… education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.
-Sam Seaborn, The West Wing, Six Meetings Before Lunch
Earlier this month, Judge Thomas Moukawsher of the State Superior Court in Hartford ruled that “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty” to give all children an “adequate” education. This ruling was in response to a ten-plus-year-old lawsuit that claimed the state was apportioning its school funding in a way that privileged the wealthier districts at the expense of the poorer. If we stop there, this ruling is no different from the many others around the country that require states to review and equalize the distribution of finances between school districts. But this ruling doesn’t stop there – in the words of the mayor of Bridgeport, CT, Joseph P. Ganim, “This is a game changer. It’s an indictment of the application of the system, and of the system itself“. In my opinion, that indictment is long overdue, and not just in the State of Connecticut.
I have some experience with different (Western) education systems: I graduated from a private high school in NYC (with a year at a public school in rural Sweden) and went on to a private college in Pennsylvania. I then did graduate work at a CUNY college in New York before moving to the UK and earning an MA and a Ph.D. While working on my doctorate I taught for four years in the politics department and for one year in the medical school. I am currently parenting two teenagers (an 8th grader and a high school junior) in Connecticut public schools.
I am lucky on several counts: (1) I come from a family that privileges thinking & education; (2) when I was growing up my family had the financial ability to send me to a private school and to pay for enrichment programs and travel; (3) I was born at a time when the cost of a college education, while high, was not unimaginable, there was good financial aid available, and education loans did not saddle students with a debt load the size of a mortgage payment; (4) as a “third culture kid” I was exposed to a wide variety of languages, customs, foods, and “norms”; (5) I have wide ranging and near-constant intellectual curiosity; and (6) my home was always full of conversations about science, politics, history, music, art, and domestic & international current affairs.
I was also dyslexic (this went un-diagnosed until after college) and suffered from overwhelming test-taking anxiety: school was a constant logistical challenge, even if it wasn’t always an intellectual one.
So, you may ask, the school system worked for me – why do I think it needs an overhaul?
First of all, the “school system” didn’t work for me. I was in private school, and even that, in the 1980s, didn’t work particularly well. The fact that my dyslexia went undiagnosed was probably a product of the times, but there was very little, if any, discussion of different ways that people learn, different kinds of intelligence, different life experiences, basically, difference of any kind. We were provided with a “one size fits some better than others” education, and we were mostly on our own to do the alterations – how you made it work depended on you and your family’s resources.
Secondly, “the system” fails too many people. This is actually the main reason I think American education needs to be completely restructured: it is failing students and teachers alike. Experiential learners, innovative teachers, students with learning differences or attention issues, gifted students with few resources, students in under-funded school districts – none of these groups are well served by the current education model. What with overcrowded classrooms, cuts to the arts and other enrichment programs, Common Core, teaching to the test – the joy of learning, and of teaching, has been lost. If the system is failing students and teachers, it is failing families. And if it is failing these groups it is ultimately failing our society.
What are the alternatives? At the moment, there are many ways to opt out. I know people who are homeschooling, homeschooled until high school, and are unschooling. The reasons they do this are varied, and as alternatives to formal education they have their pros and cons – just like traditional school. In these models the degree of initiative taken by home- or un-schooled students in pursuing their interests and engaging with ideas is dependent on the individual – just like traditional school. What is not like traditional school in these alternatives is access; the resources needed to provide a rich, varied, and engaging home- or un-schooled experience are simply not available to everyone and for this reason these alternatives do not provide a viable alternative to the public education system, a system which, by definition, should be available to all. Public education should not be only for people who cannot afford better; what does it say about us if this is all we are willing to provide?
The Connecticut ruling shines a light on the very real educational inadequacies and imbalances that exist in the current system. To address them will take a concerted effort from all aspects of society. It will also require us to re-imagine public education as it was initially intended: as one of the pillars of a free society and a means of personal growth as well as social advancement.
This is the first in a series of posts in which I explore ideas of education, intellectual freedom, college accessibility, and “the school system” behemoth.
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