When a School Gets Sick

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"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps
it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music
which he hears, however measured or far away."

~ Henry David
Thoreau, Walden,
Conclusion, 1854

Being a libertarian,
I have never been comfortable working in a government-run public
school, but a PowerPoint presentation at a recent faculty meeting
made me realize just how monstrous the system really is. The presentation
was on something called RTI
(Response to Intervention)
, and it began with a slide entitled
"When a kid gets sick…" While RTI is hailed as a revolutionary
new approach, it is really just an old practice dressed up in new
jargon. With both RTI and its predecessor, nonperforming or uncooperative
students are identified and treated as if they suffer from some
kind of illness. In either case, the process typically ends with
parents seated at a long conference table facing grim-faced teachers,
administrators, counselors, social workers and perhaps even a psychiatrist
all armed with file folders full of evaluations and test results.
The remedy these "experts" prescribe usually involves
placement in some Special Education program (i.e. low expectations
dumping ground) and sometimes even the prescription of some dangerous
mind-altering drug like Ritalin
. Few parents ever object to
or question these measures. Many parents even insist on them believing
this special treatment is necessary to help their "ill"
child. Supporters of RTI may protest that they are only trying to
help and that Special Education or drugs are only last resorts.
That may be true, but they fail to see the stigma attached to the
child being labeled and processed like some kind of lab rat, and
they fail to acknowledge the record of failure for all of their
"interventions." Most important, they fail to even consider
that the problem may be with the school and not with the child.

But it is not
only the fate of the so-called "Speders" (a term used
by a Special Education teacher I knew to describe his students)
that concerns me here. The students we label as "gifted and
talented" or "honors" are also being emasculated
by our schools. They, in fact, are the more frightening because,
unlike the "troublemakers" who at least show the spark
of resistance, the "gifted" completely surrender themselves.
Being labeled gifted means entering a fiercely competitive world
of point mongering and grade grubbing. Honor students work extraordinarily
hard to please their teachers and other authority figures. In academics,
they fight for every point and are always looking for "extra
credit." Typically, the parents of these students are also
highly involved (i.e. applying pressure) and express tremendous
concern about their son's or daughter's grades. At parent-teacher
conferences, it is only grades in fact that come up for discussion
— never learning. For the honor student, getting a "C"
(and for some even a "B") on a major test, project or
(God forbid!) on a report card brings on a personal and family crisis.
It never occurs to these students or to their parents that these
grades are merely the subjective evaluations of their teachers who
know little to nothing about the person they are evaluating. Indeed,
the parents know little to nothing about the teacher doing the evaluating.
Nevertheless, the honor student's self-esteem and parental approval
is completely tied to the teacher-assigned letter grades. In addition
to obsessing over grades, honor students also join many clubs and
go out for competitive sports. Many times they do this because they
actually enjoy such activity, but just as often they join for the
same reason they fight for grades — because it is expected of them
and because they believe it is the key to getting into a big-name
university. The life of the typical honor student is a life of frenetic
activity, competition, homework and anxiety. Rarely is there time
for reflection, solitude or contentment. Upon graduation from high
school, many honor students know only that they are to go to college.
As for what they want to do with their lives or what their real
passion is, most have no clue. Many will never know.

As for learning,
most adults I know have forgotten most of the subjects they allegedly
learned in school (even those they got A's and B's in), and what
they do remember is usually politically correct nonsense. Witness
how many parents are unable to help their children with their homework.
We learn only those things we genuinely want to learn. Forcing students
to take classes in subjects they are either uninterested in or not
ready for is pointless and only frustrates student and teacher alike.
At best, teachers in our public schools are mere entertainers filling
the dreary hours of the school day. Despite all the clever classroom
activities, worksheets, and projects, how many former high school
honor students ten years after graduation can still factor a quadratic
equation, prove a geometry theorem or explain and classify the different
types of rock in the Earth's crust? Unless they are professional
mathematicians or geologists, who really cares if they can? In my
own field of social studies, we are dealing less with learning and
more with political indoctrination. How many adults believe, for
example, that Lincoln freed the slaves, FDR ended the Great Depression,
and that labor unions are responsible for America's relatively high
standard of living? Unfortunately, it seems the only thing students
actually do remember from their government-provided education is
the government's propaganda. One
has to wonder, in fact, if such indoctrination has been the purpose
of government schooling all along.
How else but through indoctrination
does one explain people's willingness to vote to raise their own
taxes, sacrifice themselves or their children to the government's
military, or continue to hold to an almost cult-like belief in a
system that has an unbroken record of failure? To get a sense of
the damage, compare the attitude of today's typical American with
that of our non-schooled ancestors. The spirited self-reliance,
daring and individualism that once defined the American character
have been replaced by a docile dependency and mindless conformity.

