Why schools are not the answer…

Our school-centered thinking about education is similar to the Ptolemaic view of the universe where the earth was assumed to be the center around which all the heavenly bodies including the sun revolved. In this earth-centered system, planets were thought to turn out of orbits periodically and move in little circles called epicycles before returning to the main orbit. Epicycles were a way to explain why certain planets seemed “retrograde” in their orbits. The complexity of the theory helped maintain earth’s position firmly in the center of the universe.  Ptolemy’s system was used long after scientists suspected the earth and planets were really revolving around the sun.

The view that schools hold the responsibility for learning, and that education is primarily delivered by schools is as inaccurate today as the Ptolemaic idea that the sun revolves around the earth.  Rather, the earth revolves around the sun, and the schools revolve around the family and community.  The data is equally convincing in both cases. But it took 100 years to convince many people of the new Copernican view. They would not give up their entrenched worldview. And that seems to be about the same rate we are working on with education as well.

Understanding that learning is grounded in cultural values, behaviors, and attitudes that are home and community-based, constitutes a Copernican revolution in our understanding of learning. (see earlier blog). It also leads to some interesting conclusions.

First, the parents of successful children in school do not wait for schools to give learning to their children. They make sure the kids arrive at kindergarten as full members of the learning community.  The kids recognize letters, they love to hear stories, they memorize words, they know shapes and basic numbers. This is the parent’s responsibility and they readily accept it.

Secondly, it is ridiculous to call parents their kids’ “first teachers,” as though the better parent acts like an agent of the school. Parents are the initiators of their children into the cultures and civilizations of their world. This is more important and far more powerful when it comes to learning. This is how parents ought to be encouraged, not just as outreach arms of the school system. Parents are actually their child’s parent, a far more august and influential position than being their teacher. If parents take parenting seriously and exude curiosity about life and love of knowledge their children will have the strong foundation they need to be successful learners.

Once parents and communities have prepared kids for school, the schools can then do what they are designed to do—teach to those already prepared to learn. As Edmund Gordon, Senior Scholar in Residence at SUNY Rockland Community College, says: “schools work for those who have the capital when they get there.”

Finally, the explanation for why kids enter schools behind and don’t catch up no matter what school reform model is used is fully explained by the fact that the primary source of learning, of learning to love learning, of valuing the small details of learning, and of having the attitudes and emotions that constitute the foundation of successful learning – the source of all of that is not the school.

Thus school based “interventions” can’t replace what is missing. Schools cannot take children unprepared with positive learning attitudes and teach them not only facts and information, but most crucially how to learn, how to be an active member in a culture of learning – this is a false hope.

The history of test scores and graduation rates, and the fact that for a generation they have not budged no matter what the reform, is consistent only with this view: that kids who are not doing well in schools need what kids who are doing well in school got – a nurturing culture of learning as a foundation for all learning in their lives.

But our policies and practices still seek to achieve the dream of equity by using the schools as the tool of reform.

Billions of dollars are being spent.  Charter schools, private schools, and new curriculum, have been tried. Preschool reforms, teacher reforms are everywhere. We have tried home visits by social workers, truancy vans, paying students for success, service learning, etc.

We have indeed reached the epicycle stage of the process. The system is clearly broken, the data never gets better, but we are committed to maintaining at the center of our world view the school.

If we focus not on students in institutions but on young people and their learning, we see that families and communities are central, not schools The problem is not a lack of brillant reforms at the school level, it is simply that many children who are not prepared to learn come to school anyway. Addressing this problem is not something the schools can do well.  Only a community centered approach makes sense.