A New Portrait of Education Reform

A New Portrait of Reform

This post is adapted from a blog post which originally appeared on elizabethonline.com.

If you want to think about positively impacting education, you have to get a clear picture of how Americans talk about schools. Our collective thoughts are emotional—and fraught with denial. While we may be living in the most divisive moments in American history, there are still a few things Americans agree on. Here’s what we believe:  

  1. “They" are doing a terrible job educating our kids, and, in fact, the national American education system stinks. In fact, seventy-four percent of Americans would give the national system as a whole a grade of C or D. That makes sense, particularly that it’s frequently noted that the United States ranks only #17 in reading amongst developing countries.  
  1. We trust teachers. In fact, eighty-one percent of us still claim to have “faith” in the people we entrust with teaching our children. 
  1. That being said, we aren’t sure they’re totally prepared to teach. Sixty percent of Americans think that more rigorous entrance requirements for a college teaching program would produce more effective teachers. 
  1. Moreover, we like control. Seventy percent of Americans think parents should have the power to throw out school leadership when their children aren’t having good educational outcomes. 
  1. Still, it probably shouldn’t come to that—at least, not in our neck of the woods. Nearly half of Americans think the "bad" schools aren’t in their neighborhoods: forty-eight percent of Americans would give schools in their own communities an A or a B. 

So, while the vast majority of us would give our national system a C or D grade, that same vast majority still trusts teachers—but we also think they could be a lot better, so perhaps we don’t trust them, after all. Half of us are pretty sure that the bad schools aren’t in our local communities. The bad schools are… somewhere else—somewhere, arguably, that isn’t our problem.  

It’s their problem. Back to Netflix. 

So, What's that tell us? Something Big. 

Now, the American population is somewhere around 320 million people. Of those, we currently have around 55 million students enrolled in preK—12, and another roughly 5 million people are teachers.  

That means we’ve got 60 million people inside school walls and 260 million other people outside those schools jawing about “problems with schools” and how the people inside schools—and in other communities--should fix them. 

Two hundred and sixty million people is a lot of people: it's over a quarter billion.** 

Forget about schools for a moment. For now, let’s look at The Rest Of Us: let’s examine how you and I spend our time. In particular, let’s examine those things to which we give our attention. 

  1. The average American adult spends about 11 hours a day watching television and using the Internet. Multiply that times seven and we have 77 hours of TV and web use per week. This makes sense, as Netflix and DVR has made it that much easier to “binge watch,” etc.   
  1. We're pretty miserable.  

For one, we have Internet Envy: Internet Envy (or, Facebook Makes Us Sad) 

“They found that the more a volunteer used Facebook in the period between two questionnaires, the worse he reported feeling the next time he filled in a questionnaire. Volunteers were also asked to rate their satisfaction with life at the start and the end of the study. Those who used Facebook a lot were more likely to report a decline in satisfaction than those who visited the site infrequently. In contrast, there was a positive association between the amount of direct social contact a volunteer had and how positive he felt. In other words, the more volunteers socialised in the real world, the more positive they reported feeling the next time they filled in the questionnaire.” - The Economist 

Second, if you’ve done any reading on attention or productivity, you’ve probably heard about the increased attention researching have given to, well, attention—specifically, “flow,” the kind of focused, absorbing practice that reflects the experience of meditation. As it turns out, it’s not something that most of us are doing:  

The most surprising discovery about the kind of focused, fulfilling experience that Burke enjoys when teaching yoga or rounding up cattle is that most people enjoy so little of it. About 20 percent of people flow once or more each day; about 15 percent, never; the great majority, only occasionally. Sadly, many of us spend much of our time oscillating between states of stress and boredom: different but equally unfocused, unproductive, unsatisfying conditions. - Gallagher, Rapt, p. 104 

Did you catch that? 

Only one in five people reaches a state of focused attention at any point in her day. That leaves the other 190 million Americans outside schools spending entire days waffling between stressing out and mentally checking out on the couch. 

It’s imperative not to overlook the deeply existential problem embedded in there:  

Paying rapt attention, whether to a trout stream or a novel, a do-it-yourself project or a prayer, increases your capacity for concentration, expands your inner boundaries, and lifts your spirits, but  more important, it simply makes you feel that life is worth living. Rapt, 10 [emphasis mine] 

Conversely, if you're never hitting flow, if you're flipping between bored and freaked out, you actually begin to believe that there isn't a point--like, a point to LIFE.  

And with that, we circle back to students, the ones across all regions and socio-economic backgrounds who ask the age-old question, When Are We Ever Going To Use This?  

If our American culture has anything to say about it, the truthful answer is “Never.” 

The mass vacillation between stress and boredom that characterizes the way Americans spend our time--even in the privacy of our own homes--telegraphs to students that there isn’t a point to what we ask them to do inside school walls. The way each of us behaves, parents or not, models for students that after graduation, (if they even bother to get that far), they’re only going to take on the full-time job of watching television, streaming Pewts and unboxing videos, and living in an existential malaise. 

To put it differently, we say we trust teachers, but we don’t live as though what they’re doing matters.  

Education Will Never Be Reformed Unless: 

To return to the stats we started with, we constantly overlook what’s printed clear as day in the same reports that ask about schools, teacher quality, etc:  

More important than money, say most experts, is the level of support for education within the surrounding culture. Although cultural change is inevitably complex, it can be brought about in order to promote better educational outcomes. 

Culture can be changed: The cultural assumptions and values surrounding an education system do more to support or undermine it than the system can do on its own. Using the positive elements of this culture and, where necessary, seeking to change the negative ones, are important to promoting successful outcomes. 

It’s simply not possible to spend our lives as communities and as a larger culture bored, panicked, and unproductive and expect our educational system and its products to represent anything different than that. 

Our problem is not the educational system. 

Our problem is ourselves.  

Agency for Emerging Voices, Inc. is actively researching and quantifying those elements of American culture that are so negatively impacting educational outcomes and then designing solutions to address them. We’re changing education from the outside, in.

** Statistics 2015
U.S. Population - 322 million
55 million K-12 students
3.5 million teachers 
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/04/public-school-teachers underpaid_n_7201794.html

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