We teachers
tell ourselves that we are preparing our students for adult life,
but nothing about our schools even remotely resembles mature adult
life. At school, students are segregated by age and ordered about
all day given little choice in what they do, when they do it or
how they do it. Students are never alone, and they are constantly
being watched and judged. Is it any wonder that many students resent
such treatment and act out in immature and anti-social ways? Given
the pressures and alienation of school life, is it any wonder that
cheating, lying, evasion of responsibility, and other forms of unethical
behavior are the norm? Students typically survive all this and move
on, of course. Once free of the system and all of its perversity,
most (but not all) students finally start displaying mature adult
behavior. Some even go on to successful and satisfying careers and
make a great deal of money. We count these students as our successes
whether we had anything to do with their success or not. As for
the failures, we teachers generally blame the failures on bad parenting
or on social and economic ills we, of course, played no part in
creating. Schools take credit but never accept responsibility.

This spring,
my daughter Julia will turn four, and my wife Tina and I have begun
to consider her future education. One thing for sure is that she
will not be attending a public school. Unfortunately, most private
schools are little better — patterned as they are on the same dysfunctional
and coercive model as the public ones. While most public school
teachers are well meaning and sincere, they must work within a corrupt
system, and they are co-opted by that system's financial rewards.
As much as teachers try to treat their students with respect, they
are compelled to enforce oppressive rules over which neither they
nor their captive students have any say. As much as teachers try
to motivate their students and share their enthusiasm, they mostly
end up forcing themselves on students who would rather be somewhere
else doing something else. And finally, as much as teachers wish
to offer help and meaningful feedback, they instead end up spending
most of their time judging their students — grading papers, administering
tests and entering point totals in grade books. Students come and
go through our crowded classrooms, and we are rarely afforded the
luxury of getting to know any of them. Many teachers who went into
teaching with high ideals and enthusiasm find themselves near the
end of their careers tired and frustrated and counting the days
until they can retire.

So, what might
a real education look like? My wife and I are currently looking
into Sudbury schools
both for Julia and for her father. Though radically different from
anything most parents have ever heard of, I believe such non-coercive,
student-centered, and democratically run schools offer the best
hope for the future. To be effective, schools must reject the idea
that learning must be forced on children and the idea that all children
must learn the same things in the same way at the same time. Naturally
curious, children must be given time and space to shape their own
learning experience and pursue that which interests them. Schools
must also reject the destructive and demoralizing practice of grading,
testing, and ranking that waste so much time and energy in the current
system. Instead, students must learn to evaluate their own success
and failure and to adjust their efforts and direction accordingly.
Finally, schools must end the practice of age segregation. School
must afford children the opportunity to interact with and learn
from people of all ages and not just spend time with their age-group
peers and adult authority figures. In short, schools must be a secure
microcosm of the real world where children are afforded rights while
still being held accountable for their actions.

The vision
outlined above is a radical change from the status quo. For it to
become reality for anyone outside the currently very small community
of Sudbury parents and students, we must make a complete break with
past practice. Political pseudo-reforms including "No Child
Left Behind" and its mind-numbing testing regimes must be rejected;
they are nothing more than a corrupt and failing system's attempt
to disguise its malignancy. Government-funded charter schools (now
fashionable among anti-public school conservatives) must also be
seen for what they are — an attempt by the public school establishment
to co-opt and ultimately destroy legitimate private school competition.
Our public schools are long past sick, and they are incapable of
reform. They have become brain-eating, spirit-killing zombies operating
not for the benefit of their students but for the benefit of those
who work in them and those
who profit by doing business with them
. The big teacher's unions,
educational bureaucrats, education professors, teacher colleges,
textbook publishers, and educational testing companies all profit
from the status quo. They will not give up what they have without
a fight. Because of the power these organized interests exert on
all levels of government, change must come not from politics but
from parental initiative. We parents must recognize the harm public
schools are doing to our children and simply pull them out. Then
we must actively seek out and if necessary create private alternatives
independent of government funding and control.

This year is
my nineteenth year teaching in a government school, and I am hopeful
it will be my last. On the financial side, my school has been good
to me. I now make well over $100,000 a year, live in a luxurious
house, have comfortable savings, excellent benefits, job security
(tenure), and if I chose to, I could retire in just six more years
at age fifty-five. In addition, the taxpayer-funded pension I would
collect (I will not say "earn") would pay me more for
not working than the vast majority of the taxpayers make by working.
It will be difficult to give all that up, and it is hard not to
be tempted or corrupted by it. I have tried to convince myself that
by staying where I am, I can somehow change this evil system from
within or that I might somehow be able to save a few students from
its consequences, but these schools are what they are and the powerful
and rapacious interests that control them will never yield or change.
As for my influence on students, whatever I might say to a student
is undermined by what I do. No, the best thing I can do for my students
and for my family is set a good example and leave. I plan to continue
teaching but not in a public school or anything that resembles one.
In preparation for my departure from government employment, my wife
and I will be significantly downsizing our home and lifestyle, but
come what may, my daughter Julia will receive the finest education
we can provide for her — one that respects her rights, nurtures
her dreams and treats her with dignity. She will grow to be proud
of herself and where she comes from and so will her mom and dad.

Kohn [send him mail]
is a high school teacher in Oak Forest, Illinois.

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