In one way or another, many education reformers today proclaim, “We do not need students fit for schools, but schools fit for children.” Those who follow this rallying cry have forgotten that education is, by definition, changing children who are not fit into responsible, thinking, and caring adults. There must necessarily be a disconnect between the school and the child—change would be impossible without it. This disconnect is painful. The holy grail of making the transfer of knowledge as easy as possible has derailed education. (The quest is driven by The State Testing Panic.) Learning a la Plato’s cave is difficult because it requires change and work. It changes the way one sees the world and so also one’s place in it. Learning as fun (See Sesame Street and some “educational apps.”), while easier to pull off in elementary than in middle or high school, just does not do what we need it to do. I suspect this is one reason scores drop as students approach the end of elementary school and more difficult material. Middle school teachers regret the “helpfulness” of their elementary compatriots, and high school teachers curse the elementary school teachers who did a great job making learning fun and never taught their students how to do homework before it became an academic necessity. Incentivized learning and behavior management—testing pep rallies, prize jars, earned free time, and whatever a teacher can think of to get the students to sit in the seat—have reached the saturation point at which we are destroying our students’ adult learning ability wherein learning must ultimately be done for its own sake or, sacrificially, for the sake of others. Learning as fun and incentivized learning in general “work” because we have redefined education as the transfer of knowledge and lost sight of our real purpose as educators. High stakes testing does not help either.
Education is not the acquisition of knowledge with the goal of College and Career Readiness as measured by some assessment. Education is a more noble endeavor than the production of economic cogs—though it does produce citizens who preserve and improve the eunomia of their societies. Education is the acquisition of grit, determination, and moral character, and these are not acquired without work. School is work. Young children have a natural inclination and joy for learning which can be harnessed into a love for hard work and a job well done. Elementary schools shortcut this by making learning “fun” from the get-go. Regardless, education as we know it in the West is not natural. If it were, everyone would be doing it. But not everyone does, and societies which do not are not producing doctors, scientists, and constitutions. In a school, the unnatural, hard work of academics forms the crucible in which grit, moral character, and determination are acquired. Unfortunately, we have given up on this, especially in our urban schools where it is needed most. Our poor teachers are under so much pressure to make learning happen that they will accommodate down to any child to keep his grade up and avoid trouble with parents and principals.
Instead of teaching grit, we are enabling inability and teaching students that learning and maturity is about being accommodated. Teachers are forced to teach outside of their giftedness to deliver a lesson which includes all of the learning styles. Are there four, seven? Who knows? Teachers, keep up. Never mind that an educator’s job is to teach a child to learn in spite of their learning style. We do only our yearend test scores a favor (if that) when we send into the world students whose learning experience has always been tailored to their learning style. This who-knows-how-many-million-dollar-learning-style-industry might not have the research to back it up anyway. Unfortunately, bureaucrats have turned the teaching profession into a business which discourages critical thinking on the part of teachers—so they can continue to follow the latest “research based” craze that does not actually work. All this in an effort to make learning possible without the uncomfortable disconnect which teaches a good work ethic—probably the single most important thing we can give our graduates before we send them into the world.
If we are going to preserve the necessary disconnect between the child and the school and truly transform our children, we need parents. Education is made far more difficult or even impossible without parents. Now, I agree, if we are not going to save the parents, if they are a lost cause, then we should make schools that are ready for students instead of students ready for schools. But maybe we should preserve space in all of our schools for parents and families who do the hard, sacrificial work of parenting and send to school children who know their job is to listen to the person in the front of the room. The fact that many bad teachers blame parents does not mean that parents are not important. They are and they should always be a part of the equation—they need to send to school children who are ready to learn.
Instead, we have taken “It takes a village.” to the extreme, absolutizing it and forgetting that it also takes parents. G.K. Chesterton was right when he wrote, “This cry of 'Save the children' has in it the hateful implication that it is impossible to save the fathers.” (What’s Wrong with the World) “It takes a village” has forgotten the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Many of our programs and interventions are a disincentive to responsible parenting. You do not feed your child, the school will. You do not bother to know your rights, the school will tell you. You do not bother to be involved, the school will have a definition of and plan for parental involvement for which only the school is responsible and by which only the school can fail. I know an erstwhile headmaster at an inner-city, private school. Every family pays something, (they incentivize commitment) even if it is $5 a month. This headmaster did not let teachers keep food in the classroom. If a child had not eaten breakfast, the headmaster would call the parent, “Come up to the school and nourish your child.” Sure, there were things in place for those who truly had nothing to eat, but think about it—the parents were eating. Much of this headmaster’s energy was spent un-teaching what the local, school had taught her parents about responsibility. If we give up on parents and place all our hope in teachers in classrooms, our businesses and our country will be scrambling as we produce graduates who are not ready for the working world or adulthood in a free society because we gave up on the people who make children ready for school.
About 100 years ago, we decided that the salvation of our society would be through children and teachers in schools. John Dewey thought parents were problematic. He was right, but only insofar as everyone is problematic. He did not know what education would look like without them. Now, 100 years into his experiment, we know. Without parents, teachers bear an unfair burden, and it falls unevenly and heavily on the teachers who need our help the most—those in the inner cities. We need families and families need communities. Families and communities make schools that change children into adults. Teachers commuting into the inner city—and even those who do not—will not save our country. Everyone in a school’s enrollment zone plays a part. They are all needed to encourage and incentivize good parenting which creates the social capital whereby a school can maintain its role as a place that changes rather than conforms to the ignorance and foolishness of childhood. We really do need children who are ready for school and it is the parents’ job to make them so.