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How to Fix Our Broken School System

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In an October Washington Post article, author T. Rees Shapiro reveals that Diane Ravitch, former U.S. assistant secretary of education, endorses Nikhil Goyal, 17, for the department’s top job.

Goyal’s prestige has skyrocketed since the September release of his book, One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School, which unapologetically condemns America’s education system. He has since appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NBC Nightly News, NPR, MSNBC, FOX, and Huffington Post—to name a few.

After being assimilated into the Syosset High School ecosystem, I noticed that I was bored as hell in class and absolutely nothing I was taught was relevant to real life. I was trained to be a drone. Outside of school, I was engaged with fascinating projects, having conversations with brilliant people, and enjoying life.

It would be foolish to dismiss Goyal as some disgruntled young hotshot. He’s a brilliant journalist, whose lucid reporting rivals that of the best in the business

I am eager to chat with Goyal via Skype, having recently spoken with Erica Goldson, the high school valedictorian who used her surprise graduation speech to condemn the public school education system.

Goyal comes across as extremely humble, excited to chat about the issue that means most to him. Our country’s education system remains unchanged since the 1800s, he says, still favoring obedience to authority over independent thinking and creativity.

During our conversation, Goyal recalls a quote he cites in One Size Does Not Fit All from H. L. Menken, one of America’s most cited journalists, essayists and cultural observers:

The aim of public education is not to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence… Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim… is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States… and that is its aim everywhere else.

After almost 80 years, those words retain too much truth. With the genie out of the bottle, so to speak, too many educators, parents and politicians view significant reform as a hopeless waste of energy. It’s not that most Americans don’t want change; rather, too many feel that change seems too difficult to achieve.

“I think that at this point the problem is that most school administrators and most teachers, especially veteran teachers, have never been exposed to these kinds of progressive teaching methods,” Goyal says.

Goyal provides a comprehensive rundown of why grades, standardized tests, the AP curriculum, and grade-levels should be abolished, and why revolutionizing how educators interact with and assess students is not only appropriate, but vitally necessary—especially if America hopes to compete in the ever-more-competetive global marketplace.

Goyal says he finds no reason for grade-levels to exist, and that more schools must strive to resemble the real world as much as possible. After all, in what profession are workers grouped by age?

“You’ll never have a situation where you’re just with five-year-olds or just with six-year-olds other than a school setting,” Goyal says. “It just doesn’t happen.”

In One Size Does Not Fit All, Goyal writes glowingly of Brightworks, an alternative, forward-thinking school in San Francisco, California, which opened in 2011.

In this entirely project-based environment, students of varying ages work in teams, not grade levels, to explore a theme—or what Brightworks calls an “arc.” In one instance, I love how a parent teaches students how to create a currency system, helping them understand the basic function of money and economics.

Instead of following a traditional teaching rhythm, students learn in three phases.

First, students learn from outside experts about a particular topic. Afterward, each enjoys tremendous freedom in finding an effective way to express understanding. In the final phase, students present their work and engage in self-reflection on their learning.

I am eager to chat with Program Coordinator Justine Macauley, who explains why this approach is superior.

“[Grade-levels] limit the friendships you can make and the things you can learn from people who are older and younger than you,” Macauley says. “What we try to do here is focus on a kid’s intellectual development rather than their chronological development.”

Shortly after my chat with Macauley, I notice an article in March 8 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In “Students and Employers Are at Odds on How College Can Spark a Career,” author Beckie Supiano discusses the mismatch between students’ academic priorities and what qualifications more employers are seeking when filling positions. Her analysis comes from a survey by The Chronicle and American Public Media’s Marketplace:

Employers want new graduates to have real-world experience. Internships and work during college matter most: Employers said that each of those was about four times as important as college reputations, which they rated least important. Relevance of coursework and grade-point average rounded out to the bottom of the list.

I want to learn more about how Brightworks is filling this void. I’m not surprised to learn that such originality derives from a former businessman, Gever Tulley, who left working for Adobe to rescue children from boring classrooms and teach them practical, real world skills.

