School Reform? Or, Re-Creation

I have always loved Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” essay because it is so openly contradictory.  He makes no apology for his haphazard thought process on the nature of human existence and artistic genius.  And yet, despite the fact that it defies logic, the essay is a poignant reminder that we are all individuals, united by a longing for personal identity and community.  “Insist on yourself,” writes Emerson, “never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession.”

As I was re-reading the essay for this post, I realized that much of what I do in my classroom has little to do with students.  I determine the curriculum…the assessments…the grades. Sure, I give some voice and choice by allowing them to pick from a menu of assessment options; but, I don’t think that that model offers enough freedom to students.  I don’t think that we can expect students to be engaged in their learning if we don’t allow them to control it.

I have to make a confession: I am a home schooling dad.  And I know what you’re thinking: How can a teacher home school their child? The answer, I think, is evident to anyone who has watched a home school child learn.

Each day, my son Oscar pursues his dream of being a professional skateboarder with the full force of his soul.  Every waking minute he is thinking about skating.  In the morning, he searches for videos on YouTube about how to do “nollie kick flips” and “front-side grinds.” In the afternoon, when the sidewalk is dry, he goes outside and tries to do the tricks he studied.  When the sidewalk is wet, he practices on his carpet board. At night, when the “public” kids get home from school, they skate on our road and my son joins them.  As he interacts with older kids, and, as they interact with him, he’s building an identity and a sense of community—his community—that is part of who he is. He is happy learner.

I don’t see the same invigoration on the faces of public school students. I see students who have vibrant interests in video games, music, art, creative writing…skateboarding, who aren’t allowed to pursue those interests during the school day because they are not part of the state’s curriculum for kids. From 8AM to 3:30PM, I see too many students who are frustrated by school.  They don’t understand why they have to be in school.  They don’t understand why there are so many rules.  They don’t see a connection between the curriculum and their lives. And who could blame them.  Despite having been part of the system for 12 or 13 years, they have little say in what goes on with regard to curriculum, assessment, or discipline. (Imagine doing the same job for 13 years and never being consulted on what you do.)  In public schools an alarming percentage of students are apathetic. An alarming percentage of students feel no connection to the school or their peers. An alarming number of students are unhappy.

Even more alarming, I think, is the way that school systems react:

  1. We are surprised that students are apathetic about their learning.
  2. We blame failure on students, teachers, or building leaders.
  3. We try to fix it by promoting best-practices, technology, literacy programs, etc.

The problem, however, is that in these reforms won’t work.  They miss the mark. The problem in schools is that the focus is all wrong.  Schools don’t need more devices, or new literacy programs, or district-wide learning objectives.  In fact, schools might be better off with less of those things because the problem with schools isn’t one of resources—although the question of equitable funding certainly couldn’t hurt—the problem is that we don’t create curriculum around what students want and need.  We build curriculum around state standards, district objectives, and BOE goals. In any other business—and education is certainly a business—ignoring your clientele would spell almost certain failure.

If we’re going to have meaningful school reforms, I think, we’re going to have to think about the process of education in a radically different way. That might mean rethinking our systems from the ground up. From mission statements to curriculum to classroom design, we need to rethink everything. And student interests need to be at the heart of that realignment.

If we do not re-align schools, I don’t think we can sustain a public school system in this country. The competition is fierce.  Unschools, home schools, charter schools, private schools are willing to look at the task of educating students in new ways, and the more that public schools deny the need for radical reform, the stronger they get.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson warned, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Let’s not hold on to ineffective approaches to education for the sake of tradition; let’s design schools that students want to attend.




