The Alternatives: Exploring Options in Policy and Practice website recently had a post about not becoming a "fool" in your daily life by assuming that you can do something better than someone who has even a little training in the area. Education was mentioned in the post as one of the areas in which people believe that they can put together something better than what currently exists. The article concludes that this is due to the fact that we live in a society that largely disregards the value of disciplinary knowledge and practical experience. We choose, instead to focus on quick fix, shortcuts, and disposable solutions rather than taking the time to rely on experts to thoughtfully craft workable long term solutions. What is it about education specifically that has every "fool" with an interesting idea or political office angling to pitch their vision for education reform to the world and criticizing the establishment in the process?
Bildbeschreibung: Keying Up – the Court Jester, 1875
Why Everyone Is an Education Expert
This idea, based on a two-part false assumption, was mentioned in the Alternatives article, that we try to do things like build cheap furniture to save a few bucks even if we aren’t experts because we have a notion that if we screw it up, we can just return it to the store and try again. Education doesn’t even fall into the "not experts" category because everyone has been through the system and thus thinks that they are an expert in what public education is, should be, and consequently, how to make that change happen. The second part of the false assumption is that, even if they get it wrong, no big deal, they’ll just scrap that solution and try something else. These two fallacies are extremely harmful to education and the students it serves, and prevent us from hearing the voices of the experts who actually know what the system is, does, and could/should do if it were to be reformed – teacher, college education faculty, and highly trained and experienced administrators.
Think about having passed through the educational system like visiting a doctor. We have all been to see physicians hundreds of times, watched them solve complicated cases on TV, or read medical mysteries where the brilliant physician saves the world. We have sat and listened to them in person, asked questions that we have researched ourselves in advance, and followed their suggestions and recommendations for how to eat more healthily, exercise more, and generally be in better shape than most Americans are. Simply put, none of this qualifies us to diagnose an illness, operate on someone, take an X-ray, or remove an ingrown toe nail. All of our experiences interacting with doctors do not qualify us to be doctors. In fact, most of us are barely able to manage our own health, let alone that of others. The same principle applies to teaching and the design of educational systems. Despite the years we all spend sitting in classrooms, we are not qualified to teach or guide the reform of the education system. Our experience has come on the wrong side of the desk and lacks the formal training and other background knowledge that qualify teachers to teach.
Stop Fooling Yourself
This is a call out to all politicians and other reform-minded non-educators – STOP. You are fooling yourselves, and more importantly, your constant berating of educators and the system is hurting their ability to do their job and preventing students from learning. Here’s how:
- Propagating the faulty assumption that short term results matter – Education is a long process. No one learns everything in a semester, year, or even their high school or college career. We learn things cumulatively over a lifetime. One lesson builds on those before them and eventually they all produce thinking, critically conscious individuals who can solve real problems and who never stop learning. Judging the system or trying to reform it to focus on short term outcomes disrupts this process and removes the focus from the real objective of education, to produce people who can think for themselves and discover innovative solutions to new problems as they arise.
- Standardizing the un-standardizable – the irony of standards and standardized testing is that we really don’t want our schools to produce standardized students. We need individuals who can think and innovate and who draw on diverse backgrounds to solve problems and create new products, technologies, medicines, and the other innovations that will keep the world moving forward. Standardization is a futile attempt to measure the immeasurable.
- Pushing the wrong agenda – The idea that teachers are to blame for the shortcomings of their students is ludicrous. They bear some of the responsibility, but parents, students, and society as a whole bear far more. Teachers are an easy scapegoat for what should be an agenda of societal reform rather than educational. We do not provide adequate support for parents to raise their children in the most stimulating environment. Many people do not value education and model learning for our youth. And we do not show that we value or support education both through the constant negative attacks on the system and our chronic failure to fund all schools equitably and few schools at the levels they really need to provide the best education for every student.
- Failing to fund the real need – Educational funding in the U.S. is really a big joke. There is no other thing that we do where we expect so much and are so unwilling to devote the kind of energy and resources to it that we know it needs to succeed. You would not plant a garden where it will get no sunlight and never water the plants. This is exactly what we do with education. We withhold every possible nutrient and still expect it to flourish. It is simply ridiculous.
- De-professionalizing the field – Finally, all of these things and the attitude that we all know what education should be more than those in the system removes the power and authority from educators that is automatically bestowed on every other professional in our society. Ironically, teachers go through as much or more training than many other professionals and the standards for ongoing learning and professional development for educators are far stricter than for any other profession. Yet we do not view teachers and administrators as professionals who can manage their own shop.
This does not present a pretty picture of the state of education in our society, and it is not intended to. The criticism is not, however of education itself, but rather of the way we all interact with it and presume to force our own, largely uniformed agendas on it. We fail to support our educators and the system in every possible way, yet still demand the highest level of results. Wake up people. Education will not get better until we do two things: show that we value it, and stop fooling ourselves that anyone other than trained educators can fix it.