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Mental Sewage: Cleaning Out the Pipes of Education

Updated on October 16, 2014

There is a huge effort to try to get kids to go to school. From the time they enroll in kindergarten to twelfth grade and beyond. Whether is to get back to school or just try to keep them in school, the public education system has come up with ways to encourage students to perform better by introducing programs such as No Child Left Behind Act, which was established to assess basic skills. The number one reason for these efforts can be traced back to a time when the push to get kids educated meant, that as adults, these same kids could go out into the world and look for a job and become well adjusted and contributing members of society. Mandatory school attendance became law in the 1950’s which was rooted in a philosophy of the late 1800’s, and one that we have kept ever since. It might have been mandatory then as it is now, but it seems as though there’s a backlash to this culturally imposed institution since most people are no longer happy with the way things have always been done. People are still dropping out of schools - especially in High School years. They don’t go back, and if they do, is only to drown in debt when attending college shortly thereafter.

People want to better themselves and get a career, but at what cost? Traditional school systems still use outdated teaching methods, boring the students out of classrooms and compromising their sanity and futures. Students who at one point had potential have their creative juices flushed out of them because of a stagnant school system that lacks imagination and doesn’t stimulate students, yet there is not much talk about mainstream education reform. But there is another, better way. Many in fact.

Putting a band-aid

There is an underlying desperate mood in the air to change the education system on all levels and in the last decade we have had some changes like the invasion of new school systems such as Charter schools, or classes specifically aimed at students who are struggling within public schools, or access to online learning. But it seems like that is not making a big enough impact on the public school system at all. What is worse, it might be affecting slightly, but generally speaking, the public is oblivious; not just when it comes to alternative ways to learn, but to the possible changes and improvements a traditional public school can make. Complacency overrides the general discontent with how the school system works. Competition could have been a contributor in making a school better, but competition is only encouraged within the classroom, schools and countries. But not for the individual student. There is no competition between individual learning and better individual learning - the concept is lost, it seems, among the most highly educated. What is keeping educators and the public at large unaware?


Money or Change?

Of course there are factors that could be contributing to turning a blind eye to poor education standards such as profits made from education materials. Beverlee Jobrack, editorial director of SRA/McGraw-Hill, said “Education publishers have a long-established history of marketing materials and selling goods and services in the form of textbooks, educational materials, and professional development to educational institutions. Education and the educational publishing industry have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship throughout the history of the United States”. The free market determines the materials the school can use, and public educational publishers can write and re-write textbooks as they see fit, making a profit every time a new “edition” of a book comes out. Just as when a new version of the iPhone or iPad comes out, the old becomes obsolete, an old textbook too becomes outdated or unusable. This system works out beautifully and churns out consistent profit depending on the subject. In the marketplace, if a program is successful, “publishers stand to make a lot of money. Because reading is fundamental and potentially lucrative, representing 25 percent of all instructional materials purchased, a publisher may invest upward of $100 million dollars to create a basal reading program”. As an anonymous school teacher said “there is something grotesque about the fact the education reform is being led not by educators but by financers and speculators and billionaires”.

Teachers also stand to lose if confronted with the possibility of a different way of teaching. Not only would they have to make a moral choice in asking if they have their student’s best interest at heart, but they have the tough choice of putting their own standard of living in jeopardy. They stand to lose their jobs and steady income as a result of any reform they might make as independent educators. They could also face scrutiny and resistance not just from peers and higher ups within the board of education, but from parents as well. Teachers would have to weigh the risks and ask themselves if the changes would be worth it, but those questions might just be too hard to contemplate.


What exactly are they learning and why is school mandatory if they are not learning or are miserable in the process? Tests may be testing for facts and figures, but scores are not everything. According to Gerald Bracey, critic of education policy, said standardized testing does not measure “creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, endurance, reliability, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, leadership, civic-mindedness, courage, compassion, resourcefulness, sense of beauty, sense of wonder, honesty or integrity” . It’s no longer about learning, it’s about just going to school and doing what you’re told and hopefully get rewarded in the process. Grades, gold stars, rewards, and other bribes could actually be counter productive because it sends the wrong message. A personal evaluating system, instead of a grading system may be a more effective way to monitor a student’s progress, rather than testing the traditional way and taking the pressure off a student to get that “A”. The motivation to learn for the sake of learning can disappear in the face of praise, a grade, or a reward and may be short term. This can become problematic when they are adults in the “real world”. Alfie Kohn, author and lecturer argues that “In theory it is possible to keep handing out rewards forever. In practice, though, this is usually impractical, if not impossible, to sustain. What’s more, most people with an interest in seeing some behavior change would say it is intrinsically better to have that change take root so that rewards are no longer necessary to maintain it”.

There is also very little to no evidence to suggest that giving kids homework works at all. “Homework persists despite the lack of any solid evidence that it achieves its much-touted gains, and even amid much confusion as to just what those gains should be. When a social practice becomes a virtual icon of the culture, it is likely that something beyond specific policy debate or practical need is at stake”. Many schools are adopting the “no homework” policy due to disruption of family and personal time as well as giving back to the community. Alfie Kohn narrates a story from Leslie Frothingham, chemistry teacher in a Vermont high school, who tells students there will be no homework. She says it takes a while for them to get used to it but “they figure it out. They begin to take charge of their own learning, to enjoy it, to ask questions about how chemistry can really work in their lives. If you give them more responsibility and ownership for their own education, let them have their choices about how they’re going to do it, they rise to the occasion”


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Massive Overhaul

Most public schools lack vision and fail to acknowledge that everybody learns differently and that the drop out rate would be much lower if we changed how we viewed school as a culture. As Peter Smirniotopoulos, blogger for the education section of the Huffingtion Post said so clearly, “In other words, the focus needs to be changed dramatically--a true paradigm shift--from how the system teaches to what and how students learn”. Kids and people in general learn and retain information longer when they are being entertained for the most part. And for that to happen, they need to be engaged. Even with many philosophical and even political implications, making kids want to learn is a tricky thing - but it can be done. Maybe drastic steps need to be taken, as author John Hood suggested: “By any reasonable measure, America’s monopolistic, bureaucratic, over-regulated system of public schools is woefully unprepared to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. Political, business, and education leaders continue to talk about “reforming” the current public education system. They should, instead, be discussing how to replace it”. The current education system looks down at being wrong and making mistakes, but there is nothing wrong in admitting when something is not working anymore. After all, a mistake just means not finding the right answer yet.

Alfie Kohn explains the real goal of mainstream education in 2 minutes


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