underlying philosophy; we could argue all of what he says may be true, but it's not good enough. I certainly maintain these bits of progress are not really worth celebrating all that much and we still have plenty to fix.
But that's not really my point. The article prompted some new reflection on my dismay over the often nasty nature of dialogue about education. (Two examples: here and here.)* Granted, in many ways education presents a fairly easy targets. Even people not in the field offer strong opinions. I point out them out not because they shouldn't be commenting, but because I think they fail to grasp the complexity of what a school is trying to do. With the one-to-one teacher-student relationship complicated enough by itself, consider the mosaic of an entire school, especially ones as diverse as our typical public schools. Sometimes I'm a bit awed by how well many schools do in their circumstances, whether the myriad needs and backgrounds of their students or larger cultural forces. That seems forgotten amidst the negative criticism.
Still, I generally agree with the basic content of much of the criticism. It's often based on legitimate concerns and frequently raises important questions. I ask them myself. My frustration grows for other reasons. The first is the tone and stance many of the critics regularly adopt: pure negativity, laced with snarkiness and sarcasm. There's something stereotypically adolescent about it. As much as I dislike the smugness, I'm more annoyed by what's usually missing.
Ideas, answers, new models, solutions--those seldom appear. In other words, the critics, while great at pointing out problems, are not nearly as good at fixing them. Any ideas, even the better ones, remain overly general or simplistic. Certainly they fail to account for all the challenges of implementation, especially in a system as complex as a classroom, a school, a district. Yes, sometimes it's a communication issue, depending on medium or lack of larger context. Too often, though, it's attitudinal. I think of fans who slam professional athletes competing at the highest level.
As frustrated as I am with "outside" people who operate this way, I become even more annoyed with "inside" ones who respond in certain ways. Perhaps they chuckle at the flippancy and scornful gibes. Perhaps they think they aren't part of the issue. Perhaps they shift blame to the system or administration or parents. It amounts to self-absolution. They seem to plead, "I would have ideas and make things better, but I don't have that power; I just have to accept the way it is even though I complain about it."
That's when my mad morphs to sad. I don't think many of these people are by nature cynical. Many are probably crushed idealists. Whichever is the case, it can't be great for kids. However we want to break down mission or philosophy or purpose, education should be about helping kids become the best possible versions of themselves. That means empowering them to develop agency. Kids need educators who model that quality in purposeful, positive fashion.
Yes, the challenges may seem insurmountable. But they're not. We know of amazing success stories, miracles conjured through all sorts of hocus-pocus. I certainly don't have the answers, illustrated by a rather motley resume of hits and misses as I keep swinging. I do know, however, a great place to start would be to insist on more mature, measured, meaningful ongoing conversation.
*I realize that someone could read this post and accuse me of hypocrisy based on what I am about to write. I'll take that chance and hope my overall records shows otherwise. If not, I need to rethink some things.