I’ve often written about disturbing trends in the public schools. Most are a natural consequence of the very organization of schools. Administrators tend to be people who spend relatively little time in the classroom at the beginning of their careers, and the more distant classroom reality becomes, the less capable they are of understanding the needs of students and teachers. If if some cared about such things at the beginning of their careers, as time passes, so too does their caring. However, because they get the big bucks, they come to believe they have such knowledge, indeed, superior knowledge. The results tend to be destructive. This is a dynamic at work in most professions, however, in education, fads and wrong-headed ideas don’t merely cost money, they damage lives, and society.
Let us, gentle readers, examine a few of the issues at work. It’s likely they are lurking in a school district near you, and their potential to badly damage the educational opportunities of kids is very real.
Contemporary education is particularly susceptible to fads. Administrators, particularly in school districts that are administrator-heavy, tend to work to pad their resumes with brilliant—they think—new concepts and programs that will transform education, in the hope of eventually becoming school superintendents. They read administrator’s publications or attend various seminars and conferences, and return with a variety of “new” concepts, which look splendid on paper. They virtually never actually speak with teachers, asking them what they need to do their jobs better, more easily and effectively, they merely impose these brilliant concepts from above.
All too often, had they bothered to speak with the people that actually do the work, they would have learned the brilliant new concept about which they are enthusiastic, is neither new nor brilliant. Usually, they’re old ideas, abandoned decades earlier, because they didn’t work, were too expensive for too little result, or are plainly stupid.
My favorite example is the Open Classroom concept, a brilliant fad from the 70s. The idea was to build buildings without interior walls. Why confine students and teachers to little boxes—individual classrooms–when buildings without walls offer unlimited opportunities for collaboration, where students can run free, explore and express their innate, student-centered brilliance. Billions were spent on the buildings. Every dollar was wasted.
Any competent teacher could have explained we have individual classrooms for very specific, necessary and useful reasons. In “open” classrooms, whatever one class was doing, everyone was hearing. The aural and visual distractions were endless. There were never a sufficient number of electrical outlets—extension cords ran everywhere–and air conditioning and heating were a very noisy disaster. Eventually, as is the nature of all fads, the administrators that staked their careers on them moved on, were run out or retired, and the fads were abandoned, only to be replaced by more.
Open classroom buildings had to be demolished or refurbished at enormous expense. I worked in such a building, and had two electrical outlets in my hastily assembled room, one 6 feet up on a wall. Heating and air conditioning were impossible, jury-rigged for a building never designed for individual classrooms.
Part of the problem is a touchy-feely concept called “student-centered”
education. It goes by several definitions, but the basic idea is teacher’s shouldn’t teach, they shouldn’t be a “sage on the stage,” delivering knowledge, but mere “facilitators,” whose job is to allow students to discover their inner brilliance. In many iterations, this essentially allows kids to do whatever they want.
The Open Classroom Concept was such a brilliant success, it’s making a comeback. It will work no better this time, but it will waste substantially more money.
Whenever we ignore human nature, or think ourselves so smart we can change it, we’re in for trouble. The truth about education is human beings learn in the same ways they learned at the time of Aristotle. Times change, technology evolves, but we remain essentially the same. There really are no brilliant new ideas. We become better readers by reading a great deal, and reading in effective ways. We become better writers by writing a great deal and in effective ways. We become better at math employing the same methods. If we’re not readers, we’re handicapped in every academic endeavor.
The Magic Curriculum
This particular term won’t be found in the literature. It’s my formulation to describe the idea that every teacher, in every classroom, must be doing precisely the same things in the same ways at the same times. On Monday, May 22 at 1103.22 AM, every 11th grade English teacher will be on page 467 of the authorized text, paragraph 3, line 2. At 1112 AM, authorized video 22.5.8/C will be viewed, followed by worksheet 22.5.8/D at 1123, etc.
This concept assumes all kids are identical and learn at the same rate. It assumes all teachers are untrustworthy idiots, fit only for monitoring kids to ensure they are on the right page at the right time. It eliminates originality and excellence, forcing everyone to be average (inevitably, below), though its proponents inevitably claim it makes everyone above average. Above all, it gives absolute control to administrators and makes their jobs much easier. When evaluating teachers, they don’t need to know a thing about teaching. They merely need to note when a teacher isn’t on the right page at the right time. Such school districts tend to recruit and retain poor teachers indeed. Real teachers understand how learning works. They want to teach, not serve as programmed classroom monitors.
One of the most powerful and pernicious fads in contemporary education is technology. The philosophical debate has two sides: (1) Technology is just fine, but is only a tool, which may or may not be helpful in teaching a given discipline. (2) Technology is so powerful it is transformative, utterly changing not only education but humanity. Technology is more than a tool, and its use must drive the curriculum, not merely serve to help provide it.
