I never thought I’d start an article with “Betsy DeVos is right.” I’m not a fan of the Secretary of Education, mainly because of her overwhelming lack of knowledge and experience with our country’s public school system. But Ms. Devos began her “Rethink School” tour this week, and so far, she’s not entirely wrong.
She began by pointing out how generally out-of-date our education system has become. She referred to the familiar image of students sitting in orderly rows, led by a teacher in front of the blackboard. Never mind that I haven’t seen a blackboard since elementary school; her point is well-taken. A teacher standing in front of a smart board is still the same principle, no matter how much technology you use to jazz it up. Betsy DeVos is absolutely right about that.
We’re still training kids for the jobs they’d have worked a hundred years ago.
It’s completely outdated to expect a diverse group of kids to follow standardized steps to reach a standardized product, when we all know that we’re supposed to be preparing kids for jobs that don’t even exist yet. They need to learn in individualized, self-directed ways, and explore topics guided by their own interests. They need to build skills, not memorize facts, and they need to learn to think both critically and constructively about the world around them. We truly do need to rethink school.
We need to rethink the space in which kids learn.
Research shows a whole host of benefits to time spent in nature; we need to move kids out of fluorescent-lit classrooms and into the world around them. They need to spend time in their communities, learning from experts, exploring the needs of their community, and building problem-solving skills through service projects.
We need to rethink the way we use technology.
The SMART board should be more than just an updated version of the overhead projector. Phones should be more than a distraction. Social media should be a gift as well as a curse. But we also desperately need to teach our kids how to use the miraculous world of information at their fingertips, rather than shake our heads and sigh at the uneducated decisions they make.
We need to rethink our expectations.
Requiring every kid to read fluently at 6 years old sounds like a wonderful plan, but we need to rethink the cost. When kindergarteners are experiencing significant stress, and see school as a torture chamber rather than a place to play and explore, we’ve gone down the wrong road. Boosting test scores is great, but it’s coming at the expense of recess and electives in our elementary and middle schools. We need to rethink the way children learn, and we need to start considering their developmental needs before our own agendas.
So Ms. DeVos is absolutely correct when she says that we need to rethink school.
And the place she chose to kick off her tour, Woods Learning Center, seems to be doing a lot of things right. Their kids move at their own pace, and the school is big on project-based learning. They have small class sizes, an inclusive environment for students with disabilities, and plenty of opportunities for community involvement.
Here’s the problem, though.
Woods Learning Center is 92% white, and has only half as many students receiving free lunch as other schools in the area. It requires parents to volunteer their time, which can be difficult for parents working multiple jobs or jobs without flexible schedules or paid leave. There’s an application process as well, meaning that parents without experience navigating bureaucracy are at a disadvantage.
Yes, Woods Learning Center looks like an excellent example of what our schools should be providing for students. But it’s something we should provide for all our students, not just those with a charter school available to them.
A quality education shouldn’t be one alternative among many; it should be the standard.
And the only way to make that happen is to fund it.
In the interest of full disclosure, I work at a charter school. It’s a school for refugee and immigrant kids, and over 95% of our students receive free lunch. To me, it makes sense to have a school catering especially to these kids because they’re a vulnerable population with needs that not every school can meet. That’s different from a charter school catering to upper-middle-class white families, or parents who simply aren’t happy with the school in their neighborhood. If we’re going to have schools for specific groups of kids, they should be for the kids who need them most, not the kids who are, statistically speaking, going to be just fine.
I’m with Betsy DeVos when it comes to rethinking school.
I just want to do it for every kid in every school in America, using the public school system we already have rather than increasing the options for “school choice.” Every kid deserves an education that is meaningful and relevant, and I hope Ms. Devos would agree.