This I Believe

Matt - Springfield, Virginia
Entered on October 1, 2006


The most pressing challenge to public schools is not closing the achievement gap, but rather personalizing education to awaken the inner genius within every child. In far too many classrooms, whether rich or poor, the prevailing mood is one of passivity and boredom. Spend time talking with young people of any age and you’ll soon discover a common complaint: they want to do something substantive. Their frustration starts in elementary school and seems to gather momentum with each passing year.

Consider the experience of a typical public school kid. Virtually every minute of the day he is told what to do, when to do it, where to do it, and often even how to do it. Obedience to classroom efficiency reigns supreme. Mistakes are negatively evaluated as teachers constantly lecture or hover nearby. At no time is the child asked what he wants to learn, permitted to design individualized projects, or encouraged to develop his unique strengths. Instead he is sequestered from the adult world, ability grouped, denied social engagement except with children his own age, and deprived of authentic experience and opportunities for real responsibility.

Does anyone truly believe this environment is ideal for raising independent, healthy, productive human beings?

I find it telling that politicians and the wealthy tend to send their offspring to elite private schools, places that cherish individuality and personal growth, while at the same time legislating factory-like education for the masses. The difference is not merely cosmetic. Consider a typical day for a young person at a private Montessori school. The child is surrounded by hands-on materials that stimulate her curiosity; she is challenged to practice self-direction and risk-taking, to construct her own meaning, and to pursue learning at her own pace. Curriculum is perceived as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Which type of education would you bet the billionaire cofounders of Google credit to their own success? Which option do you think Senator Clinton chose for her daughter? Can you guess where Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and entertainment mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs went to school?

Now reflect on the experience of my own suburban elementary students, themselves the products of largely working class immigrant families. This past year they were required by local school administrators to move in lockstep and cram for nine standardized tests. I hope the contrast is clear: a personalized, entrepreneurial education for the ruling class and a standardized, limiting education for the poor and middle classes.

Politicians and educational consultants peddle the dishonest notion that top-down curriculum, standardized test scores, and grades determine success in life. This is simply not true. The entrepreneurs who started CNN, Virgin, and Kinko’s amassed great fortunes despite their shoddy transcripts. Of the two scientists most responsible for sequencing the human genome, one was homeschooled on a sheep farm and the other barely made it through high school. Political heavyweights George W. Bush, John Kerry, Al Gore, and John McCain have proven that mediocre grades are no impediment to presidential ambition, and how does one explain the stream of dropouts who continue to fuel innovation in Silicone Valley and Hollywood?

None of this is not to suggest that education doesn’t matter; nothing could be further from the truth. What it does suggest is that the type of education and self-discipline necessary to pursue one’s ambitions isn’t cultivated through curriculum mandates and pacing charts. One-size-fits-all standards are a fraud. Young people would march out of classrooms in droves if they were told the truth: that grades and test scores matter only if one chooses to believe they do.

So if not grades, then what? Perhaps a clue can be found in the writings of three-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Thomas Friedman, “Give me a kid with a passion to learn and a curiosity to discover and I will take him or her over a less passionate kid with a high IQ every day of the week.” We know Friedman’s words to be true, yet we structure public schools to suppress these very qualities. We have allowed ourselves to be deluded by credentialed experts who insist all children must follow a standardized path to a successful life; that all children need and want the exact same body of knowledge, that children develop uniformly, and that standardized testing is the proper measurement of human potential. May I suggest that a standardized life is entirely incompatible with success and happiness?

My hardworking teaching colleagues and I have become so enamored with pedagogy and assessment we forget that self-motivation is the most important factor in student learning. We would do well to remember that 1.1 million children are currently being homeschooled by parents lacking any formal pedagogical training, and no one is seriously suggesting these kids are being academically shortchanged. While their peers in public schools doodle on desks or cram for inconsequential quizzes, these young people are out interacting with the wider community, apprenticing with mentors, volunteering, conducting real experiments, launching businesses, reading and writing for hours on end, and assuming the substantive responsibility of self-organizing their lives. Homeschooling parents and private schools are able to offer structurally what public schools currently cannot, a rigorous personalized curriculum based on a child’s distinct interests and needs.