Want to Save Public Education? The Answers are Simple
By Charles Sosnik
Recently, I wrote a piece for the Grit Daily website entitled “Technology is Overwhelming Education and That’s Why We Need More of It.” The premise for the column was that using more, sophisticated technology could take the pressure off teachers and give them more time to teach. In the column, I listed some ideas that could help guide schools and bring them more in line with the rest of the world. Traditional public education is experiencing growing pains as it transitions to more of a student-directed, on demand experience industry.
The transition is inevitable. Parents are discovering education options like amazing video game-grade courseware, private, magnet and charter schools and many online and strip-mall alternatives that are just so much sexier than traditional public education. Mostly, parents want some measure of control over how their kids will be educated. For their part, kids want a say-so into what and how they learn. They want learning to be fun, challenging and relevant.
So far, over a quarter of all school-aged kids (and their parents) have left the traditional model of public education, crossing over to what many perceive as the dark side. However, unless we as educators want to hear, “Will the last one to leave turn out the lights,” we should really take a look at what students need in today’s world. Some of the things we do in public school that are turning parents off and encouraging them to look for alternatives are not even intentional on our part. It is simply part of the culture of an outdated industry that needs to adapt to changing times. Instead of saying, “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” let’s examine our policy and be open to new ways of thinking.
Here are some ideas that can be adapted by districts to begin to change the culture and bring students back.
IDEA #1: SCHOOL IS NOT A STEPPING-STONE
I hear it all the time, “The purpose of school is to prepare students for what comes next,” whether that’s college, a career or success in later life. Children spend 13 or more years in public schooling. That’s about one fifth of their entire lives. The idea that such a substantial portion of someone’s life should be meaningless except to prepare him or her for what comes next is ludicrous.
We need to see school as an amazing experience that on its face has value. Why not make this time rewarding, fulfilling and fun? Maybe you enjoyed school. I hated it and couldn’t wait to get out. Sadly, school isn’t that different today, but it could be.
IDEA #2: GIVE KIDS THE REINS
School has traditionally been about telling a kid what he will learn. Teachers were the experts, and if a teacher didn’t know it, neither should you. Today, the world’s knowledge is available at your fingertips. Why not make school a place of exploration? Let the student’s interests determine what he learns. Let teachers be the helpers, showing students how to find what they need, showing them the relevance and helping connect what they find to their own lives.
IDEA #3: ENOUGH TECH EQUALS LESS TECH FATIGUE
The problem in schools isn’t too much technology, it’s that there isn’t nearly enough. Schools are overwhelmed with technology because they are trying to use disparate parts of technology, badly, to manually do the things that technology should be doing overall. Look at Amazon. Netflix. Uber. Any kid can navigate those systems and get exactly what he wants. Education should be just that easy.
IDEA #4: WE HAVE TOO MANY RULES
Let’s question the status quo. Many of the rules and structures are no longer beneficial. Who says school has to start at 8:00 and end at 3:00? Why must students sit in rows watching the teacher talk? Is it necessary to come to school every day? What’s with all the tests? Why must all students follow the same curriculum? Why do we have 12 grade levels? Why do we assign progress in letter grades? Why can’t students learn what they want to learn? And seriously, what’s with all the suspensions and disciplinary actions?
IDEA #5: THE STUDENT IS THE CUSTOMER
The purpose of a school is not to employ teachers. It is not to employ principals. It is not to bend students to the will of a teacher or principal or school board. It is to serve students. Without students, teachers, principals and school boards would be out of a job. They all work for the student. Not for the county. Not for the state. The student is the customer. It is the job of school employees to educate each child to the best of that child’s abilities, whether or not that child has the same abilities or interests as others. It’s not the job of school employees to educate some of the children or even a majority. If one child fails, every employee at the school fails that child.
IDEA #6: GLOBAL INTERNET CONNECTIVITY IS A RIGHT
The idea that some children can’t afford Internet connectivity at home is absurd. Currently, Elon Musk is deploying a series of 6,000 satellites to give the world equal access to the Internet. Until that time, if we can pay $13,000 or more per student for public school, we can darn-sure pay for home Internet access for any kid that doesn’t have it. Without it, kids in poverty have no chance at having an equitable education.
IDEA #7: SCHOOL CHOICE IS ALREADY HERE
Well over a quarter of our children (27 percent) have already opted-out of traditional public school for private school, home school, charter school or some type of blended program that includes online classes and some school participation. We can argue over whether school choice is good or bad or will destroy public education, but it is a moot argument because school choice is already here. Embrace the reality and allow parents to choose what is best for their children. In many cases, traditional public education is the best choice. In many cases, it is not. The days when every kid got on the bus and went to school to receive the same school experience are long gone.
IDEA #8: PLAY IS THE WORK OF A CHILD
Like their bodies, children’s brains develop at different rates. Part of that natural development is play. A child learns by engaging in creative play. Play also is intricately involved with the development of most of the skills a child needs to behave and function within a group, and to understand and process emotions and emotional cues from others. When we try to push adult-style learning on young learners, we stunt their natural development and create problems that can last a lifetime.
None of the above ideas are radical or earth-shaking, but they are important. Taken as a whole, this group of ideas could begin to level the playing field and allow children to receive an education that is more in line with the way the world works now. It will also help create a culture that can compete with the alternative education opportunities out there. Parents aren’t leaving just for the groovy technology being offered out there; they are leaving because they need a measure of control. They want to be heard and they want their child to be treated as if he or she is special. And they aren’t wrong. Parents do deserve a measure of control. And their children are special.
There is no talk of specific curriculum presented here. No mandates for STEM or STEAM or screen-time as a percentage of the day. We aren’t blowing up education. We aren’t telling administrators how to run their schools. But do consider these ideas. Though simple, they could be the basis for learning in today’s world. And even if they don’t solve the enrollment crisis, the teacher crisis, cure disease and bring about world peace…
Hey, they Couldn’t hurt.
About the Author
Charles Sosnik is an education journalist and editor, and he serves as editor in chief at the Learning Counsel.