I stumble upon a Sept. 26, 2012 TEDx presentation, in which Tulley speaks about how educators can get students interested in what he terms “engagement-based learning.”

“Create a meaningful experience and the learning will follow,” Tulley says. “What that means is if you focus first, before you even think about curriculum, before you worry about math, reading, writing—if you focus on designing the experience, the rest of it you get for free.”

Goyal makes one thing perfectly clear: educators must move away from grades and toward meaningful modes of assessment.

“I think we should be abolishing grades in school,” Goyal says, without hesitation. “There’s no reason we should have them. They’re very subjective. They cause less risk taking, less challenging problems.”

Still, students need some type of feedback. Once again, educators should turn to the business world for cues on how to solve this challenge. As Goyal explains, more and more professionals are creating online portfolios to showcase their work.

By providing an easily accessible, permanent panoramic view of a student’s work, these digital environments allow teachers and students to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses over a prolonged period.

“In a digital portfolio, written work, journals, logs, books read, movies, peer reviews, self evaluations, audio recordings, interviews, and blog posts can be included,” Goyal writes.

I speak with Zac Stein of Pathbrite, a cutting-edge portfolio site. Stein’s company is revolutionizing how individuals monitor work, allowing teachers and students alike to keep track of progress.

“The ability for reflection and to figure out where [students] came from and how they can get to the next step is really important—and one of the things we are building in the future is guidance on what that next step might be,” Stein says.

At Brightworks, instead of assigning grades, teachers use portfolios and write personal narratives to students, but only after the completion of each project phase. In theory, this allows for deeper reflection, while also discouraging extrinsic, apathetic learning.

“The principles are there and the ideas are there,” Macauley says. “But there are a lot of things that we have done right and they’re a lot of things that we’ve done wrong, and we’re still learning and exploring—and making big mistakes, and then making up for them.”

I applaud Macauley and the innovators at Brightworks for such hard work. They aren’t afraid of failure, and they have a supportive environment that encourages students to fail, fail, and fail again—all in an effort to learn from past mistakes.

Goyal echoes these sentiments:

If you don’t fail when you’re younger, if you don’t fail constantly and continuously—and you continuously recover from those mistakes—then you’re going to be faced with a number of life crises when you’re 40 or 50 years-old and you’ve never failed at anything in your life. We’re conditioning children to not take risks and do bold things.

I like what Goyal says, but I’m caught in a catch 22.

I can’t help but feel that persistent failure, even if it’s encouraged in the most supporting of atmospheres, becomes detrimental to an individual’s sense of confidence. Perhaps teachers should invest significantly more time, energy and resources into constantly pursuing a happy medium.

Goyal tells me an interesting scenario, which he heard from Tulley while conducting research for One Size Does Not Fit All.

To learn relevant math and science skills, students must construct a boat able to sail across the Hudson River. A student fails on his first attempt, and again on his second. Does he deserve to fail, or should the teacher encourage another try, providing solid feedback along the way until the student proves successful?

Those students sailing boats across the Hudson receive a far different education than the students in most AP classes experience. The deadly AP regimen threatens to get me in hot water with my grandmother’s memory.

Joan, the most amazing and caring woman I ever knew, would often tell me that “hate” is the strongest word in the English language.

“Hate is an ugly, ugly word,” Joan said, albeit in much more colorful language, which always surprised me for a woman of her great stature. “Never use it, and if you do use it, you better darn well understand the seriousness of what you’re about to say.”

This belief has remained with me throughout my life, and so when I say that I “hate” the AP curriculum, know that I have thought long and hard about relying upon this word to express my extreme dislike.

Goyal and I discuss our disdain for how the AP curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep. In One Size Does Not Fit All, he gives a no-holds-barred assessment:

The only skill I have learned from taking AP courses is the knack of memorizing efficiently. It seems that the only exercise most high school kids get is iron-pumping: drilling and killing facts and figures. No sleep? You can sleep when you’re dead! My peers’ goal is to rack up as many A.P. classes and beat out the competition.

