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The REAL Problem With School

April 12, 2012
Los Angeles Unified School District Crown Supe...

Los Angeles Unified School District Crown Supercoach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever really stopped to think about what our language says about us as individuals and a society? We have set an unattainable and self-defeating standard for our children and ourselves and it is destroying our country. When you ask a parent from almost any demographic, culture or location why they make certain decisions regarding their children, you will always hear something like “I wanted my child to have every possible advantage.” You hear lawmakers and activists use the same type of language; ”our children deserve the same advantages as everyone else”. “We want our child to get ahead in the world and reach their full potential”. Do you see the problem yet? The purpose of our education system was never about advantages or getting ahead, it is about equal opportunity and access. If you truly believe in equity in education, then how can you in good conscience use language like this? The only logical explanation is that most of us don’t want equity at all. We want an advantage. We’re fine with inequity as long as it is our children and the children of those closest to us that have the advantage. And the moment the public’s expectation shifted from equity to advantage, the system started to fail completely. Everyone can’t be above average, it is mathematically impossible.

What worsened this paradoxical expectation of society was the college craze. Parents want their children to be successful in life, and one surefire way to guarantee a young adult a job was a college diploma. To get into a good school, students needed outstanding grades. So parents pushed their kids to get As and maybe a few Bs. But somewhere along the way, opportunity turned into expectation. And the purpose of public education shifted to appease the masses; we adopted standards based curricula designed to ensure all students graduate prepared for college. Enter a new paradox; colleges want to see As and Bs – you only need Ds to graduate – schools tell us that they will prepare our children for college – so clearly schools aren’t doing their jobs. Everyone is blaming everyone else; parents blame schools, schools blame students, students blame teachers and teachers blame parents and everyone is really pissed off. And the real kicker is that college diploma we want so badly isn’t worth crap anymore anyway.

Here is a scary thought. Schools don’t need reform. WE need reform. LAUSD has a terrible reputation, and a track record to match. But take a few minutes and go onto the LAUSD website. I did, and was astonished by what is available to even the poorest children in Los Angeles. The course offerings match even the most rigorous private schools. Clubs, activities, after school programs, extra help; it’s all there in abundance. Teachers and parents have access to a district wide database to access student records, analyze data and progress and guide instruction. And look up college scholarships sometime. I used to tell my minority students that it was them that had the advantage – not because anyone is better than anyone else, but because past inequity has led to a nearly endless supply of free money for those who need it most. There is nothing wrong with our schools. The facilities and programs are all there. We all need to step back, take a deep breath and look around. Students are bright and capable. The teachers are qualified. The parents love their children and want what is best for them. Everyone is just so frustrated and angry that nobody is seeing it.

The moment the expectation shifted from equity to gaining an advantage over our neighbors, a paradox entered the system that doomed it to failure. And as a result we all suffer. Teachers can’t teach, students don’t learn, and parents have to suffer 12 years longer than they initially signed on for because their son is still living in the basement at 30 years old. It’s time for all of us to stop judging, comparing and expecting. We have no right to expect anything from our children. Children come into this world as innocent, loving, creative little minds that just want to be loved and supported and to explore. The new fad in school philosophies (public and private) is “children must learn how to learn.” When did we get so arrogant to think that we had the ability – let alone the responsibility to teach children how to learn? If our children are graduating without creativity, curiosity or the ability to think for themselves it’s not because we didn’t teach it. It’s because we robbed it from them.

The only thing holding children back these days is the fear, insecurity and pride of the adults that surround them. We teach them to work together but we can’t follow our own advice. It’s not a perfect system. In fact the system is fundamentally flawed and needs a complete overhaul. But by the time it happens our children will be firmly entrenched on our basement sofas eating all of our food. The test results are in, the data has been analyzed but the obvious result keeps going right over our heads – it is us that must learn how to learn.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2012 5:45 am

