How to destroy education–and ultimately, the country–in one easy lesson: abandon its mission.
I have often taken to task those that carelessly assert American public education is broken. They commonly blame teachers who have no power to hire and fire, and little or no input into significant decisions. Their ability to determine their curriculum and methods of teaching it is being steadily degraded to disastrous effect.
Indeed, there are teachers who, for ego and political reasons, are determined to indoctrinate, rather than educate, their students, but such people continue to spread their political gospel only because the parents of their respective school districts aren’t paying attention, or want indoctrination rather than education. Were this not true, they could vote their complicit school boards out of office at the next opportunity, presumably so the new school board could clean house and restore educational opportunity. Even while waiting for the next election, there is a great deal that can be done—politically—on the local level that can send partisan cockroaches scurrying under the fridge.
What is a school’s mission? Providing the best, most professional opportunity for learning their abilities and resources allow. In this pursuit, human nature must be, above all else, recognized and accommodated. And to accommodate human nature, schools must do nothing to compromise the mission.
The military has a clear, easily understood mission: destroy the enemies of the United States. When it does not have necessary resources, when it becomes instead a laboratory for social experimentation, as it did during the Obama years, the destruction—and danger—expands exponentially. Warriors are warriors because they want to accomplish that mission and have the will, training and ability to do it. When the mission is forgotten, when they are no longer allowed to do it, they quit. This is, in part, why morale is so important to a functioning military. This is why real leaders understand and work within the strengths and limitations of human nature.
Why would anyone want a non-functional military? That is in large part, a topic for an article exploring another facet of politics. For this article, the most important analog is the existence of those that think they can construct their own reality and force others to live in it. Terribly bored with merely running a functional school–that’s below their self-imagined brilliance and exalted ability–they seek to perfect humanity, and in so doing, ignore the realities of human nature, and try to mold a new, progressive man/teacher. They do not, of course, use antiquated terms like “teacher.” These days they prefer “facilitator,” which sounds rather like a kind of mutant potato grown in radioactive soil surrounding a leaking nuclear power plant.
“But,” the self-imagined educratic elite intone, “contemporary students are unlike students of the past; teaching them requires new, ground-breaking techniques and technology!” Competent teachers grounded in reality shake their heads in amazement at such nonsense.
The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”
Indeed, kids are different than in the past. They don’t read, their vocabularies are extremely shallow and they don’t have the common cultural touchstones most Americans once had. Common idioms are meaningless to them, and their lack of knowledge of history and its meaning ensures the disasters of the past will be repeated. They’re the products of decades of the “accountability” movement, which is primarily the mandatory, high-stakes testing culture, which has spawned huge, unaccountable, educratic bureaucracies that have been largely successful in forcing the abandonment of the mission–holding school–in favor of the processes and paperwork that feed the bureaucracy.
In reality, human beings learn today exactly as they did in the time of Aristotle and Socrates. Times change, human beings don’t. Oh, but technology! It has transformed everything, so teachers must use technology! Double nonsense.
What use technology if it serves primarily as a distraction, as a means of making it easier to avoid doing the hard, but necessary and rewarding, work of learning, of making us more than we are? We carry in our pockets the means to access the near total knowledge of mankind, but we–particularly teenagers–use it for social media, web surfing, porn, texting and playing mindless games that build thumbs, not minds, distractions that do not transform the mind, but diminish it.
Let us, gentle readers, consider Karen. In elementary school, Karen discovered she loved to read. She devoured books at a remarkable rate, and by the time she entered high school, was years above her peers in reading comprehension, general knowledge, and understanding of human nature. Blessed with dedicated and intelligent teachers who never forgot the mission and struggled to accomplish it despite the worst efforts of educrats, she learned even more and decided she had something worthy to pass on to others. She decided to become a teacher—God help her—of English.
College wasn’t exactly easy for her, but it felt right, and she managed to ignore the indoctrinators and actually learn a great deal more about literature, writing and the craft of teaching. She graduated with honors, and was fortunate to find a job in her high school, which still mostly recognized and supported the mission. It was like a dream: she couldn’t imagine being anything but a teacher–it was all she’d ever really wanted to be–and she was getting to be one exactly where she always hoped to be.
It took her two years of joyous struggle to pretty much figure out how to be an effective teacher. Oh, she did well those first two years, but an insightful young woman, she quickly realized nothing replaces experience. Everything she learned in school wasn’t directly applicable, and some of it was harmful. She finally understood—and appreciated—why the teachers she respected did what they did, and she emulated them. Mostly, she picked up the little things, the things about human nature and teaching that are what really matter.
She learned to show the kids she cared deeply about them without getting too close, without trying to be their peers. She learned to put a grade only at the very end of assignments, because if she didn’t, the kids would just glance at a grade at the top of the first page, and ignore all the work she put into corrections and comments elsewhere. She learned how to effectively use her ever-dwindling class time, and how to keep kid’s attention with humor, interesting insights, and kindness. She learned the difference between busy work, and real learning, and discovered the kids intuitively understood which was which.
In other words, she learned more and more about human nature, and about how to use it for good, and took pride in her growing knowledge and professionalism.
Of course, not every kid was prepared for, or interested in, taking full advantage of the excellent, and ever-improving educational opportunity she provided, and she figured that out too, and how to impose discipline without getting personal.
Karen, several years beyond those first two, also began to understand she was allowed to do all of this because she had a principal who understood the mission, and was absolutely determined to maintain a professional atmosphere in the school that made it possible for dedicated teachers like her to succeed and willing kids to learn. He hired good people, then left them alone to do what he hired them to do. He understood Karen and her colleagues were the soldiers, and it was his job to honor their knowledge, ability and commitment, and make sure they had everything they needed to do their jobs. He understood human nature. He understood the difference between deference and respect, and worked, every day, to earn the respect of his teacher/soldiers. In return, they worked hard to earn his. Professionals want to respect their leaders.