I taught AP American History for two years, a grueling course that demands huge amounts of rote memorization. The vast majority of my AP students earned 4’s and 5’s, but beyond learning how to fill-in a bubble on multiple-choice, and how to trick readers for a higher score on the essay portion, I’m not sure how much they really learned.

I hate all standardized tests because more often than not, they deprive students of the joy of learning for the mere sake of learning. Goyal agrees, and I enjoy our chat about the Chinese education system, which puts an even heavier emphasis on test taking.

“The last thing we should ever be doing is resembling the Chinese system. It’s utterly horrible,” Goyal says.

To prepare students for the Gaokao, a high-stakes national college entrance exam that almost makes the SAT look like fun, China’s parents and educators demand “memorization of the classics, ruthless copying and trying to resemble what other people have said,” Goyal says.

I want to learn more about Goyal’s take on a 2011 Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School.

In “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” Chua lists things she would never allow her kids to do, including attending a sleepover, watching television, receiving any grade lower than an A,” and “not be[ing] the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama.”

Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight A’s. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, “You’re lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you.” By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they’re not disappointed about how their kids turned out.

Chua has also written a book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. I’m loathe to read it, especially after watching this ABC News interview:

If the United States is looking to China as an example on how to raise our children better, and how to help them score better on standardized tests, we’re in a lot of trouble.

The more I speak with Goyal, the more solace I take that an educational revolution is well underway. I see a post on his Facebook page that links to The Sustainability Workshop, a fascinating program that conducts project-based work with urban seniors in the Philadelphia area.

Did you catch that part? Stefon Gonzalez, a recent graduate, built a hybrid vehicle capable of traveling up to 150 mph at about 100 miles per gallon. I could care less what Gonzalez scored on his SAT’s, the structure of his academic day, or even what courses he took in high school.

What I do care greatly about, however, is how students at an inner-city high school program built vehicles that beat those of teams at several of our nations “best” colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I contact Simon Hauger, a founder of The Sustainability Workshop and director of the West Philly Hybrid X Team:

We need to be competitive in this world. We need to be cranking out innovators and problem-solvers and creative thinkers, and people that aren’t afraid to take risks—people that don’t just want to regurgitate answers, and people that are finding their passions in life.

Hauger wants to help students find what they’re passionate about, and he urges schools to rethink the value of what is being taught.

“If there are some of these essential skills that [students are] missing, then that’s our job as educators to try to figure out ways to expose them to those essential skills—not the whole breadth of stuff we cover,” Hauger says. “And it’s not as formulaic. It’s a little more intuitive.”

Brightworks is only in its second year, and with just 30 students it has a long way to go before cementing any staying power. But I’m comforted in knowing that even if Brightworks goes belly-up, equally progressive schools are popping up around America.

Goyal also praises the Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, MA, which gives complete ownership of the learning process to a select group of students.

“What The Independent Project shows, first and foremost, is that children are curious and natural learners,” he says.

But teachers don’t have to wait for change to come to them. Right now, we can start making a difference within the existing system. As I transcribe my chat with Goyal, I’m once again amazed at how perfectly this brilliant young man captures my own sentiments:

I will tell you the teachers that kids love the most, the ones they’re most inspired by, and the ones that they have a relationship with, are the ones that interact with them and just don’t talk down to them. They think of them as a partner and as a collaborator in the learning process rather than the person who has the upper authority and the upper hand.

What are your thoughts? I would love to hear them in the comments section. 


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David Cutler is a dedicated independent school teacher at Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where he teaches United States History, United States Government, and Journalism. He also serves as Assistant Boys Cross Country Coach. Cutler is proud to act as a Teacher of the Future for the National Association of Independent Schools. Occasionally, he also writes about education for Edutopia and The Atlantic. Cutler attended Brandeis University as an undergraduate with a major in History and minors in Latin American Studies and Journalism. He holds an M.A. in Comparative History, also from Brandeis.

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