    Many excellent points. Society will always need ditch diggers and telling all children that they will go to college is not very nice. Im not sure how much that effects them when all of a sudden they wake up with a minimum wage job and yes, still living with mom and dad. I am in some disagreement about your position on “children must learn how to learn”. A glaring example (from this week) … I have “water problems” here at the house. There is no pressure coming from the community water system. One of the workers cam out to check (after 3 days of no water) and came inside the house and turned on the spigot…….. no pressure. His response was ” the problem is inside your house.” Then …. the process began. I took him outside and showed him that there was no pressure coming TO THE HOUSE. After he placed his finger over the pipe and stopped the flow of water … several times … (proving the issue was definitely OUTSIDE) he came back into the house and turned on the spigot several more times and actually looked under the sink. To make the story short …. we found a rock blocking the flow on their side of the valve ….. 3 hours later. My point is … There in NO critical thinking being taught here. Example #2. When you finished college (whether you went, did or did not finish … not the point) and got a job, were you trained specifically and ready to jump in and be 100% productive? No didnt think so. Getting a college degree (for most people) only shows the employer that you have the ability to learn an/or be trained sufficiently to fill their needs. In my opinion, teaching critical thinking and teaching students how to learn is paramount to their success in life. We live and focus our attention here in Peru where education has never been a priority. Check us out at and! Thanks for your blog! mac

    • April 12, 2012 11:28 am

      Hey, thanks for the reply!

      I just don’t think that critical thinking is something that is taught, it is a natural process. What other way to think is there? How do children learn how to walk or talk? They aren’t consciously thinking algorithmically (step one: determine the problem… step2…) they are just thinking and trying and doing. Have you ever met a teacher that doesn’t teach “critical thinking”? The most important job of a teacher is to expose our students to the world around them, support them, and protect them. Encourage them and not let them give up. I read through your webpage and found what you and your organization is doing inspiring. What does the fact that education in Peru is not a priority tell you? When my students are not succeeding it is always because their priorities are somewhere else (for the record I have taught in both inner city and private schools). When you take a student like that and push them harder to “do well in school”, you are telling them that their priorities are wrong and that makes the student start to resent the teacher. They think “this stupid white guy doesn’t understand me”. We need to understand them before we have any hope of helping them. The trick is to open the student’s eyes to how much better things could be, help them realize that it is possible, and then give them the support and resources they need. Nobody’s focus should be on education. I made that mistake for years, and my students were always successful… at finding better ways to cheat or work the system or play parents/teachers/administrators against each other. Learning is hard work and takes a lot of time. The focus needs to be to better ourselves, and let education be the means with which we get there.

      Just to be a smartass, if you think about it, the worker you mentioned was modeling the definition of critical thinking; he was challenging your assumption.


  2. April 21, 2012 4:25 pm

    This is a wonderful piece from someone who is obviously a caring teacher. Sorry, I am partial to educators. My family has several generations of them that go all the way back to the late 19th century. Thanks for your comments on my post as well. Much appreciated.

  3. July 3, 2012 6:46 pm

    this is an excellent commentary…am going to share this…

  4. July 21, 2012 7:28 pm

    My husband, Mac, usually writes the blogs, but since I wrote and posted this last one on our efforts in coordination with the International Reading Association and International Teacher Education Network, I reviewed the comments once again.

    I can’t help but answer to your “assumption,” that every teacher teaches critical thinking and that it is a natural process acquiring critical thinking skills. I believe the most recent efforts to ignore the gifted and talented, the NCLB initiative and the endless teaching to the test problems we have create,d have doused the development of critical thinking in our U.S. school system.

    Our strength as a nation and our educational system was that we produced people who solved problems and thought outside the box. Now we produce multiple choice test takers who can fill in bubbles very well.

    Writing something on the board and having the students copy it does not teach reading and writing as a process to make meaning and communicate thought, let alone produce critical thinkers. One of the respondents to the comment blog on the webinar I just wrote about, added this link:

    It is in Portuguese but your “critical thinking skills,” can probably figure out the gist. The fact is there are teachers the world over that still teach this way.

    I know all about getting the trust and understanding the kids in the hood. My first years of teaching were under a marvelous principal who allowed me to “loop,” my class and take them cross-country by train to Montana on a field trip. I agree with you on that note, but giving human beings the opportunity to think about what they think and to express those thoughts is what, I believe, the ultimate education should be.

    Keep giving them your best,

    • July 21, 2012 10:56 pm

      Hi Kelly,

      I have read this post many times over the past few months and been tempted to make some minor edits as my writing has evolved; not because my thoughts have changed but because I see how it might be misunderstood. I particularly regret commenting on what other teachers teach.

      I think we are on the same page. I have no love for standardized testing. That was pretty much the point of this piece; to point out the irony of criticizing the creativity and critical thinking skills of our young people when the systems that regulate our schools (including the excessive testing) are the very things often holding them back.

      If you have a minute please read this post:

      Thanks for taking the time to stop by again and my best to you, your husband and your organization.


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