It’s time to rethink the Public Education model from scratch, so we stop wasting time and money and pretending we’re accomplishing something that isn’t happening.
If our kids are falling behind kids in other countries, it’s not because we don’t spend enough money on education, it’s not because teachers aren’t good enough, and it’s not because we need more standardized tests. It’s because most kids just don’t give a damn, they are not grateful for the gift of education, and they see no reason to work hard to earn anything. This is not their fault — almost every influence in our culture tells them that they have the right to wise around all day and nonetheless expect to be given all the ‘stuff’ they want (including an acceptance to a good college and a high-paying job). But even if it’s not their ‘fault’ it is their responsibility, at least by high school, to get over it. (As I often try to impress upon them, when they start working at a job no one is going to coddle them the way the schools are expected to coddle them). I’ve spent a good share of my adult working life as a teacher, and I always try (usually with no success) to get my students to really understand that I cannot ‘teach’ them anything at all, I can only help them learn: the effort and motivation have to be theirs. I can then be extremely helpful to them if they want to learn. But I can give the greatest lecture anyone ever imagined to a stone and it won’t learn anything. Students (and some parents) expect me to magically ‘put’ what I know into their heads for them — but that’s not education, that’s programming, and kids are not machines. So I spend all day pretending that it makes sense for me to beg them to work at least a little, and I cajole them and coax them and try to entertain them, and try all sorts of ridiculous ‘methods’ to get them to be quiet for a few minutes, turn off the ipods, stop horsing around, and care (because how much they care about their education is the ‘key’, and no government studies or PhD dissertations are necessary to figure this out). Visiting students from other countries, where education is respected and teachers are thanked for their efforts, are typically appalled when they enter an American public school and see the nonsense that goes on here all day. There’s plenty of talk in educational circles about the need for teachers to learn better ways to “engage” their students – which is an excellent idea up to a point. But we’ve overemphasized it to such an extreme that if our kids are not constantly amused they believe the adult world has somehow failed them, and this is just one more way that we make it impossible for them to learn self-reliance or the value of hard work, and we cripple their ability to accomplish anything on their own.
I believe a free education should be offered to every American child. But I do not believe they should all be compelled to spend their days in the schools if they don’t want to, and I don’t think schools should be compelled to put up with every kid no matter how much they disrupt the place and ruin the environment for everyone who does want to be there and get something for themselves (and don’t get me wrong, there are some highly-motivated, hard-working kids). Some of our kids would be much better off finding out how difficult life can be without an education, and then they can come back to school if and when they are ready (and schools should be open evenings and summers in order to serve such students when they are mature and ready). Some of our kids would thrive in the military, where they would learn some much-needed self-discipline, and, again, they might then be ready to come back to school and become educated. Some of our kids should be in Trade Schools, and not forced to learn pre-calculus and college writing: What ‘egalitarian’ nonsense makes us assume that every single kid needs exactly the same courses? Why torment kids who don’t want the same things as others? Some of our kids are easily ready for Community College long before we finally let them out the doors, and some of our kids are easily ready for a Liberal Arts College. There is nothing magical about the age of 18.
Public education should be offered to everyone. It should be strongly encouraged. It should also be flexible and non-compulsory. And we have to stop pretending that what we are now doing makes sense just because inertia keeps us doing it.