Amanda Ripley

School Needs to Change (for Real)

I read The Global Achievement Gap Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need–And What We Can Do about It immediately after completing The Smartest Kids in the World. This one-two punch left me feeling quite discouraged about education in America. What is fascinating is that there has NEVER been a time when education has not been under attack or in the process of being reformed. It seems we have never been happy with our schools, yet somehow we stumble along – those who succeed, it seems, do so regardless of the school they attend. Failure is possible in a good school and almost certain in a bad one.

The Global Achievement GapSchool has essentially NOT changed in over 100 years. Education changes symptomatically but never systematically. The real issues in education are not addressed. We roll out new initiatives or behavior modification programs every few years, but the look and feel of school remains the same. When I walk into a high school today it feels like my first day as a student in 1983. How has the world changed in 33 years? Why do schools not reflect these changes?

These are some of the questions addressed in The Global Achievement Gap. How should schools prepare students for the future? They need to know what to do with information – how to analyze, apply, connect and communicate. Facts can be Googled. Tests are obsolete. Knowing a fact is no great feat. Knowing what to do with it, how to apply it and create something new with it is the future.

Schools are more diverse than ever before, differences abound in regards to ethnicity, culture, race and ability. This is a beautiful thing. An area, however, in which our schools fail is in not individualizing learning to the student. In every other area of our lives we have choice. In school we do not. Some, like Neil Postman, argue that a common curriculum is necessary to build a narrative that unites us as a nation. That is fine. The issue is in how content is delivered. Some kids thrive in a classroom. Some kids feel confined, struggle just to stay in a seat, only to survive so they can move to the next class and repeat the process.

We need to surrender ALL of our golden calves regarding education. If we truly believe it is about the kids, then issues of teachers contracts and the like CANNOT be part of the argument. We must be honest about what we are doing: what works and what does not? How can we radically innovate content, instruction and delivery so students have CHOICES in how it is received and assessed? Try anything and everything. Each method does not have to work for every kid. Why does school have to look the same for all. If we have one school, it only works for those for whom it works. The rest are left to suffer until released, hopefully in time to salvage whats left of their hopes and dreams.

Tony Wagner lays out the burden that is upon us. While students all over the world excel in learning and applying their knowledge, we continue to fail miserably in educating our children. Many succeed despite the schools, those who need GREAT schools the most are screwed. The responsibility does not rest on the schools alone. There are economic and social factors, beyond the reach and capacity of schools to address, that have an adverse impact on student success. We ALL need to get in this fight – before another generation is lost.

We can look at this problem selfishly, by which we take care of our own children and leave the rest to fend for themselves. This will work in the short term. The long term, however, will wreak its vengeance on us for such a decision. Like the environment, we live in a global world – shared – we are not isolated or insulated from our mistakes. As those who are failing reach a tipping point, we will be overwhelmed by the uneducated, frustrated, angry hopelessly underemployed. They will demand a response and, perhaps, compensation for lost potential. This will not be pretty.

Can we really watch another generation get left behind? What is the morality of not addressing the struggles of our neighbors?  Why do we allow things to happen to others that we would be outraged and hurt if they occurred to us? These are questions we must address…soon.

Be Strong. Stay Hungry. Walk Tall.