No Child Leaps Ahead

Our schools were designed during the Industrial Revolution to produce adequate factory workers from the immigrant mass. To teach them to write and do basic sums, skills that would ensure they could carry out their jobs in the factories. The restricted focus of the last decade on rote practice in math and language arts, the two main subjects tested on state-wide summative tests, has ensured that we are still producing factory type workers. The issue is, the world now needs people who can think, create, problem solve, invent, streamline, and synthesize. Our school system has dumbed-down to the lowest common denominator. With our focus on NCLB, we are assuring ourselves a place in mediocrity on the world stage. Our educational approach has also reduced the teaching profession to a factory job. We have taken the professional judgment away from our teachers. Their positions have become the equivalent of a factory clerk; they are required to read, write, do sums, and follow directions. Teachers no longer have the ability to decide how best to address their students’ learning needs. They are not encouraged to creatively approach their curriculum and teaching style, but rather to mass produce an assembly line product. They have no time to incorporate hands-on, authentic connections to the real world into their lessons. They have been assigned a schedule to gallop through and a curriculum to cover; all to ensure that their students do well on the all-important summative test. The whole education system does not promote higher order thinking; the creative, analytical thinking that is seen in the evaluative top three categories of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Further, our schools today don’t require our children to stretch their brains beyond Bloom’s lower categories, the recall of information. It most assuredly doesn’t encourage our teachers to stretch their minds and engage in higher thinking. Is it any wonder that our best and brightest college students don’t consider teaching a viable career path? Are we still surprised, despite years of focus on NCLB that our students rank towards the bottom world-wide? Should we be shocked that homeschooling is growing at such a rapid pace? How long should we ignore the business think tanks’ warnings that we are not producing the kind of thinkers needed in today’s work force?

Our school system is failing. It is outdated, ineffective, and hanging by a financial thread. In their book, “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns,” Clayton Christensen, Curtis W. Johnson, and Michael B. Horn use a business model to predict that our monolithic approach to education will utterly fail within fifteen years. Functioning in financial crisis mode is now the norm for school districts across our country. Adequate funding is no longer available to run our schools. Despite the obvious funding crisis, we continue to financially penalize schools who don’t meet NCLB standards. NLCB is one of the most funded mandates and one of our nation’s largest tax increases; yet it lacks funds to reward school districts for improving student achievement (not to mention, the funds necessary to provide safe functioning environments for learning). Perhaps, if we focused on improving rather than penalizing needy schools and districts, we might actually transform our educational system into one that works for all learners. We are systematically weakening our educational system to the point of no return.

We need to toss NCLB into the scrap bin. We need to give teachers back their self respect. We need to challenge students to think again. We need to teach students to focus on their strengths while we support their weaknesses. We need to build a generation of students equipped to take us into the future. We should be returning to our pre-factory roots when we prized independent thinkers. We need to rekindle that creative spark that educated men and women who had the audacity to create a nation. It is that spark that sets us apart, yet our school system has extinguished it from the minds of our children. We need to bring our students out of the factory and into the future.

How shall we make such a bold move? It will take a revolution. We must revolt against the one-size-fits-all mentality, against a top-down model, against test publishers and their lobbyists, against teachers’ unions and low teacher salaries, against narrow-minded curriculum, against run-down facilities, against a system biased toward the wealthy. We must free ourselves from the grip of mediocrity. There are models around the country that pave the way; schools in diverse populations that are working for those very populations. There are teachers who are passionate about what they teach and creative in how they teach it; administrators who reject the status quo and find solutions that work; superintendents who hire professionals and treat them as such. We should be looking at them. We should be studying schools that provide experiential learning with real-world applications. Innovative schools are scattered throughout the United States, schools with an eye to the future and a finger on the pulse of their students and community. As President Obama said, “In pockets of excellence across this country, we are seeing what children from all walks of life can and will achieve, when we set high standards, have high expectations, when we do a good job of preparing them.” We should replicate those schools’ in their ability to recognize diversity in student learning modalities/abilities and model a system that honors all learners. We should build a model that equally educates dancers, scientists, artists, athletes, writers, naturalists, entrepreneurs, mathematicians, and historians. We should end the academic hierarchy that places math and language arts at the top, squeezes in a little science and social studies, and makes all other topics expendable. In his book, “A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future,” Daniel H. Pink proposes that as computers become more sophisticated and able to do logical tasks previously reserved for left-brained humans, right-brained thinkers will become a valued commodity. He anticipates that in the future world of business, an MFA will be the new MBA. Companies will be looking for creative thinkers, innovators, and inventors, all right-brained traits. As Einstein so eloquently stated, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Speaking of Einstein, what are we doing to ensure our up and coming Einstein’s are nurtured and helped to reach their full potential? We must not put a glass ceiling in our classrooms that stops advanced thinkers from working to their ability. We should intellectually challenge our brightest students instead of letting them languish in boredom. Eighty percent of gifted and talented children are homeschooled at some time during their school career. These bright minds are pulled out of our system by disgruntled parents who are tired of beating their head against a bureaucratic brick wall. These are parents who can no longer stand by and watch their child’s potential squandered by a system that focuses on the least common denominator. Our single-minded focus since mandating NLCB has created a culture where No Child Leaps Ahead! We are one of the few industrialized nations in the world that does not have a program to systematically identify and appropriately educate our gifted student population. Our GATE programs are inadequate or non-existent in the majority of our schools. While we are to be commended for our desire to educate all children equally; at best, the mass education approach has produced mediocre educational results. Consequently, many of our brightest students are disinterested and bored in an academic system that teaches to the average. Gifted and talented children hold the greatest promise for producing future leaders, Nobel laureates, inventors, and champions of industry. What are we risking by not developing these talents here in America?

As Americans, we have drive, ability, and independent spirit in abundance. We need an educational system that celebrates and expands on these great American traits. Let’s not try to make every student the same, or rein in creative teachers, or expect administrators to find money; let’s get off the conveyor belt and out of the factory. We deserve better than NCLB. We deserve a system that ensures our children will be able to compete and thrive in our global economy. Let our brightest leap ahead!