Today’s post is segment 1 of a 3-day guest post series by Jesse Langley. 

Changing the Education Paradigm: Is Flexibility Possible Within an Inflexible System?

In spite of structural limitations, American classrooms have come a long way in terms of innovation. Or I should say we’ve done okay with technological innovation. We’ve gone from chalkboards to tablet computers and from one room schools to online education options in just a few generations. We haven’t done so well with other kinds of innovation.

If we’re completely honest with ourselves we have to admit that many of our schools are struggling. When this issue comes up—as it inevitably does—in public policy discussions and in the lead-up to elections, it’s always framed in the following way: whose fault is it? I would suggest that all the sturm and drang about fault is entirely misplaced. We are missing the point entirely. And until we come to terms with this, education reform and the public policy initiatives that drive it will continue to flounder and we’ll continue down the same rutted educational road.

Teachers

First of all, let’s be honest about whose fault it isn’t. It’s not because American teachers have some kind of deficit or are bad teachers. During my time teaching, did I encounter some teachers who were absolute failures? You bet I did. Did I know teachers who had the intellectual curiosity of a pinecone? Absolutely. But they were few and far between. Nearly all of the teachers I had the pleasure to collaborate with were driven, dedicated and would drive themselves to exhaustion to ensure that the students in their classes weren’t falling behind. Okay. So we agree that teachers aren’t at fault.

Students

If teachers aren’t to blame, whose fault can it be? The obvious culprits must be the students. Is there some sort of intelligence deficit in American students? Are American kids just not teachable? It’s a ridiculous question but if we’re looking for someone to blame, students have to be included in the culprit seeking. And if the final arbiter of success lies in test scores, than it’s got to be the fault of either teachers or students and we’ve already agreed that teachers aren’t to blame. So it’s the students…. right?

The Real Culprit

Wrong! Many of you are probably already thinking, “Hey wait, the problem is in the uneven and unequal distribution of resources to schools because property taxes fund the majority of….” I know, I know, you’ve got a great point. But that isn’t a person we can blame. That’s a structural problem…Aha! There is blame to be found. But the problems we have in our education system are structural, not the fault of a particular group of people. We don’t have failing schools because of teachers’ unions, and school administrators aren’t the bad guys either.

American students aren’t stupid; they’re just not always being given what they need to succeed. The problem underlying nearly every troubled school in this country comes from an inherent conflict between what kids need to succeed and what schools are set up to provide. Sir Ken Robinson may have the best idea about reform when he says “reform doesn’t work. It only improves a broken model.”

We’ve come a long way with technological innovation in the classroom.

But using great resources like Moodle and providing tablet computers to every student cannot make up for an underlying educational structure which no longer works. We have an education system based on a factory model that makes little allowance for creativity. We group our kids according to age as if there is some magic formula in a birthday. It’s like they enter the system with a born-on date. And God forbid that we allow for creativity in teaching or learning.

Not so long ago, when I began teaching English, I had some tenth grade students who got fired up about the Romantic poets. I naively thought that it would be a great opportunity to switch my lesson plans and give my students at least a week of all the Romantics they could handle. But my enthusiasm was short-lived. You see, the Romantics can’t be taught until twelfth grade.