A Defense of our Education System
Schools are constantly under attack for not doing a sufficient job teaching our children. Typically, some world ranking is cited in which students in the US fall short of expectations. While I agree that we can and should continue to improve our educational system, I’m here to argue in defense of our schools.
At some point, rhetoric from politicians and educators created a perception that schools can be all things to all students, and anything less than that is a failure. Anytime a child is struggling or falling behind, the school is at fault; the school has let this child down. Though perfection is a lofty goal, and schools should strive for perfection (we do here at Peak), we must understand that perfection is unattainable. No human endeavor is perfect. We have to have fair expectations of our schools.
One important thing we must keep in mind is that our education system, and in that vein our schools, are designed for the practical purpose of teaching the masses. Schools are charged with teaching a lot of children. The only practical and financially feasible way to do this is through classroom instruction: meaning, many students paired with one (or at least fewer) teachers. Imagine trying to teach the millions of students in the US one-on-one, sure to produce great results but impossible and unrealistic to do. No, the only method that will work is classroom instruction.
Well, classroom instruction has its limitations, of course. In any situation in which one teacher is working with many students that teacher can only spend so much time with each student individually. Unless all students are basically at about the same skill level, have basically the same background knowledge, learn basically the same way, and comprehend new material at about the same rate, individual students are going to have unique questions and issues that require unique, individualized attention. A popular term in education denoting a practice to combat this problem is “differentiation.” The idea is that teachers should differentiate, or vary, their approach and methods so that they can meet the varying needs of the unique students in their charge. This is a great idea, and one which can yield positive results. The issue, however, is that differentiation within a classroom setting, without real opportunities for significant small group and/ one on one, individual attention for students, can only do so much.
In the end, we have to understand and accept the fact that classroom instruction has inherent limitations. It can do a good job teaching the masses by teaching most of them sufficiently well; in many “good” schools this is already true. And, the more we work to improve classroom instruction, the better job it can do. But, it will never be all things to all kids. And that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with accepting reality. What’s not ok is continuing to move forward with an educational system that relies almost entirely on classroom instruction while maintaining the same unrealistic expectation that it should be good enough for all kids.
Classroom instruction can, and in many instances does, do a good job teaching many, but not all, of the millions of students in the US. Classroom instruction is not the problem with our educational system. The problem with our educational system is that we rely almost entirely on classroom instruction. We have precious few resources devoted to small group or one on one instruction and remediation. Educators and schools are not blind to this fact, but little has been done to address the problem, likely because doing so requires money and that is something in short supply, and also something not within the control of most educators.
Our schools need more teachers and resources (and money) devoted directly to working with students in smaller groups and, most importantly, one-on-one. This sea change, and that is the level of change we need, will be slow to come. Frankly, at this point you hear little mention of these kinds of changes needed in schools. Although we do hear a lot of discussion regarding class size, and this is an important issue that needs to be addressed, reducing class sizes and providing significant individual attention to students are two very different things. We need both.
In the meantime, the good news is that there is already in place a huge set of quality, effective resources available to schools and families that focus almost exclusively on small group and one on one instruction: private tutoring organizations. In the immediate and near term, schools can and should collaborate with quality alternative resources available outside of the school. By doing so, struggling students can receive the individualized attention they need, and they can access that help now, not years or decades from now when it’s fully implemented, if it ever is, in schools.
What about the cost, you ask? Only affluent children will be able to get this extra help, no? Well, no, not necessarily. Yes, affluent students have an advantage, they always will, but there are many alternative educational resources that focus directly on families that cannot afford private tutoring. At Peak, though we are a for-profit company, we frequently provide discounted services to families in need. In short, options are out there for wealthy and poor families alike.
Unfortunately, many schools are largely ignorant of these opportunities. In fact, many school districts actively discourage interaction with outside organizations, making collaboration very difficult. At Peak, we have had to put an enormous amount of time and energy (and continue to do so) building relationships with schools so that we can work together to help students rather than working separately with little-to-no communication. After all, we share the same goals, those surrounding improved student success and learning, so logic dictates that we can accomplish more by working together.
This blog post is a call to educators to spend time getting to know the alternative resources available to families in your area. Once identified, begin to build relationships with the best and brightest of those organizations, partner with them to assist your struggling students. Much can be done to help these students! For those educators concerned about the “non-endorsement” policy in your school district: there’s plenty of room between endorsing an outside organization and ignoring them altogether.