School & District Management Opinion

The System Isn’t Broken!

By Stu Silberman — December 11, 2013 4 min read
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Guest blogger David N. Cook is the Director of Innovation and Partner Engagement at the Kentucky Department of Education.

Almost weekly I sit in a meeting, share in a webinar, or confront individuals who say, “Our education system is broken, we must fix it!” I get frustrated because this statement simply isn’t true.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “broken” as not working properly. By this definition we cannot say the education system is broken. The current education system is functioning exactly as it was intended to.

The system is not broken; it’s simply the wrong system. By in large, classrooms and schools today don’t look any different than they did in the late 19 th century (save the technology). When schooling became compulsory at higher grade levels in the early 20th century, the system was designed to sort children. That design remains today. Children would be sorted into those that would go on to college, those who would gain technical skills and those that would probably not gain either. Often, socio-economic status and race played a part in this “sorting”. While Brown v. Board of Education created a de-segregated system, the sorting continued.

As evidence of the quality implementation of the current system, one simply needs to look at the performance levels and achievement gaps in today’s schools. These numbers support the current systems success:

1) Provide a free education to everyone;

2) teach the students reading, writing, math with a little science and social studies thrown in;

3) test kids on their understanding of that content; and

4) move all kids along, regardless of their success on those assessments.

The system it gets an “A” based on its purpose. It accomplishes exactly what it was created to do. If this is system we want, we should stop all our efforts to “fix” it. Just let it do what it was intended to do.

That is why most education reform doesn’t work at scale. Education reform is predicated on the idea that we are trying to fix that which is broken. It assumes we need better approaches to get us to the same outcomes: outcomes that don’t make sense in the 21st century.

Several years ago a good friend of mine who at the time was a successful high school principal made the following statement at a national meeting we were both attending: “I’m better at anyone I know at the ‘school business.’ I can get kids to school safely, get them into classrooms, ensure teachers are teaching, make sure they get a good midday meal, put them back on buses and get them safely home. I do that better than just about anyone. The problem is I’m not in the ‘school business’, I’m in the ‘people development business’. My job should be to ensure they leave my school ready for life and ready to be productive, self-sufficient citizens.”

This remark was brought to mind recently when I made a similar statement at an international meeting. I said that one of the key responsibilities we as the K12 education system have is as an economic development enterprise. We must bring to the economy people who are employable and that have the life skills they need to be successful:

    • adaptability
    • perseverance when faced with challenges
    • creativity
    • critical thinking across disciplines
    • being a functioning member of a team
    • effective communication and presentation skills
    • taking initiative
    • leadership
    • problem formulation and solving
    • time management
    • how to find reliable and accurate information
    • how to analyze, synthesize and make inferences from data

Please hear me; I am not advocating that we don’t teach core academic standards. The key is that we must teach those core academic standards in the context of the skills outlined above. These are the “learning how to learn” skills. Skills specific to a content area should still be taught in the context of the content.

If public education is going to remain relevant (and I don’t think that is a given) we must shift from a system that believes its job is to assist students in collecting credits towards graduation to a system which exists to prepare young people for the world in which they will live.

I feel sorry for those in the education system that don’t recognize the latter as their role. I feel sorry for students who have teachers that view their role as the keeper of knowledge instead of being a facilitator of learning. I feel badly for students who are educated in systems where time is a constant and learning is a variable rather than the reverse. Most importantly, I wish every student had a full complement of adults that understood that it isn’t about what their students know today, it’s what they can learn tomorrow because we showed them how to learn today.

Bottom line, our first and most important role is to prepare students for life with the content knowledge, skills (learning how to learn) dispositions (ability to apply the learning) they need. This is the new “system” we must create. Once created, a day may come when it is the wrong system; I just hope those that are still around won’t try to fix it.

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