Dumb but not that dumb

Don posted recently about the public education system in the U.S.

Me? I am firmly against the prevailing ethos that stresses: Do as you’re told. Do no more and no less. Listen for the bell. Watch the clock.

In an ideal world, my classroom would be heavy on the experiential, inquiry-based learning — asking questions, creating projects that interest them. I once heard about a school in Minnesota that’s almost entirely project-based, and the students do it all: they open the doors with their own keys in the morning and sweep the floors before they leave in the evening. In high school, I couldn’t stand any class except journalism, where our only task was to envision our final product, create it, and share it.

I worked at a “small school” that was supposed to do something like this on the South Side.  Once a huge, impersonal high school, South Shore was divided into four smaller schools of about 400 kids, each with its own principal, though they shared a building. For the first couple years, with funding from the Gates foundation, it worked — students learned in small classes, teachers knew everyone in the school and worked as a team, students were matched with local businesses and went on internships every Wednesday, the entire faculty and staff gathered for an annual retreat to plan strategically as an entire school.

Then the funding dried up for internships and retreats, the district pushed for the school to take on more students, behavioral problems started taking center stage, and even though there were only 500 students in the school, the staff had been overwhelmed, the principal was focused on discipline, and pretty soon the entire model had derailed.

Schools need more funding and district leadership that will set schools on a well-planned, visionary course. But the gap between dreams and reality, right now, seems unbelievably huge. I once thought that no one could figure out the magic formula for fixing public education, and if only I tried hard enough, researched enough, worked enough, I could help figure it out. The real truth is, people in power don’t want this problem fixed. People with money don’t care enough about the kids without money.  And why would they? They’d just be creating more competition for themselves. We, as a society, are dumb — but not that dumb. We’ve figured out how to fit 90 hours of sound onto a thumbnail-sized chip, but we can’t figure out how to get through second period without Damien and Laron punching each other in the face?

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