The Staggering Naivety of Those Criticizing Public Schools as Out of Date

By Steven Singer | Published on gadflyonthewallblog | 2017 | Steven Singer is author of Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform, early release now available on Amazon ($17.95) | Contributing author to United We Stand, available on Amazon ($14.95) | Syndication made possible through Patreon.

By Steven Singer

There is a popular idea going around that public schools need to change because they’re outmoded, obsolete and passé.

While public schools certainly could do with a great deal of change to improve, this criticism is incredibly naïve.

It’s the intellectual equivalent of displaying a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses prominently on your bookshelf without actually having read it.

It’s like demanding everything you eat be gluten free without actually having celiac disease or a wheat allergy.

It’s the conceptual analogue to learning a trendy “word of the day” and trying desperately to fit it into your every conversation regardless of need or propriety.

America’s public school system is incredibly complex. And like most complex things, any criticism of it is at least partially correct.

There are ways in which the system is antiquated and could use updating. But to claim that the entire system should be scrapped in favor of a largely untested, disproven and – frankly – profit-driven model is supremely stupid.

The criticism seems to be well encapsulated in a flashy animated video from Big Picture Learning, a Rhode Island-based charter school network operating 165 schools in 25 states and nine countries. The organization has been heavily praised by the likes of former President Barack Obama and philanthrocapitalist Bill Gates.

Let’s examine the six main components of the video explaining why the charter operators think public schools are out of date and should be replaced:

1) Public Schools are Relics of the Industrial Age 

The criticism goes like this. The public school model was created in the Industrial Age and thus prepares students to be factory workers. All day long in public schools students follow orders and do exactly what they’re told. Today’s workers need different skills. They need creativity, the ability to communicate ideas and collaborate.

First, while it is true that the American public school system was created during the Industrial Revolution, the same thing can be said for the United States, itself. Beginning in 1760 and going until 1840, manufacturing began to dominate the western economy. Does that mean the U.S. Constitution should be scrapped? Clearly our form of government could do with a few renovations, but not by appeal to its temporal genesis, to when it was created.

Second, IS it true that America’s public schools expect students to do nothing but listen to orders and follow them to the letter?

Absolutely not.

In fact, this is exactly what teachers across the country DON’T want their students to do. We work very hard to make sure students have as much choice and ownership of lessons as possible.

We often begin by assessing what they know and what they’d like to know on a given subject. We try to connect it to their lives and experiences. We try to bring it alive and show them how vital and important it is.

Do we exclude creativity, communication and collaboration from our lessons?

Absolutely not.

In my class, creativity is a must. Students are required to write journals, creative fiction, and poetry. They draw pictures, maps, posters, advertisements. They make Keynote presentations, iMovies, audio recordings using Garage Band, create quizzes on Kahoot, etc. And they often do so in small groups where they are required to collaborate.

The idea that students are somehow all sitting in rigid rows while the teacher blabs on and on is pure fantasy. It betrays a complete ignorance of what really goes on in public schools.

2) Lack of Autonomy

The criticism goes that students in public school have no choices. Every minute of the day is controlled by the teacher, principals or other adults. However, in today’s world we need workers who can manage their own time and make their own decisions about what to do and when to do it.

Once again we see a complete ignorance of what goes on in public schools.

Today’s students are not only expected to make decisions and manage their time, they could not pass their classes without doing so.

Teachers often go to great lengths to give students choices. Would you like to read this story or that one? Would you like to demonstrate your learning through a test, a paper, an art project or through a digital medium?

For instance, my students are required to read silently for 15-minutes every other day. But they get to select which books to read. Eventually, they have to complete a project using their self-selected book, but they are in charge of ensuring the book they pick meets the requirements, how much they read each day in class and outside of class, and whether they should complete a given book or pick a new one.

Even when it comes to something as mundane as homework, students have to develop time management. I give my students the homework for the entire week on Monday, and it’s due on Friday. This means they have to decide how much to do each night and make sure it gets done on time.

Today’s students have much more ownership of their learning then I did when I went to school. Those throwing stones at our public school system would know that, if they actually talked to someone in it.

3) Inauthentic Learning

Critics say most of the learning in public schools is inauthentic because it relies on memorization and/or rote learning. It relies on a generic set of knowledge that all children must know and then we measure it with standardized tests. Learning should be deeper and its subjects should be something students intrinsically care about.

Once again…

Actually this one is kind of spot on.

Or at least, it’s partially true.

It accurately represents one kind of curriculum being mandated on public schools from the state and federal government. It’s called corporate education reform, and as pervasive as it is, you’ll also find the overwhelming majority of school teachers and community members against it.

This is why Common Core is so unpopular – especially among teachers. This is why almost everyone wants to reduce standardized testing and the kind of narrowing of the curriculum and teach-to-the-test practices it brings.

However, there’s something incredibly disingenuous about this criticism coming from a charter network chain. The educational practices these critics of public schools often propose replacing this standardization with are often just a rehash of that same standardization using more modern technology.

