Shake It Up, Betsy!


Here’s the thing: Education is hard.  But it’s not complicated.

Great thinkers, most of whom have never actually tried to educate a turnip, have proposed all kinds of theoretical education reforms: see Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, etc.  From some of these theorists you get the idea that a child is a laboratory for experimentation. Actually, a child is a human being.  With a soul.  Human beings are personal, individual, quirky, susceptible, stubborn, challenging, frustrating, exciting, prone to failure, loaded with potential, and completely educable.

Education, since it’s all about human beings, is also a lot of things: It’s organic.  It’s individual.  It’s personal.  It’s unexpected.  It’s scattershot.  It’s hit-or-miss.  It’s discovery.  It’s sometimes thrilling.  It’s often boring.  It’s emotional and spiritual, not just intellectual.

It’s not a phase of life.  It is life.

The typical public school—that is, the facility, the schedule, the curriculum, and the administration—is none of those things in itself, but rather the structure that’s supposed to support those things.

I have nothing against public school.  As a children’s author I’ve visited a lot of excellent public schools full of happy children taught by dedicated and creative teachers (the kind of teachers who believe it’s worthwhile to set aside time for author visits).  But making education a bureaucratic matter, a policy matter, removes it farther and farther from the child and teacher.  Complication ensues.

Education is hard.  But it used to be simple.  Layers of complication, especially since the late 19th century, have tended to obscure the goal of education, which is raising up capable adults and responsible citizens.  “Complications” come from

  • The “Prussian model” of graded levels, central buildings, age-sorted groups;
  • University education departments, which became the natural home of untested theory;
  • Textbook publishing, quickly growing into big business, with the usual big-business profit-margin concerns—to which we can now add evaluation, consultation, and testing services;
  • State BOE’s, which can’t help becoming political, because government is by definition political;
  • Federal Reforms, such as Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds, etc., all of which were supposed to produce classroom-ready 5-year-olds and college-ready high school graduates.  Instead they tangled teachers in layers of bureaucratic red tape and subjected students to days of standardized tests when they could have been learning something.

Is anyone really happy with the results?  Why do we want more complication?  Because that’s what we’re going to get with a standard-issue public-school-based Education Secretary.

Why do we want more complication?

Betsy DeVos is not standard issue.  The two common complaints about her are 1), she and her husband contributed a lot of money to Republicans, and 2) she has no experience with public schools.  As for #1, she is rich, and rich people are free to contribute money to political causes they care about: see Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.  Education is something DeVos cares passionately about, even though she has not pursued that interest through public school reform, but by developing viable alternatives.  The job description is Secretary of Education, not Secretary of Public Schools.  The public school is not the only avenue for teaching our kids but we sometimes act as though it were—as if all our resources should flow in that direction and if we could only—really—dedicate ourselves to improving public schools, they would get better.

The problem is, when education is a political matter all our resources go to bulk up the bureaucracy, putting more space between teachers and kids.

I don’t blame individual teachers for this state of affairs (though teachers’ unions may be another matter). And I don’t blame individual teachers for being nervous about Betsy DeVos.  But why, teachers, when you’re already stymied by standards and paperwork and evaluations and testing and top-heavy administration, would you want more of the same?

There is no standard model for education because there is no standard child.


It’s time to shake things up.

We can sanction and facilitate other options in addition to (not instead of) public school.  We could remove a few layers of complexity from the public schools, giving teachers more space and freedom to do to do their jobs.  We can make it possible for some children in very poor districts to go to a neighborhood academy that doesn’t have to jump through bureaucratic hoops   There is no standard model for education because there is no standard child.  Let a thousand options bloom, and if one doesn’t work, try something else.  The very best teaching moments are mutual, spontaneous, open-ended–like life, they go by pretty fast.  If you’re glued to your state-mandated lesson plan, you might miss them.

Shake it up.  It could even be fun:

If you disagree, please do one thing for me: watch a documentary called The Lottery.  Then let’s talk.

1 Comment

  1. // Reply

    I totally agree, Janie! I’m curious what others, especially public school teachers think about what you’ve written. Recently, with “all these controversial” topics in the news, I think few really went to discuss possible solutions to our current issues, mainly just scream how “xyz” would never work because it’s proposed by….fill in the blank.

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