Re-thinking American Education, Part I

Less than two months ago, the education system here in the US was thrown into disarray. School districts and teachers scrambled to conduct online learning, and many of the previously “hot” issues, such as technology in the classroom and how to best serve students with learning differences, came to the fore, demanding to be addressed.  While we still have far to go in finding real, lasting solutions to these needs, we were forced to begin “digging into” these issues that we had not been able to address without a crisis.

One could consider our current educational crisis to be a gift, although it certainly does not feel like that right now to many of us. Without it, however, we would have continued on with the status quo of education in early 2020, with its inequities, lack of priority on children’s wellbeing, and emphasis on priorities that are tied more to economics than to the health of our nation’s children. Many of us can make a solid case that prioritizing the wellbeing of children would be a smarter long-term economic and social strategy, but this approach would place a priority on children’s needs, an understanding of the value that better-designed schools could provide, and an understanding and ability to think mindfully and strategically – very little of which existed prior to this pandemic. This pandemic has forced us to slow down, reconsider our priorities, and really think deeply about what good education really should be in our nation.

While we will be faced with debating many of these things in the upcoming months, most of us can agree that education needs an overhaul, and our children need experiences that place their wellbeing front and center. It is fair to say that the nation’s children are not OK, as mental health struggles of school-aged children have skyrocketed in recent years. Yet, schools (public and private) have struggled to fund mental health initiatives in their districts, while instead millions of dollars have been funneled into a proliferation of initiatives that have not been proven to show many real benefits in schools, and some have actually caused harm. We (parents, teachers, school leaders, business leaders and community members across the country) are collectively responsible for these issues, and now is a time that we can take real action for change.

While I do not, in any way, hold schools solely responsible for the wellbeing of children, I do expect that the educational leaders across our country have a deep and meaningful understanding of why we educate children, and have a general understanding of what we should be teaching. These topics need to be revisited, because the mission of education in the US has not changed much since the mid-20th century when it focused on building up a workforce to generate significant gross domestic product. Even earlier, the initial efforts of education were meant to build good citizens – but clearly we are far away from that initial intent, and it is time to re-evaluate and re-visit why we are teaching children and what it really means to be “educated” in the 21st century. The world has certainly changed – even from two months ago – and what is needed from education must change as well.

Many of us understand that, to repair education in our country, we need to address it as a system in which changes in one piece affect the others. First and foremost, admissions criteria for colleges and universities must be re-designed, as this is what drives the entire education system in our country. This, in turn, could help us create new education pathways for students, rather than the myopic test-driven high school experience and its relegation of anything that has to do with trades and flexible education pathways. This, in turn, could ease pressure on students and families who might then be able to engage in novel, inspirational and creative educational experiences and pathways. Since human beings and their life experiences are generally not linear and predictable, education in its current formulaic, “track-based” state is not really serving us well [1]. Rather, more fluid experiences that allow students to engage in meaningful, multidisciplinary, and collaborative learning could become a reality. In short, a more well-rounded, flexible learning journey, combined with working with and caring for others, the arts, nature, science, literature, technology, cultural understandings, and many other areas of study and engagement could become a reality. But we need to begin the conversations NOW. Let us start with finding a new answer as to WHY we educate our children, and let’s insist on an answer that takes a much deeper, more strategic approach that prioritizes the well-being of our children and of our nation.    

I will close with a quote from Arundhati Roy [2]: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” Let us acknowledge and honor that portal and begin a new educational journey in our nation.

Notes:

[1] TED. (2018, July 16), Peter Gray: How Our Schools Thwart Passions, [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=coMXLy8RBIc, accessed 04/20/20.

[2] Roy, Arundhati, “The Pandemic is a Portal”, Financial Times, April 3, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/10d8f5e8-74eb-11ea-95fe-fcd274e920ca?fbclid=IwAR1ZY62ZJIkO9hMSErKPCBI70SUGro_eCKTuRuOz113v3Jso9F-3gl1cLf4, accessed 04/20/20.

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