Why “education reform” won’t work

We need to forget what we think we are in order to become who we really are. – Paulo Coelho

It seems that the topic of “education reform” has been mentioned more frequently in the first 100 days of the Obama presidency than I have heard in the last several years. The dialog has not made headlines in the way that swine flu, the collapse of Wall Street, or even Dancing with the Stars has. But the fact that we have heard a speech outlining long-term education reform strategies, and several New York Times columnists chiming in on this topic says to me that a little red light has gone on.

I see it in my own experience. I come from an immigrant family that valued education over almost everything else, the only exception being protection of good health. Call it the old-school values that focused mostly on the basics beyond survival, since luxuries were few for my parents’ generation. And not just my parents. In President Obama’s memoir, he tells the story of his mother waking him up every morning to tutor him in English, so that he would have access to the American education system one day. When the young Obama complained, she replied, “This is no picnic for me either, Buster!”

I would argue that the very values that made America what it is today, and what we value most about living here, are also the reasons why full-scale “education reform”, if pursued only from a government policy perspective, won’t work. Individual freedom of expression, the freedom to live by any values you choose, without government intervention or limitation, are to be celebrated. They are the foundation of this country’s greatness and sustainability.

But a real education “system” requires agreement by a society – or at least a community – on the values that surround education. I live in the Bay Area, specifically the Peninsula south of San Francisco, which is characterized by the pluralism of choices in education that reflect the beauty of American individualism. When public schools have not met the desires of parents, schools have been created and funded by parents. The result is a dizzying array of choices for new parents, and a pressure to define their educational values early in their child’s life. What it boils down to is a frenzied “shopping spree” that begins almost as soon as a child is born, and sometimes while still in the womb, as the parents race to find “the best” nursery schools, preschools, schools, enrichment programs, nannies, and playgroups. I’ve played this to my advantage, since I launched an entrepreneurial educational offering five years ago, starting with only myself and a Powerpoint presentation outlining what I believed in and what I would be offering. While the program could have succeeded in any geography, it is this culture of “educational consumerism” – with its inherent freedom of choice and market forces – that was an important factor supporting my early successful launch.

But after five years, I realize that my job – the ability to even do my job, which is to make sure that each child in my school gets the experience of working toward their own highest potential – is dependent on the people around me living by a certain set of values. Maybe I take my job too seriously. I’ve been told that before. But I’m a serious person, an attribute I am beginning to accept and embrace about myself as I grow older.

When I think about the job of a classroom teacher in a school, and I understand the societal context that the teacher is working in, I know that no governmental policy will ever succeed in “education reform”. The reform needs to come from the values people live by. Period. The system is merely a reflection of what we as citizens feel is important. And right now, we don’t feel that learning and getting an education – at  least in a classroom – is important. We only acknowledge its value insofar as it is able to (a) get our children into a prestigious university that will eventually lead to a high-paying job, or (b) allow our children access to a certain social stratum that is at least as high as, but preferably higher, the one achieved by the parents, or (c) prove our ability to be a good parent.

But none of these are strong enough reasons to commit to the real process of learning. Learning involves struggle, and transformation, and a willingness to confront the truth about yourself and others. Learning requires openness of heart, mind, and body. And learning in a group of other people requires sacrifice of your own desires and needs for the sake of the group. In order to believe in the process of learning, and to endure its inevitable ups and downs, you have to believe in the necessity of cultivating the mind, heart, and body, to the development of whole human beings. It has nothing to do with getting a high-paying job. It has everything to do with giving a person access to their own uniqueness.

All of these truths run exactly counter to the prevailing culture that is presented to us through the media, and through advertisements. We are told that society is based on the pursuit of idealized images and objects, that if we just fix the appearance of things, and take great care to present only the “perfect” and “beautiful” sides of things in public (or to whomever happens to be judging us at the moment), then everything will be fine. We get plastic surgery, do home makeovers, and stage fashion transformations in order to feel better about ourselves. We can carry on like this for a surprisingly long time, if all the right conditions line up in our favor. And right now, all the messages from the outside still keep telling us that if things look OK from the outside, they must be OK. In the words of Warren Buffett, “only when the tide goes out do you find out who is not wearing a bathing suit.”

Why do we need to learn? Until we as a society acknowledge that question for ourselves, and begin to value the imperative to learn, and to instill the skills of learning in children and in adults, we will never prioritize any education system enough to truly be able to reform it.

The value of emotional resilience has been lost. Parents have taken on the professional, and almost fanatical role, of protecting their children from any experience, situation, or interaction that may require them to draw on reserves of emotional resilience. Many parents would honestly tell you that this is their role – to shield and protect their children at all costs. Well, safety is one thing. But crippling is another.

I often laugh at my own job when I think, “If learning to play the violin is the hardest work you’ll ever do in your life, you’ll have been REALLY lucky. If the feedback that you get from me in the process of learning is the “harshest” criticism that you ever receive in life, then you probably haven’t really put yourself out there and tried to express yourself.” We’ve become a society that has collectively forgotten about adversity. The greatest thing that we fear is not being able to keep up with the images of success projected onto us by the mass media. That we won’t be able to buy the things that we want, or go on vacation next year. We think children shouldn’t have to go through truthful experiences early in life. But why? If we don’t learn to take small doses of the truth early on, how will we begin to deal with the large doses that will arrive throughout life?

The reason we are seeing the problems with teacher recruitment and retention in schools is because we don’t value true education. We are giving teachers in classrooms an impossible job – that of surrogate parents, except with all of the responsibility but none of the authority. In reality, we are setting them up for failure. There is no amount of classroom teaching and influence that can override even just one manipulation by a parent’s response. Parents have the power either to reinforce and support teachers, or to override them through their own agendas.

In the ebulliently individualistic and free society that we have, most parents have, inadvertently or not, gravitated towards their own agendas. I’m fascinated with how this came to be the case. Right now, I don’t have any answers.

What I do have is the observation that the barriers that work against teachers – or any “outsourced parenting” professionals like coaches – are the powerlessness to do what is necessary in order to effect the tranformation inherent in learning. We have redefined learning to mean “getting good grades” or “getting into XYZ college’, and we have redesigned a system that simultaneously offloads the responsibility of learning onto a “system”, but has not granted the teachers the authority or the partnership with parents to exercise that responsibility.

As long as parents continue to look for praise and external rewards as the proxy for learning, rather than peering inside the souls of their children to witness and cultivate their internal tranformation, there will be no “education reform” in America.

[Next up: where do the solutions begin?]

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