When a School Gets Sick

      "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.

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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.