In the 2nd century A.D., Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius penned a series of personal writings and reflections known today as “Meditations.” In Book 1, the emperor shares some of his debts and lessons learned, and offers a glimpse at his experiences as a student. Even then, from the sound of it, we were still letting schools get in the way of our children’s educations.
From his great-grandfather, Catilus Severus, Aurelius learned “to avoid the public schools, to hire good private teachers, and to accept the resulting costs as money well-spent.” And that was 1,800 years ago. The more things change…
Anybody else tired of having to be “boundlessly and annoyingly skeptical” about the reforms advertised as fixes to bad public schools?
A good education is worth investing in—that has always been true. To get some perspective on what a quality learning experience could look like, and how we can turn that vision into reality, I reached out to a few people who are fighting to build a better education system here in the United States:
- Sam Chaltain (@samchaltain), a D.C.-based writer and education activist who is supporting Ashoka‘s #StartEmpathy initiative. Sam was previously the national director of the Forum for Education and Democracy.
- Nikhil Goyal (@nikhilgoya_l), an author and speaker who serves on the board ofFairTest. Diane Ravitch nominated this 17-year-old to be the future U.S. Secretary of Education.
- Rahila Simzar, a former Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) math teacher and mathematics department chair who is working on her doctorate from the University of California, Irvine. She’s specializing in educational policy and social context, with interests in learning, cognition and development.
Sam Chaltain: We won’t get more great schools until we get more clarity around the ultimate purpose of schooling. At an ideal school, adults understand that their mission is to help children grow not just cognitively, but also socially, emotionally, linguistically, ethically, and physically. We can’t address all those different developmental needs of children until we restore some balance to what we value. And right now, in America, it’s all about cognitive growth (and even a narrow sliver of that)—and little about anything else.
Nikhil Goyal: American schools are failing, because they are suppressing children by forcing them into a compliance-based model of education. All children are natural learners. We’re born with curiosity, creativity, wonder, and intrinsic motivation. Research shows that with more years of formal schooling, those very qualities are stunted tremendously. Moreover, schools largely resemble prisons: children are cut from society and social media is banned.
Rahila Simzar: Reform movements in education tend to focus on a “one size fits all” approach in attempting to solve educational inequity issues. While universalizing core standards and curriculum does carry some utility in leveling the playing field, it is important to keep in mind that it is not the magic silver bullet that will remedy achievement gaps alone. Support for underachieving students and their teachers, professional development promoting differentiated instruction for diverse groups of learners, and efforts towards building learning communities for teachers, school leaders, and administrators to encourage teamwork and shared responsibility must accompany these movements.
2) If you alone had the power to do so, how would you fix the U.S. education system?
Chaltain: In a system as diverse and broad as ours, some form of standardization is essential. We have chosen to standardize two things: what gets taught, and how kids get assessed. By contrast, a country like Finland has standardized two very different factors: how schools get funded, and how teachers get trained.
Imagine how differently the landscape of modern school reform would look if we stopped funding schools inequitably—even the U.S. Supreme Court has characterized our approach as “chaotic and unjust”—and started funding all schools the same, regardless of the surrounding community’s property values? We’d solve the riddle of comprehensive school reform in record time.
Goyal: First, I would call for Congress to repeal No Child Left Behind and allow for the abolition of Race to the Top. Then I would arrange for a council of education stakeholders to craft national guidelines of the basics for what children should know for this day and age. Most importantly, I would push for schools to adopt learner-centered policies where children take full agency over their learning experiences, have a curriculum that is anti-disciplinary and rooted in real-world problems, and transform the role of the teacher into a facilitator rather than a “sage on the stage.”
Simzar: I would place more emphasis on early childhood programs, especially for children in underserved communities. I would highlight the potential that out-of-school-time programs have for students’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills that can transfer to students’ academic life, social and family life, and later career life. Out-of-school-time staff would be given pedagogy-based professional development, opportunities for degree attainment, and residency-like programs to assist mentorship between teachers. Lastly, I would encourage cross-curriculum connections and a shared responsibility in academic achievement among teachers, colleagues, coaches, and mentors.
3) What does your “dream school” look like?
Chaltain: There is a mission and a vision that aligns everyone’s work every day. The end goal is not a fixed set of content knowledge, but a flexible series of habits of mind that can guide a child through life. Learning occurs anywhere and everywhere, and is always engaging relevant, supportive, challenging, and experiential.
The good news is that what I’m describing is not just a dream—it’s already happening. See for yourself at ayearatmissionhill.com—a 10-part video series about a year in the life of a remarkable public school in Boston.
What the Mission Hill series demonstrates is that we know more than we think we do about what powerful teaching and learning really looks like—and requires. Now we just need to spread the word.
Goyal: There are thousands of schools scattered around the nation that are working very well: progressive, democratic, and free schools. In democratic schools, for example, by means of meetings, children in the school can vote on school rules and policies. However, we must transform even further than these types of institutions. We should create city-as-a-school models where we turn public spaces into learning environments, let children participate in apprenticeships, and unlock the potential of communities to solve real-world problems.
Simzar: A “dream school” would be a community of teachers, school leaders and administrators who share a goal of nurturing, supporting and encouraging each and every one of its students. This requires components of a “dream community” as a prerequisite—with all members of a community contributing to and caring about the development of its youth. Bridges between students’ school life, home life and social life need to be built for students to experience a wholesome and connected learning environment. A “dream school” would be a school in which each teacher truly loved his/her students and cared deeply for their futures.