An example is the proliferation of “Chromebooks” small, weakly capable laptops marketed by Google, though other companies are making similar models, designed, and in some cases, limited, to using Google software. Packaged in groups of 30 or so in a common charger cabinet, these devices are inexpensive—around $200.00 each–compared to genuinely flexible and useful laptops, with screens barely larger than those used in the dashboards of some motor vehicles. Teachers tend to see such things merely as tools, small inflexible laptops useful primarily for word processing and limited Internet access. Proponents see them as absolutely transformational, nearly magical devices. The software/Internet fusion involved should absolutely drive curriculum. In other words, teachers should use the laptops for their own sake, for the sake of using “technology,” rather than as an aid to instruction, using various programs designed for Google’s online offerings rather than printed or other materials. In fact, many of these little laptops can’t print, forcing users to rely on on-line software, usually Google produced.
A fundamentally destructive aspect of the current technology craze is the idea—associated with student-centered instruction—that we should do as much with the Internet and electronic devices as possible, because kids like them, and are interested in them, and will therefore be happy to use those devices and means to learn, and will do so enthusiastically. The ultimate problem with this is it is the job of schools not to allow kids to do what they can teach themselves and what they like to do, but to teach them, and encourage them to learn what they need to know.
Teaching is not about filling time, or cramming specific knowledge into kid’s heads. It is fundamentally about building bigger, better, more flexible and useful brains, which is essentially the process of producing citizens capable of producing wealth: producers, not takers.
The logical implementation of the transformative technology theory would be not only to spend virtually every class minute on computers, but to allow the kids to do essentially what they pleased. Playing video games, using social media, surfing the Internet, all of this would be transformative. Lest anyone think I exaggerate, entire “educational” web sites are devoted to such things, such as having kids make replies to lessons on social media, and doing their writing on various web sites rather than on paper. Many think one of the essential tasks of schools is to encourage kids to write their own blogs, as if there weren’t already sufficient vacuous, useless blogs on the Internet. The proliferation of such things is truly amazing. If one wished, kids could easily spend an entire school year face down in smart phones, laptops, and smart watches.
The Profit Motive
One cannot blame corporations for making an honest buck. The problem occurs when fads, ignorance of human nature, and cynical collaboration with people whose ideas of education are mistaken, even malicious, combine. Google, for example, has an enormous profit motive in Chromebooks, in the software it develops in data mining, in its own Internet programs and networks and in fostering and maintaining the “transformational technology” mindset. This is not a million dollar industry, but a multi-billion dollar industry. Human nature tells us that even if a corporation had entirely altruistic intentions at some point, providing the best possible educational opportunity for kids will inevitably take a back seat to profit.
Let’s take the Anytown School District (ASD). Like most medium to large districts, Anytown has an Assistant Superintendent in charge of technology. They have not only an IT section to keep everything up and running, but a section of former teachers—“Technology Facilitators” assigned to find and implement new technologies, which mainly means things designed for and usable on the district’s Chromebooks. They have not only drunk a cup of Kool Aid, they’ve drained the entire bathtub, and believe in the Transformative technology model.
Teachers using Chromebooks are expected to use them in their classes 3-4 times per week, minimum. After all, they were expensive (relatively), and the public should get its money’s worth. The effect of this is teachers are expected to use the little laptops whether they are necessary to their curriculums or not. The laptops are driving the curriculum rather than supporting it when useful.
This is where the Magic Curriculum theory enters. Administrators tend to mistrust teachers, who often disagree with Administrators (gee, I wonder why?). They are most happy when they are controlling things, when their word is law, and no troublesome teachers are hindering their latest, brilliant fad. They’re just teachers; what do they know?
In the meantime, the Technology Facilitators have been facilitating technology and have found five new Internet programs that are Google sponsored or compatible. It doesn’t really matter what they accomplish, they’re technology, and they work on Anytown’s Chromebooks. The Technology Facilitators think they’re great–of course, they don’t have to use them—and it will give them the opportunity to make up in-service sessions for all of the district’s teachers to teach them how to use the new programs. The administrators do their part, and mandate the use of the new programs, which are added to the many additional programs teachers must already use.
What’s missing is any need for the programs. Did Anytown’s teachers plead for such programs? No. Will these programs help teachers be more efficient or effective? Will they decrease or increase their workloads? That depends. Teachers don’t employ the same methods, and even use different methods from class to class to better help their kids. The needs of individual classes and their personalities are often dramatically different. Elementary teachers have substantially different needs and methods than middle school teachers, and the needs and methods of high school teachers are entirely different too. Perhaps some of these programs might be useful in some grades, and for some circumstances, but the mere idea of universally mandating such things is lunacy. It serves the careers of lower ranking administrators jostling to become higher-ranking administrators, but it does not serve teachers or students.
But that does not matter. Being forced to use unnecessary programs for the sake of using them not only takes away scarce instructional time absolutely necessary for properly teaching kinds, it tells teachers they’re not or respected or valued. Once a fad has been implemented and huge amounts of money spent, there can be no admission of error. After ten years or so, the fad will quietly fade away and a new fad will inevitably be imposed.
If school boards and administrators have done their jobs, they will have hired the most inspirational, smart and dedicated teachers available. To treat them as easily replaced drones, essentially mass produced parts in a machine, belies the point of hiring such people.
And now you know, gentle readers, at least some of the things you should look for in evaluating your children’s schools.