Most people in industrialized countries have experienced thirteen years of formal schooling, so it is not surprising that many consider themselves to be legitimate critics of education. Our feelings about schooling run the gamut. Some believe that if the curriculum and pedagogy were good enough for them, they should be good enough for children today. Others remember school as primarily anxiety-provoking and often boring. They know that the opportunities to learn today are abundant and exciting, making traditional approaches to education outdated.
While our perspectives are shaped in part by our memories of school, as well as our children’s experiences, they are also shaped by our zip codes. Because public schools in the U.S. are funded in large part through property tax revenues, people in higher-income areas have better-funded schools than people in lower-income areas. Therefore, ideas about school reform may differ substantially depending upon where one lives.
In communities across the U.S., schools have become more rather than less segregated over the past half-century. The promise of equal educational opportunities for all has shown itself to be illusory. Racist practices and attitudes that have led to segregated neighborhoods, as well as income disparities, perpetuate educational inequities. Moreover, while the majority of students in public schools are non-white, according to a 2016 government report only 18 percent of teachers are people of color. There are several reasons for this and many efforts to change it because studies reveal that having teachers who represent a similar background, race, and ethnicity to the majority of their students makes a positive difference for both children and their communities. To be clear, fully representative schools aren’t just good for children of color; they are good for society as a whole.
Discriminatory discipline of young people and ‘zero-tolerance’ policies have resulted in a pattern of suspensions and expulsions, sometimes for minor infractions, primarily among Black and Hispanic students. These policies have led to a pernicious school-to-prison pipeline. While restorative justice practices are being adopted, and the harsh disciplinary trend is starting to reverse, schools often still promote ‘tough love’ approaches.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically revealed a number of other gaps and divides. With the closing of schools, many children dependent upon in-person schooling for two meals a day have been left hungry as schools have scrambled to figure out how to provide them with food. Those young people without Internet access at home have been unable to participate in remote learning, and schools and teachers are often unequipped to support them. While high-income families are able to form pods and hire private teachers to educate their children, low-income families are not. Millions of children have disappeared from school entirely. The pandemic has exposed profound inequities and put on display the burden placed on schools and teachers to solve deeply entrenched systems of racism, economic inequality, and educational inequities.
The issues above need our dedicated attention. At the same time, education needs not only to be made fully equitable, but also to be re-imagined. Fundamentally, we are not yet preparing students for life and work in a technologically changing, globalized world, nor for a future in which much of life on Earth faces dire threats. Despite our many and various critiques of education, we often miss some of the most crucial underlying issues as well as some of the most exciting opportunities for transformation. For example:
- It’s not just that many students are graduating from high school without the necessary skills in literacy, numeracy, and science; it’s that even if they were to graduate with exceptional skills, they would not by design or purpose be properly educated and prepared for today’s world and the important task of solving critical global problems.
- It’s not just that many students drop out; it’s that often these students perceive school to be irrelevant and not worthwhile, and many students – even those who don’t drop out – are largely disengaged.
- It’s not just that students aren’t performing up to par; it’s that standardized tests are often poor evaluation tools, unworthy of our students’ true needs, and often at odds with helping them gain many of the skills they require. Many public-school teachers are required to ‘teach to the test’ and are rarely educated or prepared to teach about interconnected global issues and solution-based thinking skills that are so essential for their students and the world.
- It’s not just that bullying is a problem in schools and that compassion and character are not adequately cultivated to ensure kindness and responsibility; it’s that our daily lives are inextricably connected through the global economy to institutionalized brutality, injustice, and environmental devastation and that we do not usually learn in school how to be kind and responsible in a far-reaching way in a world in which our everyday choices impact other people, animals, and ecosystems across the planet.
- It’s not just that cheating is rampant in school; it’s that we have an outmoded system that tempts students to cheat. With facts literally at their fingertips, students most need to cultivate skills in research, collaboration, and critical, systems, strategic, creative, scientific, logical, and design thinking. These skills are most effectively taught and fostered in ways that are antithetical to cheating, and teachers need support for shifting their focus toward these skills and employing more relevant assessments that make cheating a non-issue.
- It’s not just that many students are overly stressed by their packed schedules, their hours of homework, and their extracurricular obligations; it’s that they have little opportunity to connect their learning to the real world, develop and follow their own passions, and contribute in ways that are truly meaningful and demonstrate real accomplishments.
- It’s not just that so many schools aren’t succeeding at achieving their stated objectives; it’s that many of their stated objectives are no longer the right ones for today’s world.
When we hear in the media and from politicians about the problems with today’s schools, it’s essential that we look beyond the sound bites to recognize and understand the limitations of these critiques. We need to embrace a bigger goal for schooling – to educate a generation of solution-based thinkers – and set our sights on answers to problems in education that are most meaningful to all students and their futures; that are truly helpful to the profession of teaching; and that are ultimately best for the world our children will soon be influencing.
This post is excerpted from the upcoming second edition of my book, The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries.