Oops, I did it again.

…we have a deeply held anti-intellectual strain in our culture. It’s OK for schools to teach the basics or, even, vocational skills that lead directly to jobs. But studying history, literature or philosophy has always been suspect. Why would anyone want to study such subjects, goes thisunconscious logic, if not just to feel superior. They are not practical, not good for anything other than providing a sense of entitlement and elevation above the mob—except when they actually do train students to take places in the finance industry or advanced technology or any other area that promises immense financial gain. 

If you Google schools are failing you will get “about 49,300,000 results [in] (0.21 seconds)”. So, with all apologies to Britney Jean, here I am writing about work again. Oops. I cannot stop thinking about it – even on my vacation. And I don’t need to be thinking about it right now because I worked 16+ hour days for the three weeks heading up to vacation to ensure that I would not have work to do over this vacation. But it doesn’t really matter because as long as there is school to return to in January, even if I don’t have papers to grade, I certainly have work to do. It never really goes away…. even in summer, and oh, I love  hearing people talk about teachers and their summer vacations as they wax poetic about how nice it must be to have so much time off. Yeah. It takes about three and a half weeks to lift your head up again after the mad dash to the end of the year, and then when you are able to focus on the fact that you are not responsible for day-to-day presence at school it is time to revisit the entire last year and start making lists: what worked, what did not work, what you need to do better, what adjustments to be made, what materials will be required, what new books and articles you should read, what re-certification work needs to be done, what conferences to attend… Ahhh…. summer. And then school starts. And by the way, it starts in the summer. 

So, it is not that strange that as I sit and try to figure out the best way to help launch our brand new Interdisciplinary Project, one of the cornerstones of our Small School (within the large school) that combines the students English, Anatomy, and History classes for three weeks as they complete a major research project represented by a gallery worthy art installation, that I feel frustrated by the reality that no matter how hard I work, or how amazing the project that the group of people I am working with comes up with – we are still labeled as failing.


That is so inspiring.


If schools are failing, there are a few painfully obvious questions that come to mind. 1) What does success look like in terms of our schools? 2) What does it actually mean when we hear and say that schools are failing? 3) Why are schools failing?

What does success look like in terms of our schools?

Obviously (or it should be obvious) this is a pretty subjective line of reasoning. Everyone seems to have a different opinion (if the Google is any indication) and the parameters that delineate success seem largely influenced by the larger cultural attitudes towards education. For example, in Finland – the du jour favorite when it comes to looking at successful schools outside of Asia, the attitudes about education are very much in the classical vein. I don’t mean old-fashioned, I mean, they appear to view school as a place for students to be. Like really BE. They attend, they interact, they talk and play and think. They do not get homework and do not have large-scale assessments until well into the later years of secondary school. Therefore, the emphasis seems to be on experiential learning and cultivated cogitating. [By the way, if it is not already painfully obvious, I am not treating this as a citation based discussion. If you are interested in the evidence to support my claims, Google is there for you. While this may be somewhat irresponsible, it is a blog FFS.] In Finland, schools are not seen as vocational training grounds, and childhood seems to be respected in a way that has fallen from favor over here. Students choose at 16 if they want to go the academic or vo-tech direction.

Oh, and another thing, Finland’s schools have no fees, completely subsidized meals for all students, no tracking or streaming and full and equal access. They do not have private schools. 

Is that successful? Well, in Finland it is, but maybe that is not what success looks like in other places. In Hong Kong (along with many of the 852’s Asian counterparts), success means wealth-earning potential derived from the school. This has little to do with accumulated knowledge or improved intellectual acuity, but rather with beating the system. Of course, this is not to suggest that these students learn nothing or they are not smart – but it is worth noting that their test scores rarely match their performance in other areas, and one of the most notable growth industries in Asia is the college agency, where – for a fee [a ridiculous fee] – entrance to the “right” school is guaranteed. Seriously. (Although, it is notable that I learned in a discussion with a friend who is an admissions officer at Cal, they are now automatically eliminating any and all agent applications, so beware you Asian educational pariahs.) This speaks to a specific understanding of the system in which these students are working: they must end up with the best paying job. A former student of mine from HK who is soon to graduate from a very prestigious US university landed an impressive internship last summer and we had quite a contemplative discussion about how his mother was thrilled to tall everyone back home what he was earning, but had little interest in what he was doing (as long as he was happy) and therefore they understand they must get into a top school, not for the educational opportunities, but for the networking opportunities. I say this without judgement, it just is how it is, and people work within the constraints as they see them.

