Our system of education is a national tragedy and is at the root of all our nation’s challenges. That millions of our nation’s children suffer irreparable harm makes the American education process a disaster of unprecedented scope and scale.
Children in charter, parochial and public schools are failing throughout the U.S., and each failure has tragic consequences for the children and our society. Even the students who seem to be succeeding are not learning the things they will need to know, nor are they developing the skills they will need to have meaningful choices in life. Neither are they being prepared to find creative solutions to the unimaginable challenges the balance of this 21st century will present.
That our teachers are being asked to shoulder the blame for the unacceptable outcomes of an obsolete education process is just one more travesty. These dedicated men and women are as much the victims of our flawed education policies as are their students. Not only are they blamed for the struggles of their students, we refuse to provide them with the level of respect and compensation they deserve for doing one of the most important and challenging jobs in American society. The fact that we are driving so many of these men and women out of the profession is just one more symptom of the obsolescence of the American education process.
Possibly we should invite teachers to participate more fully in the policy-making process. The problem, however, is that the solutions to the challenges of preparing our children for an uncertain future will be found outside the boundaries of conventional wisdom.
Perhaps we should examine the challenges facing education in America the same way we must address our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Over the past century the world has changed exponentially while the structure and function of our education process have changed minimally. In our schools today, it takes an extraordinary effort on the part of teachers and principals to implement innovative ideas and solutions that will endure and not be ground to dust by the unrelenting glacial power of the existing education process.
The education process impedes rather than facilitates the ability of educators to respond to the unique requirements of a diverse population of children with disparate needs. The recent focus of education reformers on charter schools, voucher systems and high-stakes testing to hold teachers and schools accountable has done more damage to public education than we could have possibly envisioned.
Ironically, high-stakes testing is telling us what we need to know. These tests are not measuring the performance of teachers and schools, however; rather they measure the efficacy of the education process itself.
Our challenge must be to reinvent the education process to produce the outcomes we want.
What are those outcomes? That every child learns as much as they are able at their own best pace. That students retain what they have learned and are able to use their knowledge and skills in real-life situations and not solely for the purposes of passing standardized tests. That as these students discover they can be successful, they begin to develop a healthy self-esteem that will enable them to overcome obstacles and control most of the outcomes in their lives. That as they progress along their developmental paths, they are able to partner with their parents and teachers to take ownership of their futures.
Education must not be a competition to see who learns the most the fastest. Rather, it must be a process that provides each and every child with a menu of choices about what to do in life to provide for their families, to find joy and meaning, and to participate in their own governance. It must enable them to make thoughtful and reasoned choices and help them work together to find new and innovative solutions to the problems facing a world undergoing unrelenting change and facing unprecedented challenges.
These things are possible and within our power to accomplish if we are willing to challenge all our assumptions about what we do and why and, then, open our hearts and minds to new ways of thinking and doing.
Mel Hawkins is a management consultant and is the author of Re-Inventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream: The Challenge of the 21st Century.