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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Our Blind Educational System Is Stuck in a Cage

By Guest Blogger — April 29, 2015 4 min read
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Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he’s off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week’s guest posts will be written by Jacob Pactor. Pactor is an English teacher at Speedway (Indiana) High School, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in Educational Leadership, and a former Teach Plus Teaching Fellow.

“To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.” --Plato

We don’t have a vision for K-12 (or P-16) education in this country. As a result, we have conversations about growth and achievement and funding and assessments without having a vision that guides our decision making.

It’s not working.

National statistics support something different. Nationwide, only 32 percent of students said they were interested in their learning. Likewise, only 56 percent of parents are satisfied with their assigned public school. The 2013 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher found only 39 percent of teachers satisfied with their jobs. And finally, employers believe only 42 percent of applicants have necessary reading, writing, and decision making skills.

Our patchwork of schools—traditional, charter, virtual, hybrid—has not been able to address these issues collectively.

This seems obvious, but perhaps we are stuck. Traditional district schools operate on 20th century calendars even as they work to prepare students for 21st century thinking. So do charter schools, even though they have been freed to be truly innovative or entrepreneurial. These new schools buy into the cage but with longer school days or teacher contracts.

Regardless of model, high schools confine students to long periods of sitting, limited social interaction, and a too-rigid curriculum. The very physical and logistical schedules of today’s schools actively work to limit students’ physical and intellectual creativity. Students demonstrate mastery through exams, use hall passes to visit the restroom, get booted from library at contract hours, and sit through uninspiring course material under fluorescent lighting. We have institutionalized these practices even though they actively un-prepare students for the real world.

To be clear, if no action is taken, if nothing changes for schools or students, then no one will know; schools and students will continue plodding in the same dark cave. The cave (or cage) will still exist except in pockets where cage-busters have broken free. No one will think differently or be better prepared. Our current high school model will continue to focus on students attaining high school diplomas through credit completion, not development or application of knowledge. If nothing changes, high schools will continue to exist as they do even though research strongly suggests they shouldn’t.

Take grades as one example. Nearly all the research suggests that grades encourage easy, lackadaisical, and frivolous work. Alfie Kohn summarizes it this way: “The more students are led to focus on how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they’re doing.” By rethinking and innovating the process—by having a vision statement and core beliefs that drive our work—we can focus on what teachers teach and what students do. The outcomes will be more relevant, more rigorous, and more rewarding.

Do we really want a generation of graduates focused only on showing up and shutting down? Will our economy and democracy be able to solve next-generation problems with graduates disengaged from real-life problem solving? Are we really preparing all students for success? Despite our constant attention, not enough first-generation, low-income, or minority students are ready. Overall, not enough students are ready for college.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment and college persistence coincides with income and minority status. “Students from high schools with [more than 50% eligible for free or reduced price lunch] had lower college enrollment rates than schools with mostly higher income students, regardless of the minority or geographic category that the school fell into.” This says nothing about high school students who never graduate or who graduate convinced college is for someone else.

Our education system—regardless of location or delivery method—must serve these students, and it does so not by tinkering around the edges, but by providing a learning experience that immerses students in what they want to learn with academic, social, and community supports in place to provide both guidance and growth. Real cage-busting must bust the cage for all of us. As Rick Hess makes clear in The Cage-Busting Teacher, we have to move past great teachers locking their doors and teaching great lessons. If that’s all we do, a few students will benefit. But we will go nowhere.

A clear vision will not solve our problems. However, anchoring our work to a vision is necessary if we want to achieve more. That goal is this: to send forward critical thinkers, effective leaders, intelligent consumers, and engaged citizens confident in their abilities and committed to self- and community improvement.

When we start from a shared vision, our conversations about student assessments and teacher evaluations are more meaningful. Our data is more insightful. Our outcomes are more impressive. Our country is better off.

--Jacob Pactor

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.