So then what is success? Is it:

  • Happy students?
  • Happy teachers?
  • Happy parents?
  • Happy administrations?
  • High test scores?
  • College matriculation?
  • State of the art facilities?
  • Absences of disciplinary problems?
  • Graduation rates?
  • ADA rates?
  • Looking good?
  • Acting good?
  • Acquiring knowledge?
  • Acquiring skills? (Not the same as knowledge at all.)
  • Reading, Writing, Arithmetic?
  • Encouraging critical thinking and problem solving?

Or is it something else? And how in the world does one measure success in any of these areas? When I ask my students what they want from school they consistently say (in a shrinking variety of ways) that school should prepare them for college to prepare them for a career. We argue about this at length – in fact it was a current even topic for my students not too long ago. However, this entire conundrum is not their fault. We have created a society that values material success over all else, and so if college is not leading to an immediate gain in this way, and the costs continue to skyrocket, then maybe the Hong Kongers have it right: play the game and get out with a lucrative deal, don’t be bothered by reading and writing or get caught up in trying to learn – you gotta earn!

What does it actually mean when we hear/say that schools are failing?

This question is pretty much impossible to answer if we cannot even determine what defines a successful school – and this whole attitude of not being able to define something, but knowing it when one sees it (thank you very much USSC Justice Potter Stewart, or actually thanks to your clerk who gave you the tip on that awesome line) smacks of an inability to think critically and synthesize information. I mean, in Justice Stewart’s defense, pornography is a little tricky and may be defined strictly in the eye of the beholder – as one could postulate about education – but still, it seems prudent that if one should suggest something is pornographic, or something is failing, one should be able to explain why, or in what way.

Doesn’t it?

I mean, I would never in a million years accept an essay from a student in which they argued that, for example, it is important to understand the causes and effects of the American Revolution for reasons that they cannot discern, but they will surely recognize the implicit importance when it arises.

So our circular argument takes us back to trying to work out how our schools are failing.