4 thoughts on “School Reform? Or, Re-Creation

  1. If only this article could be heard by people that could actually do something about this. A MAJOR overhaul is needed and with the deep rooted tentacles of corporate backed fedleded it seems an almost impossible task. Until these tentacles are chopped off, there will sadly be a large divide between the children who went to public school and those who did not. Between those children who have had no choice with the injustice placed on them to be sentenced to public school, and the children who’s parents woke up and took a stand against what they themselves felt was wrong from the very first minute they were sentenced to the long grueling and sometimes cruel years that followed. I am so sad for the large percentage of children who’s parents do not have any other choice but to stick them in public school. So for these children we need to be their voice and keep putting out this vision of stripping down the old traditional outdated ways of public schooling, which was designed to turn out generations of factory workers right? We are living in very different times now, and we need to reflect that in the way we raise our children. But for the children who’s parents have not woken up or have no choice, my heart aches. There needs to be a way to help free them to develop thier passions and interests and creativity! Most of which are being squeezed from them in public school. The sinister part is that it seems to be designed this way on purpose. People are easier to control and to be profited from when they are all stuffed into the same box, stripped of individuality and unpredictability. Seems to be part of the plan for the top 1% . Isn’t that what school is for? To prepare (mold and shape) all of our “common” children to go off and work for them? To keep the money flowing into thier multi billion dollar estates? Wouldn’t it make sense that Bill Gates and other big corporate pockets but mostly Bill Gates dump a small portion of their fortune into leveling the playing field across the entire United States to be able to control and profit off the newest generation while collecting all the data from cradle till birth on each and every child of the commoners? How much power do you think this gives them ? They are funding the government which controls the schools. Follow the money. So how do you save the children ? It seems that the word is out and many people know what is going on here….but because the states all signed the paper for “commoner” core before even seeing the curriculum or “standards” and accepted the funding they are stuck with it ? So much money tied up to such corruption! I used to say that it would be different if the curriculum or standards were more age appropriate and not written from the top down…or if it made more sense..if it was more like NY standards used to be. But now that I am aware of how individual each student is, how different all of the States in the U.S. are, unique and cultural and historical..just like the children are all unique. It makes no sense to try to strip all of the individuality away and try to teach every child of the same age the same thing at the same time across the entire country. In theory it sounds nice and neat and convenient like cookie cutter products coming off a factory line….but our children are not products and they. are being used as human capital. As a teacher this new so called rigorous set of standards must be so incredibly frustrating to you. For you were taught ways to be creative with the students and to help them thrive individually and now there is no time for any of that. You are handed what pages you need to read on what days and there’s nothing more to it anymore. Am I wrong? Have teachers basically been reduced to page turners? It seems with this new reform they will be phasing out all of the creative and diverse teachers who went through college and training to be a teacher before common core came out. Because they were taught so differently and they had choice, they had freedom to be creative! Now it seems the school just wants the teachers to be proctors to either read off pages or sit and watch as students click through computer modules that collects and measures all of the data from that kid. There is obviously a huge sinister and corrupt motive behind all of this. May not seem sinister or corrupt to them but it is not right. It’s slavery. Here is the dictionary definition of slavery: slavery (ˈsleɪvərɪ)
    1. (Law) the state or condition of being a slave; a civil relationship whereby one person has absolute power over another and controls his life, liberty, and fortune

    Our lives are greatly affected by how we are raised. The public school system is and has been using this knowledge and our lack of other options to use all of these methods mentioned above to condition us to go out into the workforce to make money for the top. We are told there is no other way. This keeps the movement going and generation after generation in slavery using the money system.
    We need a new way. We need a movement.


    • Yeah…you nailed it. Thanks for all the thought and time you put into this comment. I think fixing the system will be difficult, but I also believe that a personalized public school education is possible. And necessary. I think the “movement” we need is to start getting parents to vocalize their complaints with the current trends in education.


      • They are voicing their opinions. They are opting out thier children from testing, they are rallying in albany and protesting and attending every hearing and “listening tour” they can find. They’ve been doing this since the rollout in 2012. They are being flat out ignored. The BOE has been stripped of it’s power of local control. The news has covered the anti common core and opt out movement here and there. The parents are fighting and writing and blogging and pushing as hard as they can and nothing changes. They are flat out ignored. They are ridiculed with comments made by people in power. The parents are made to look like uneducated ignorant middle class moms who cannot handle this “vigorous” new set of standards because our children aren’t “as smart as they thought they were”. The lists of money that the gates foundation keeps pouring into every single group for education Is sickening. The more the parents and teachers push back the more money they throw at it! They’re funding so many educational groups, curriculum providers and even teachers unions all so that they can force their agenda no matter how ridiculous and age inappropriate it is. This shouldn’t be allowed. Money shouldn’t be allowed to be accepted by all of these groups that are supposed to be protecting and standing up for our children ! I’m on every anti common core and anti testing group on Facebook I could find and though the movement Is large and growing it doesn’t seem to matter because of the money flowing into the groups one end that are supposed to keep tabs on the other end, you know checks and balances…yet they are all funded by the same place. The gates foundation. What else can we do since our voices and countless rallying, peaceful protests, interviews on tv, YouTube videos of conferences and testimonies, tweeting and phone calls and letters to govenors and many forms of government, the countless petitions and even a letter to the Attorney General… It all goes ignored. Because money is more important to them. What else is there?


  2. Tami-Check out Shannon Joy on WYSL AM1040. She shares your views almost exactly on common core and was/is instrumental in it’s opposition at Fairport and a few other schools.



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