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Schooling Isn't for the Children

My first arena of struggle was in the public schools. I gave up my accounting job, and a lot of my income, to start teaching. I tried it in high school, then elementary, then I started my own private elementary school. Later, I taught Junior High math and, much later, college computer science. While getting my doctorate on the GI Bill, I taught several college classes. I developed very strong opinions about what we do to children.

If you're reading this, you probably went to school. In fact, you probably did pretty well in school, and you've forgotten the children who didn't do as well and dropped out, but there were a lot of them.

School, the way we do it in America, is a competition. There are the "A" students, the "B" students and so on. They tend to stay in those categories throughout their school careers, even though we say we are "educating everybody equally."

Most of the "A" students are those who had advantages to begin with. They go all the way through college and then make the big bucks. Then statisticians compare them to all the people who dropped out along the way and say that education is a wonderful investment, because it caused those certain graduates to make so much more money.

But the truth is, they had all the advantages to begin with and probably would have made more money with or without their educational achievements.

Schooling is Sorting, Children are Graded Just as Cotton is Graded

The school system benefits those who can stay in it, but its main function for society isn't educating, it's sorting. It sorts out the winners and the losers, and legitimizes the difference.

Around 1968-69, education reform was a popular topic. I learned a lot from reading the ideas of advanced thinkers, especially Monsigneur Ivan Illich. Illich said that schooling was a commodity paid for mostly by poor people (through regressive sales and property taxes) and used mostly by wealthy people whose children consume the most years of education. He said the same thing, later, by the way, about airports.

As I studied all the reformers, I was eventually shocked to learn that there was nothing new in their ideas. A guy named George Counts had been the head of something called the Progressive Education Association back in the 1920s and 1930s. Their ideas were just as advanced as the "new" ones, and they were much more successful. I think they had something like 100,000 members at one time! I wondered why their reform ideas hadn't taken hold, but it wasn't hard to see why mine didn't.

One of my main interests in college education classes was grading. There were basically two theories operating: the standard ABC business and the "Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory" kind. They both did about the same thing -- categorizing the chilren according to how well they had pleased their graders.

It was interesting me to read studies showing that creativity and high grades did not correlate well. The innovative children weren't the ones making the highest grades. The highest grades were made, invariably, by the children who could figure out what the graders (teachers) wanted and give it to them. We would generally claim that we valued creativity, but we actually squashed it right out of the children under our care.

I experimented. One semester in an advanced "school without walls," I graded all kids on the sheer volume of work that they did, not its quality. The "A" students still made the "A's," when all was said and done, because they were the most motivated and the most confident, but the system was more fair in many ways. Everybody worked pretty hard, utilizing whatever talents they had to report back to me, sometimes in text, sometimes in pictures, sometimes orally, and they seemed to enjoy my classes more. When my fifth graders reached middle school the next year, they blew the lid off the standardized tests! I wrote a college paper about it and got an "A," but that's as far as its went. I still have the paper. It was some of my best academic work.

grades cartoon

I tried to get the professors to let me do my dissertation on grades and grading, but they picked a topic that they considered more useful to the people funding the college. Cost benefit analysis. It was popular in Texas during the long fight over school funding, which is still going on in 2015. Could have been worse. One of my fellow graduate students told me that he had actually proved, in his dissertation, that districts who spent more money on children achieved more aggregate improvement, but the profs told him to go back and do it over until he could prove that spending more money did no such thing. That was the conclusion they wanted, and the poor guy couldn't complete his doctorate until he gave them (the graders) what they wanted! He was almost in tears when he told me.

Teachers Beware!

I was in trouble almost all the time I was in public schools. The exception was my first year in an "open space" "school without walls" where experimention was encouraged. Unfortunately, the assistant superintendent directing the whole process, Kyle Killough, was done away with by the school district as my first year ended. Then they got rid of every single teacher he had hired, including me. I outlasted Killough by one semester.

Even though my students did exceptionally well, I failed year after year. Every year, (except for that one year, where the principal didn't even last as long as I did) I blamed the school administrators. I changed my own academic goals so that I would become an administrator. I thought I'd do better. I actually got a doctorate in school administration and a Texas superintendent's license. But the administrators don't set school policies any more than the teachers do. Actually less, because teaching, for some sly folks, can be a subversive activity. I didn't make that up. There was a book by that title.

My failure wasn't unusual. Many enthusiastic teachers don't last through their first three years.

By the time I had my doctorate, I was through with the public schools and they were really through with me! Private school, originated and run exclusively by me according to my own rules, didn't make the big difference I had hoped for. Even though I beat my head against that particular wall for more than 3 years.

Education Isn't the "Easy Way"

Up to then, 1973, I thought I had devised an "easy way" to transform society. I had reasoned that I would help provide excellent schools. Excellent schools would produce excellent children, then, in a generation or two, we'd have an excellent society. I wasn't deterred because it was so darned hard to change the schools. I was willing to fight that, and I did. What finally put me out of that particular misery was the growing realization that the school system didn't need my expert advice, nor anybody's. It was functioning just fine as it was -- on the behalf of the people in charge. It wasn't functioning well at all for the children, the parents, or the teachers; but it was doing great for the people who were running things.

It was really hard for me to admit it, but the schools aren't the problem in modern society. They're a symptom.



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