Karen and her colleagues were happy and productive—until the principal, finally worn down by the educrats he fended off for so many years, retired, and a new principal took over.
The new principal did not understand human nature, nor did he understand the mission. He bought, hook, line and sinker, the idea that education was just waiting for uniquely brilliant innovators like him to fundamentally transform it. He, and those like him, would construct a new man/teacher, and would change the world.
Rather than taking the first year to get to know the faculty—competent leaders never immediately make big changes—he was determined to transform education, starting in his school. He forced teachers to implement a new process aimed at producing data. It was magic, really; if teachers slavishly followed the process, previously unimaginable educational achievement would occur. To that end, teachers had to produce an enormous amount of paperwork to plan, implement, analyze, and then review the data it produced for every lesson before beginning the process all over again for each new lesson. Every. Single. Lesson. Every. Day. He preached that without this new, transformative process, teachers could not possibly know what their students were learning or what their needs were.
Competent teachers like Karen were deeply insulted. The principal, heedless of human nature, the ability, dedication and experience of teachers and their legitimate professional pride, didn’t care. His faith was in process, not people, and everything he did and said made this insultingly clear.
Karen recognized this as nonsense, and lamented the enormous amount of time it encumbered, not only her planning time, but class time. She only had 45-minute classes as it was. Every new mandate took additional class time, dramatically reducing the time for teaching and learning, but she was an honorable person, and did her best.
Then he implemented another new process on top of the old one. More paperwork, more time lost. He went to an administrator’s conference and got excited about another process sold, at very high cost, by a former teacher turned education entrepreneur/educrat, and he imposed that too. More paperwork, more data, less teaching, less learning, but plenty of statements full of incomprehensible edu-speak and tortured acronymns, and charts and graphs mapping the data on classroom walls, taking away scant bulletin board space, supplanting the materials that supported Karen’s teaching and helped interest and encourage her students.
Karen was assured, over and over, that without these brilliant educational innovations, teachers were ineffective, and could not possibly teach, improve or know what their students were learning. She was assured students loved the data, and all the daily effort they too had to expend to produce it. “They will own their learning! It will show them how well they are doing and encourage them to do better! It’s research-based! It’s technology!”
Whenever she heard such idiotic happy talk, Karen shook her head in frustration. Her kids found the processes boring and useless—they weren’t learning anything; they were just talking about how they were (not) learning and how they wanted to (not) learn in the future–and could not care less about the incomprehensible statements and data she was forced to display on the walls. One week, as a dangerous experiment, she took down all the charts and graphs. Not a single student noticed. Fortunately, her principal was busy elsewhere that week, and didn’t notice—danger averted.
After two years of this, Karen was at her wit’s end. Because she lost 50%–at least—of her class time, she lost, conservatively, 50% of her curriculum. Her students—more than smart enough to know what was happening–were even more uninterested in learning, and everything took much longer to complete. Writing that would have taken a single class period in the past was now taking two—at least.
And that wasn’t the worst part. She was no longer evaluated on her dedication, abilities and performance, but on rigid adherence to the various processes. Everything she did for the kids, innumerable hours of her personal time, the wonderful, professional educational opportunity she used to provide, no longer mattered. Indeed, it was looked upon suspiciously and damaged her evaluations. She was no longer a teacher. Teaching was discouraged in favor of being a facilitator. Everything she worked so hard to learn, to become, was outmoded, scorned, criticized, no longer valuable or appreciated. Everything she ever wanted to be–a teacher–was taken away from her.
Karen was stressed out. She didn’t understand that stress is not cumulative, it is multiplicative. One stressor plus one additional stressor does not equal 2; it equals 100, and she was failing under the burden of innumerable stressors. She wasn’t her usual happy, optimistic self. She was depressed and increasingly falling prey to minor illnesses. A teacher who used to hate to be absent for any reason, she took every personal day she could just to maintain the will to force herself to come to school. At a staff meeting, her principal berated the teach…facilitators because there was so much sick and personal leave. He was oblivious to its cause.
Karen still loved her students and believed in the mission, but she finally, sadly, came to understand the mission had been completely lost, teaching no longer mattered—processes did–and there was nothing she could do about it. People no longer mattered. There were only processes and data and meaningless, insulting statements and graphs to hang on her classroom walls, the better to be ignored by kids, or on rare occasion, if they happened to notice it, ridiculed.
Her students, our future, lost Karen, a dedicated, intelligent, capable teacher. But don’t worry. She got a better job in private business where focusing on the mission determines profit and longevity, and is making a great deal more money. Most importantly, the stress that was making her old before her time is gone. She now wonders how she could have ever believed in being a teacher.
The tragedy is Karen is no longer an outlier, but the norm in contemporary American education. Her principal, if he ever understood human nature, decided process was more important. If he understood, he would have known that keeping dedicated, experienced professionals from doing the mission—from teaching—convinces them to find a mission they can accomplish. Besides, facilitators are much easier to find than dedicated teachers, and easier to intimidate and control. Because the mission is lost, educational opportunity is destroyed. Teachers burn out and leave, students learn less and less, but “accountability” and data are manipulated to present a fraudulent façade of accomplishment. The schools are great because the data they generate say they are, and if you don’t believe that, look at the data. It’s research-based and produced by technology!
When people like Karen are driven out, we all lose, and America’s future is that much more uncertain.