We Don’t Need No Education

When Pink Floyd made that part of their album “The Wall”, it rang out as an anthem. Many people thought it was simply a rebellious streak against conformity, but it seems at least to me (and yes, I’m willing to be wrong) that the rebellion isn’t against education and learning itself but against the brainwashing done by countries to remake history according to their own liking (e.g. Tianamen Square).

There’s a part of me that wonders if the direction our public schools are heading isn’t simply another case of brainwashing, but this time the repressive forces are those of economics.

Everyone can consider themselves to be an educational expert; we’ve all been to school, right? We all have opinions on the subject, but it’s only those who enact legislation and approve textbooks that really affect schools. The biggest issue that I have with modern education is twofold: we’ve tried to replace the traditional model of school with that of running a school as a business, and improper use of evaluations has completely damaged the whole system.

First, let’s examine the whole running a school as a business. A lot of this started with Ross Perot’s reforms in Texas back when you had to have passing grades to be eligible for extracurricular activities. Like most good ideas, in theory, this made sense. Kids don’t pass their basic subjects, they don’t play football or be in band. In reality, while a lot of students were forced to study harder, for some, it became another way to figure out how to game the system. Take, for example, the Carter Cowboys of Dallas described in the book “Friday Night Lights”. There, cheating scandals and grade changes were made to keep star athletes on the field.

Even today, with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), we rely on evaluation of all students to determine federal and state funding. In some cases, it’s used to determine teacher effectiveness. Larger districts are also hamstrung with layers upon layers of bureaucracy. Take a look at this list of departments of Houston ISD and try to determine how many have to do with core academics. Now imagine being in the system and being a teacher. You have a disruptive, unruly student–one who consistently is set on making it impossible for anyone to learn anything. This same bureaucracy will oftentimes prevent a teacher from being able to do anything meaningful about getting this student to change direction. It’s too much hassle and documentation, and there are so many students who need individual educational programs already. And what about the teachers themselves? How many of us remember Fridays in the marginal subjects of History or wherever they stuck the assistant football coaches where we watched films so the coach could prepare for the game? Or worse yet, you had a teacher who was just bad? One that either didn’t care about their subject, wasn’t an effective teacher, did a lousy job managing records and whatnot, but because of the threat of legal action is more frightening than taking a stand you can’t remove him or her?

I’m rambling around the point a bit. Bureaucracy in any organization can lead to stagnation and frustration, but when you add the relentless standards-based evaluation that NCLB has led us to do, it makes real meaningful education nearly impossible. NCLB itself is a noble goal, again like pass-to-play was, but it too suffers from overbroad execution and also what I believe is an attempt by those who stand to benefit the most from these standards (textbook publishers and educational consultants that can “improve” a district) to funnel money away from things that just might make a real difference in the educational system.

Compare the modern high school to that of 30 years ago, or even as late as “The Breakfast Club”. Does Shop even exist anymore as a class, or have we sacrificed it for economic and standards reasons? It’s not what a student is tested on, so it must not matter to those who insist on driving the schools by numbers. Those numbers completely ignore what I’d call the dangerous reality of education: it can’t be done by just teachers alone. The student has to be a willing participant, and their parents have to be committed to it as well. More often than not, where schools are failing, you may only have one of these three items in place, and if a teacher is the only social service a child ever sees, what does that imply? That being a teacher alone, documenting your work, creating and following lesson plans, trying desperately to reach students who may or may not be willing to listen because the distractions are much greater these days, working with special needs kids who’ve been mainstreamed because NCLB doesn’t allow for any exemptions (except when states realize that the majority of their schools aren’t making enough Average Yearly Progress. (For fun, google that term and any state. Read the articles)… it all isn’t enough. Now they have to spend more out-of-school time tracking down parents to try and get them involved in their kid’s education.

We are America. We don’t want to say that kids won’t shine when we put a spotlight on them, but when we continually blind them with high-beams, when do we say “we need to try something else, because this one just isn’t going to go the normal way”?

Here’s my proposal: bring back shop, but make it function for the good of the students and the school. For Auto Shop, have classes in the morning over subjects that mechanics need to know (science, applied physics, math), and in the afternoon, have an auto repair/oil change facility where the students could work. It might make money, it might lose money, but those kids would have valuable experience without paying through the nose at a for-profit technical school. They could contribute directly after graduation to the U.S. economy.

Restaurants: why not put one on the school campus, or just offsite? Have students come in the morning, do deliveries and prep, go to culinary and other basic subject classes (French, math, Sanitation, Knife skills), then work at the restaurant in the evening? You wouldn’t necessarily have a student doing that all the time, but by the time they’re 16, this type of system could benefit schools, provide almost instantaneous places for reunions, and give kids skills that they won’t have to pay $50,000 for, only to find out that they can only get an $8/hour dishwasher starting job.

Bring back vocations as an option. Let students learn why some parts of school matter (so you don’t do things the wrong way, so you don’t get ripped off, so you learn a work ethic). If a student wants to go to college, there’s nothing stopping them, but they can make that decision on their own time and at their own pace.

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