Edgeucation Blog

An Educational Letter to the American Public

January 21, 2017

Thom Markham

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I’ve worked at over 350 schools—public, private, and charter—and with more than 6000 teachers in the past fifteen years. Perhaps it’s quaint in a post-truth world, but I have ‘experience’ and a certain number of ‘facts to share.

First, congratulations to President Trump and presumptive Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, for putting education front and center in the minds of the American public. I mean this sincerely. No one, including most teachers, has ever really cared who occupied the post of Secretary of Education. The term ‘education’ has never, to my memory, been mentioned in an inaugural speech. I supported President Obama, but he never showed interest in education as a national priority and left the Department of Education to muddle about, as it has for many years. So the conversation may have come by the back door, but it’s now in living rooms. That’s a good thing.

But the hard work starts: Preparing the American public for this discussion. If we’re going to step it up in the U.S., and not get dusted by the remainder of the world by mid-century, we must do better than claim that “all our beautiful children are deprived of knowledge,” in the words that came from the podium on January 20th, 2017. That’s not true. In fact, there are five harder truths that Americans need to assimilate, respect, and build upon in the coming conversation:

We can’t measure ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools. Putting easy labels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ on a school is nonsense, and defaulting to test scores as the measure of success is intellectual laziness. I’ve worked in top ranked schools and still meet many teachers who rely on formulaic, lecture-based teaching that bores kids out of their mind; I’ve worked in ‘bad’ schools in which I encounter a cadre of competent, caring teachers inspired by the professional challenge of doing good work under less than ideal circumstances. Both work under the brutal domination of test mania, despite the fact that low test scores most often reflect demographics and language issues, while very high test scores indicate  compliance and recall as core values practiced by both teachers and students. The hard truth is that without moving to metrics that measure deeper problem solving ability, applied skills, and social-emotional strengths—all keys to success in life now—we can’t quantify a quality education in the 21st Century.

Public schools are not failing. Of course, every survey shows that the vast majority of Americans like their neighborhood schools. The reason: Most schools do a pretty good job. Is there mediocrity in the system? Yes, too much of it, but that is a result of a two-fold legacy: (1) A land grant history that set a low bar for teaching qualifications and salaries and has not been significantly raised; and (2) an industrial system that spawned a top down, command and control approach to running schools, giving natural rise to overly bureaucratic rules and union resistance. In the system we designed—and live with—stagnation is inevitable, particularly when supported by parents who lag far behind teachers in their understanding of solid education. The hard truth and good news is that this system has begun to transform itself, and needs support rather than silly laments about ‘government’ schools. I visit school after school and district after district, in which momentum for change is visible and vibrating. We have thousands of public school teachers in this country who are collaborating with colleagues to shift their teaching practices and redesign their local school. Rather than disparage them, we should be immensely proud as Americans that the engine of innovation is at work. Transforming a public system at scale in our country is not easy work.

Private schools are not better; they’re different. I’ve been in wonderful private schools, staffed with terrific teachers. With a generally compliant and well prepared student body, and with less testing and standards restrictions, private schools can offer a magical education. But one thing usually stands out: Because most parents pay for a private education that oils the path to a good college, private schools can be slow to innovate. It’s a limitation inherent in a system that puts far too much emphasis—still—on the ‘right’ college degree. The hard truth here: We’re stuck on college as the end-all, be-all solution to success. Our goal as a country should be to redefine success beyond a college degree, expand opportunities for meaningful technical work, teach more job skills and less calculus, and get on with the task of getting our kids prepared for their world, not ours.

A charter school is a charter school. The conversation around charter schools is so confused that I wonder if America is capable of disentangling facts from fiction. A charter school is a method of organizing and financing public education; the designation says nothing about teaching methods or quality. And Betsy DeVos is right: The outcomes matter most. So where are the fault lines? On the left, critics conflate every charter school with privatized education; it’s not ‘progressive’ to fund charter schools, which threaten our public school system. Union leadership contributes to this fiction. So let’s start with responding intelligently. Some charter schools are driven by profit and greed, organized by founders who have no connection to public purpose. These privatization efforts should be disbanded and not given public support. But I haven’t been in any of those schools myself; I’ve only worked with the many charters whose founders, leaders, and teachers want to improve public education and contribute to new models of learning. Good for them. They deserve support from left and right because of this hard truth: They have driven most of the innovations in education over the last five years by developing and perfecting a redesigned system of learning. These prototypes are now being adopted and built out by traditional public schools by committed and innovative public school teachers—exactly as charter visionaries anticipated. At some point, we will have a newly-invented public system—and charters will deserve a large share of the credit.

Fear is the barrier. As Americans, we pride ourselves on innovation, ‘can-do’, and a forward-leaning version of ourselves. That attitude shows up in business, non-profits, and community progress.But when it comes to education, we’re terrified of the future, not brave. Still using the same general educational curriculum, with subjects offered in the same order, as in 1923? Check. Still following 50-minute bell periods, although every bit of research says no one learns deeply in that regimen? Check. Still sitting in rows, just like employees work in isolation in business (Not)? Check. Still teaching advanced math that 96% of us never use because it’s hard and good for our character (why not require Greek instead)? Check. And so on. What’s the barrier? What stops us? The very hard truth is that we’re paralyzed by fear of trying something new with our children. We are not yet brave enough to release them from the safe confines of industrial education and work as co-creators to help them find their way in a world that they will design, regardless of us.

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