Business interests, like Big Picture Learning, often propose using competency based education or personalized education programs on computers or devices. These are extremely standardized. They follow the same Common Core standards and use computerized stealth assessments to determine whether students have learned the prescribed standard or not.

In short, yes, corporate education reform should be challenged and defeated. However, as in this instance, often the same people criticizing public schools for these practices don’t want to undo them – they just want to expand them so they can be more effectively monetized by big businesses like them!

4) No Room for Student Interests

Critics say the standardized public school system requires each child to learn the same things in the same ways at the same times. However, each of us are different and have individual interests and passions. The current system has no room for self-discovery, finding out what children enjoy doing, what they’re good at and where they fit in.

Once again, there is some truth to these criticisms.

The corporate education model is guilty of exactly these things. However, teachers have been pushing to include an increasing amount of individualization in lessons.

This struggle is inherent in the essential dichotomy of what it means to be an educator today. We’re told we must individualize our lessons for each student but standardize our assessments. This is fundamentally impossible and betrays a lack of vision from those making policy.

If the lawmakers and policy wonks who made the rules only listened to teachers, child psychologists and other experts, we would not be in this predicament.

As it is, many teachers do what they can to ensure students interests are part of the lesson. They gauge student interest before beginning a lesson and let it guide their instruction. For instance, if students want to know more about the weaponry used by the two sides in the Trojan War, that can become part of the unit. If, instead, they wonder about the role of women in both societies, that can also become part of the curriculum. Just because the higher ups demand students learn about the Trojan War doesn’t mean student interest must be ignored. In fact, it is vital that it be a component.

Moreover, creative writing, journaling and class discussion can help students grow as learners and engage in authentic self-discovery. Two weeks don’t go by in my class without a Socratic Seminar group discussion where students debate thematic and textual questions about literature that often spark dialogues on life issues. When students hear what their peers have to say about a given subject, it often results in them changing their own opinions and rethinking unquestioned beliefs and values.

In short, less corporate education reform means room for more student passion, interest and self-discovery.

But these critics don’t want less. They want more!

5) They Don’t Respect How We Learn

Critics say that each student is different in terms of how they learn best and in how much time it takes to learn. As a result, students who comprehend something at a slower rate than others are considered failures by the current system.

In the corporate model, this is true. However, most districts take great pains to give students multiple chances to learn a given concept or skill.

The fact that not all students will know the same things at the same times is built in to the curriculum. Teachers are familiar with their students and know which children need more help with which skills. Concepts are reviewed and retaught – sometimes through copious mini-lessons, sometimes with one-on-one instruction, sometimes with exercises for the whole class.

The further one gets from standardized tests and Common Core, the more individual student needs are respected and met.

But again that’s not the goal of these critics. They blame public schools for what they only wish to continue at higher intensity.

6) Too Much Lecturing

Critics say that under the current system, students are lectured to for more than 5 hours a day. However, this requires students to be unable to interact with each other for long periods of time. Students are at different levels of understanding and nothing can be done to help them until the lecture is over. Wouldn’t it be better to let students pursue their own education through computers and the internet so they could proceed at their own pace like at the Khan Academy?

And here we have the real pitch at the heart of the criticism.

People who wish to tear down public schools are not agnostic about what should replace them. They often prefer privatized and computerized alternatives – like the Big Picture charter chain model!

However, these are not entirely novel and new approaches. We’ve tried them, though on a smaller scale than the traditional public school model, and unlike that traditional system, they’re an abject failure.

Giving students a computer and letting them explore to their hearts content is the core of cyber charter schools – perhaps the most ineffective academic system in existence today. In my state of Pennsylvania, it was actually determined that students would learn more having no formal schooling at all than to go to cyber charter schools.

The reason? It is beyond naïve to expect children to be mature enough to control every aspect of their learning. Yes, they should have choice. Yes, they should be able to explore and develop as individuals at their own pace. But if you just let children go, most will choose something more immediately gratifying than learning. Most children would rather sit around all day playing Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty than watch even the most interesting educational video about math or science.

Adolescents need structure. They need motivation. In short, they need a teacher – a human authority figure in the same room with them who can help guide their learning and hold them accountable for their actions.

The mere presence of information on the Internet will not make children smarter just as the mere presence of a book won’t increase their knowledge. Certainly some children are self-motivated enough and may benefit from this approach, but the overwhelming majority will not and do not.

Our public schools do need a reformation, but this edtech-biased criticism only hits part of the mark.

The major problems are corporate education reform and standardization. And unfortunately edtech plans like privatization and competency based schemes only seek to increase these pedagogies.

Public schools are not outdated. They have changed and evolved to meet the needs of the students attending them. The fact that they serve every student in a given community without weeding out the less motivated or those with special needs as charter chains like Big Picture do, demonstrates this very flexibility and daily innovation.

They can be robust systems fostering self-discovery, autonomy and deep student learning. We just need to have the courage to support them, strengthen their autonomy and avoid trendy, shallow and self-centered criticisms from charter chains hoping we’ll buy what they’re selling.

Steven Singer is author of Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform, early release now available on Amazon ($17.95) | Contributing author to United We Stand, available on Amazon ($14.95).

Related: Garn Press Education Books

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