Schools Aren’t Broken, but They Need To Be

Today over lunch I was looking online for discussions from different perspectives about the history of U.S. public schools and how people were talking about the question: is our public school system broken, or is it in fact doing exactly what it was supposed to do.

Last month I gave two workshops at the Twin Cities Social Justice in Education Fair and at the end of one, we were discussing the historical purpose of the public education system. One of the participants put her finger on it when she said the system isn’t broken. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. While I had heard this before, that day it had a different impact on me. Suddenly, everything I had doing and thinking that entire day about social justice in education was turned on it’s head and I realized I had been approaching everything backwards. While we might need to work within the existing system on pressing problems like bullying or inequitable applications of punishment, if we want things to really change in the areas of opportunities and empowerment, we need a new system.

No amount of lobbying the school board or attending district meetings or reforming how funding is allocated is going to change the fact that our current system sets aside much of what we know about how people learn, much of what we know about childhood development, and continues to use tools and techniques that were designed over a hundred years ago to control populations and create workers for the industrial revolution.

While reading along, I ran across the following statistic in an article on

Spending on elementary and secondary school students has risen dramatically throughout the past several decades. Back in 1959, schools spent only $2,101 per student. In the 2007-08 school year, by comparison, schools will have spent nearly $10,000 per student.

{The following paragraph has been edited to reflect a reader’s comment about my interpretation of these statistics}

There are quite a few different statistics thrown around regarding spending per pupil. There are a few things to keep in mind when trying to sort out useful information. We are asking our schools to do more every year, and not all those programs are tied to the metric of test scores. We want healthier lunch options, we provide more special education services, and we have joint programs in the schools to provide mental and physical health care and other wrap around services. Regardless of how much are are spending per pupil, our infrastructure is old, our classrooms are over crowded and our teachers are underpaid.

That being said, I’m not suggesting we should just throw more money at our education problems. While all those things are problems in our system, the real problem is the system itself. Students are not the problem, although standardized testing of students is problematic. Teachers are not inherently a problem although redefining how we judge performance and provide professional development would be good discussions. The problem is we are expecting a system to become something it was never designed or funded to be. If we want a system that empowers individuals to develop their unique abilities in a setting that prepares “young people for life, work and citizenship” than we need a new system from top to bottom.

In my lunch time reading, I found some discussions of the details behind this idea of changing the system, but what I didn’t find was a plan to change it. There are some interesting frames which reimagine how students engage with learning and debate the merits of various education reforms. However, I didn’t find a good discussion of what the entire system looks like that will give us the results we want. What do administration, local control, and equity look like in a new system? How do we move from what we have to a new way of approaching education? Who and what will try to block our way? How will we know when we have been successful in our reform?

I encourage you to set aside what you think you know about the education system and really examine our system. What do you think it should be doing? How should it do that? It’s 2015 and it’s time to envision what a new system looks like and how we are going to get there.