Education mired in confusion

Posted March 28, 2010, at 7:32 p.m.

It is disheartening to witness the floundering and confusion that surround our country’s failing schools and how rigidly the system holds on to practices that have not worked in the past and yet are being advocated for the future. Though dressed up in new language, there is little or no substantial difference between Barack Obama’s Race to the Top and George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind. Both are built on the same questionable philosophical assumptions about how children learn and the goals of education.

Though $4.3 billion will go to inspire “innovation,” the major difference now is that teachers will be held more accountable or risk being fired, a kind of “tough love” approach. Another difference is the advocacy and funding for charter schools.

Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, and an elite group of educators are working on national standards — something that has also been attempted before. Advocating higher standards whether national or local is nothing new; however, determining what those standards will be and how to implement them in ways that will be effective has yet to be determined.

These are fundamental questions. If the assumptions on which a system and approach to educating is wrong, then the results will not be what are hoped for — well-educated, happy individuals, able to function successfully in whatever it is they choose to do.

Rather than merely being prepared to get a good job and be responsible members of society, I am suggesting that the goals of education should be to love learning for its own sake — that is personal satisfaction — and to be able to pursue one’s passions, whether it is art, science, math, literature, computers, theater. In other words, I accept Ralph Waldo Emerson’s view that the purpose of education is to teach “how to live, not how to make a living.”

Though it seems easier to make small, independent charter schools innovative because they do not have all the hoops to jump through that traditional public schools have, the fact is charter schools are proving to be no better than public schools on standardized tests.

The Center for Research in Education Outcomes at Stanford University conducted the first national assessment comparing charter schools to public schools. The study — Multiple Choice Charter School Performance in 16 States — showed that 37 percent of math scores in charter schools were below public schools, and 46 percent showed no difference in reading scores.

My point is that other than being independent, charter schools and public schools are not that different and will not have better results unless their approach to education is significantly different — that is based on the research of how the brain works and how children learn. My assumption is that children love to learn and are learning from the moment they are born.

They experience the world around them. They learn through playing and problem solving. When they go to school, the method of teaching becomes receiving instruction and demonstrating or reproducing what they have been taught. Gradually, the initial love of learning through discovery and experiences becomes following instructions and taking tests.

So much of the curriculum is irrelevant to children’s lives. In many instances, children learn more outside of school than in school because they are learning what interests them.

In the ’60s and early ’70s, when students were bused from inner city schools to so-called better suburban schools, the famous Jenks Study indicated that the single most important factor for success in school was the home, not the school. Early nurturing, stimulating learning activities, being read to, nutrition and supportive, positive attitudes made a huge difference regardless of economic class.

Spending billions of dollars on new initiatives such as Race to the Top and charter schools will make no difference if the same competitive, drill-oriented, fear-based approach to teaching children does not radically change to one more in harmony with children’s natural desire to learn.

If it’s true that children learn more in the first few years of their lives in nurturing homes, why do they seem unable to learn well when they go to school — that is the question educators should be asking.

Arnold Greenberg of Blue Hill has started three schools and wrote “Adventures on Arnold’s Island — Four Essays on Education.”

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