  • Is it that the teachers suck? Certainly some do, there are poor performers in every profession, no? But can it be this simple?
  • Is there an insurmountable shortage of resources? Well, this too may be true, but when it comes down to it, what is really needed? It deserves some thought.
  • Is it just “the kids these days”? Uhhh…. kids are kids. They only do what they can get away with. And they are not all that different from any other generation – really. It is the external forces that are changing far more than the kids themselves.
  • Is it that the administrations are misguided and disconnected? This may be true some places, but even I am not cynic enough to believe that school administrations do not want the best for their schools or have any interest in failure. I have to believe that they are well-intentioned, otherwise I will kill myself.
  • Is it the systemic structure of the schools themselves? This is a possibility, I mean we have already considered the creepy parallels between schools and prisons, but again, I think the structure is being compromised by a changing set of goals that are being established externally. We know that adolescents do better when they start school later, but we still ignore that fact… and we continue to emphasize discipline and letter grades over any other school experience. This is a nearly impossible structure to fight against, because, for example, if I tell my students to stop thinking about grades and really take risks and try new things – they balk because at the end of the day, they MUST have the grade because all the other grades that they are completing against will gain an edge. And they cannot risk not succeeding because of myriad social, familial, and societal pressures. No one appreciates the fruits of failure anymore.
  • Is it due to the inequity of schools? That some students have the access to education that others do not? Or that it is nearly impossible to concentrate when you have not eaten in twelve hours but our school food programs still want to tell us that ketchup is a vegetable and pizza is a whole meal? These are likely contributing factors. And there is logic to be seen in the reality that if a school is a dilapidated old hovel, why on earth would a student ever think that anyone, let alone they themselves, thinks it is a place of importance?
  • Is it because kids do not want to go to school? Well, I think this has a lot to do with it, but it is inextricably linked to reasons above. Why don’t they? The system is uncomfortable. (Bells, small chairs, harsh transitions.) The opportunities for deep and/or creative thought are terribly limited in exchange for all sorts of performance requirements. (At my school the notion is that there is no learning if the kids are not speaking – in every class, every day – using a carefully prescribed set of words and sentence frames comprising academic language. Listening and thinking and being allowed to mull things over is absolutely not possible when in every 58 minute class period there must be a) direct instruction, b) teacher modeling, c) collaborative group work, d) independent practice – for all students, every day. And there will be a performance assessment every day as well. And every student must speak as well. Not a lot of room for depth…) Most importantly, however, it seems like students have been inculcated with the notion that school is unimportant save for the outcome, and that spending time on pursuits that do not directly and immediately have a tangible, measurable ($$) result is time wasted, and so students (rightfully) ask, ‘Why do we need to learn this? I will never need this information.’ And it is true, I rarely use some of the things I learned in school. But I constantly rely on the intellectual skills I picked up along the way in terms of problem solving and analysis and synthesis. Do I use algebra? Every time I need to calculate an unkown. Do I use geometry? How else to explain geography and how to travel the world? Do I use the scientific method? Well, do you make predictions and ask questions? I am going to have to say: Yes. Do I rely on knowledge of history? Well, perhaps not the dates and names, but I can assure you the only way the current events and political issues that permeate the omnipresent news feeds of our lives can make any sense at all is because of historical context. Things do not happen at random – they are consequential. And knowing how to anticipate consequences (science) to calculate an unknown (math) and then make sense of WTF just happened (social science) requires an education.

When I revisit this list of potential failures, none of them really stand alone and they all take me back to a disappointing conclusion: if our society does not value education, then the quality of the schools and all the bells and whistles are meaningless. If we are simply looking to be job trainers, we will always have a low-wage earning workforce at the ready… but where will the innovators be found? From where will the outliers and paradigm shifts arise.

If no one ever learns how to consider the sorts of questions to ask – they will never ask. And things will carry on, and on, until we expire our resources, human or otherwise.

School failure is marked by the fact that we are not encouraging, cultivating, inspiring, and uncovering thinkers and questioners. I do not believe school should be focused on making students literate enough to follow directions, but we should be encouraging them to rewrite the instruction manual. And this is not possible without education. How does one break rules if one does not first know them, and why they must be broken?

Why are schools failing?

If you consider my (long-winded) diatribe above, my answer to why schools are failing is simple, pessimistic, and depressing. It suggests that schools are failing because it is not in the interest of those in power to produce generations of thinkers who will challenge the status quo and bring change. It suggests that the people in power do not want a citizenry who will question obvious inconsistencies in the rhetoric, or suggest that things should be different, or that god forbid, the power does still lie within the people. As Rousseau said long ago, the flaw in a system based upon a social contract is that the power structures and laws are put in place by those who want to ensure that they remain in power.

Schools are failing for lots of reasons. But I think it is time to start talking about how American society is far more broken than any school system within it. Thomas Jefferson said that the populace must be educated if they were to be counted on to participate in democracy (likely why old Tom has found himself hastily removed from the Texas schools American History curriculum…) Nowhere and at no time has it been said that people need to be educated in order to be rich. This was a logical extension (effect) of the of access to education (cause)… and it still holds true that lifetime earnings of those with higher levels of education will be exponentially higher than those of people with little or no education, but the point is wealth should be the EFFECT of education, not the CAUSE of it.

It is all connected… money, power, (lack of) equity, education, class, opportunity… but how can a school succeed in all the ways people say they want it to succeed if our society consistently shows that it is not interested in that (as of yet, indefinable) success.

Perhaps we will know success when we see it, but can we wait that long?

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