Education Opinion

Are Schools ‘Stealing Dreams’?

By Justin Baeder — July 04, 2012 2 min read
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Friday was my last day with Seattle Public Schools, so I hope to devote much more time to this blog from this point on. The topic of performance in the education profession is more important than ever, and I’m eager to re-engage with you; feel free to email me at justin.baeder@gmail.com.

Over the past few weeks, I worked my way through Seth Godin’s lengthy online manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams (What is School For?). If you aren’t familiar with Godin, he is a bestselling author, marketing guru, and leading thinker in creativity and entrepreneurship.

I went to see Godin when he spoke in Seattle last year, and he gave a preview of some of his thinking on education; the 30,000-word manifesto lays out his entire case.

Essentially, he argues that school was designed for a now-irrelevant purpose, and has itself become a barrier to students’ achieving their dreams. He offers only a handful of remedies, but I find his critiques of public education interesting and thought-provoking, if often off-base or ill-informed.

Godin roots many of his arguments in the history of public education in the US, and many of his critiques about the mismatch between today’s world and the structure of schooling are on target. However, he seems to not understand what “universal public education” means, or how the universality of our K-12 system impacts the dynamics he’s exploring. I would love to see historian Diane Ravitch comment on Godin’s manifesto, but for now I’ll merely point to her recent blog post about how Harlem Village Academy, the school Godin cites as an outstanding example of what schools can and should be, is no miracle after all.

I admire Godin’s effort to provoke our thinking about what purposes schools should serve and how they should achieve them. He begins:

In this manifesto, I'm going to argue that top-down industrialized schooling is just as threatened [as mass marketing], and for very good reasons. Scarcity of access is destroyed by the connection economy, at the very same time the skills and attitudes we need from our graduates are changing. While the internet has allowed many of these changes to happen, you won't see much of the web at the Harlem Village Academy school I visited, and not so much of it in this manifesto, either. The HVA is simply about people and the way they should be treated. It's about abandoning a top-down industrial approach to processing students and embracing a very human, very personal and very powerful series of tools to produce a new generation of leaders. There are literally thousands of ways to accomplish the result that Deborah Kenny and her team at HVA have accomplished. The method doesn't matter to me, the outcome does. What I saw that day were students leaning forward in their seats, choosing to pay attention. I saw teachers engaged because they chose to as well, because they were thrilled at the privilege of teaching kids who wanted to be taught. The two advantages most successful schools have are plenty of money and a pre-selected, motivated student body. It's worth highlighting that the HVA doesn't get to choose its students, they are randomly assigned by lottery. And the HVA receives less funding per student than the typical public school in New York. HVA works because they have figured out how to create a workplace culture that attracts the most talented teachers, fosters a culture of ownership, freedom and accountability, and then relentlessly transfers this passion to their students.

As you can see if you read Ravitch’s blog post, Godin makes several inaccurate claims about HVA, but the most crucial is about student motivation. HVA’s students are heavily pre-selected; the lottery of course only draws from the motivated pool of students who apply.

Throughout his manifesto, which I will review further in subsequent posts, motivation is a key element in Godin’s arguments. High school students are unmotivated, he reasons, because school isn’t meeting their needs (or society’s). I think he’s on to something, but we’ll need to get further into his arguments to examine exactly what needs fixing.

If you’re headed to the beach, load up a copy of the manifesto on your favorite reading device (or print a copy if you can spare 98 sheets of paper) and let me know what you think.

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.