In my 30 years of being in public education, I have seen trends come and go, as well as calls for reform.
The system of public education has not drastically changed in the last 150 years. It was designed to provide immigrants, farmers and the working poor an opportunity to be trained for entry level jobs. Private education, with the goal of going to a university and attain a degree, was accessed by the more affluent members of society.
Our system of education was designed in the image of the Industrial Revolution. It is a linear progression starting in kindergarten and progressing to 12th grade. Rarely do kids mix with different ages until middle or high school and subjects are taught in isolation; math, English, science and history.
When you hear people speak about reform in education, it really means simply making small adjustments to pedagogy, testing or the length of the day or school year. Reform simply means maintaining the status quo. We should not be surprised that the system produces what the system is designed to produce. The entire system was designed to promote inequality; thus, that is the true reason why the achievement gap and the opportunity gaps continue to be prevalent throughout the entire public school system in the United States.
I would suggest that the real innovation that has happened inside the education system since the 1960s consists of Montessori education, Forest Kindergarten Model (Scandinavian), project-based learning and using 3D platforms for learning. Certainly, technology has enhanced teaching and learning, but it really has not changed the traditional school system where students rotate from class to class seeing each teacher every day, with 30-plus students in a classroom for 180 days per year.
The current model is the model we all experienced growing up and one that our parents and grandparents experienced for generations. Changing this cultural experience, which is embedded in our DNA, will require transformational change to the system and not just simply making reforms to the current system.
In the past, change was introduced sporadically and usually by outside pressure rather from within the system. In many cases, reform is reacting to some event and based on expediency versus being well planned and deliberate and supported from the ground up.
COVID-19 has exacerbated the crisis in education. It has taken the complex system of everyday learning and supports and placed it online with distance learning. There is no possible way to duplicate what happens during the school day, including the support that is provided to students, and transfer it to online.
Learning is a conversation. Learning is the natural process of acquiring knowledge, new skills and understanding and applying it to real world situations. Our current system does not provide the optimal conditions for learning to take place.
This pandemic is the ultimate opportunity to make transformational change to our educational system. We cannot allow this crisis to go to waste. COVID-19 is going to impact us for another year or longer until there is a vaccine. We have an opportunity to change the system in a way that we never had the political courage to do in the last century.
We need to ask ourselves, “What are the conditions under which we are able to excel so that we can create a system that allows the conditions for all students to excel?” Conformity, compliance, competition, linearity; our current system does not create the conditions for all students to excel.
I’ve heard comments that college starts in kindergarten. To me, that amplifies one of the key problems in our system. My mother taught kindergarten for 40 years and substituted another 10 years when she retired. She stopped teaching because the new standards that teachers must follow — standards that were taught in first and second grades — created poor conditions for students to excel. As Sir Ken Robinson has so eloquently stated, “school destroys the creativity, the natural curiosity that we all enter school having.”
I do not believe that college is for everyone. I do believe that every student should have the opportunity to go to college if they choose to attend and that no adult in the system should determine if one goes or does not go to college. However, we have a system that cannot even handle the number of students currently eligible to attend college.
We have lost the opportunity for students to truly figure out what they want to do in their life. We have also tracked students into a pigeonhole that restricts opportunities to learn things that interest them, to get properly trained for current job opportunities and to provide the flexibility to go to college later in life. Education should feed the soul. We lose too many students and, particularly, students of color and who live in poverty because we have not created the optimal conditions for them to excel.
We must transform our system in order to ensure we have conditions that create hope for students. The current system takes hope away from students who enter the system in kindergarten or later in life as immigrants to our country. We do not meet students where they are.
We need to create equitable systems where students are valued and welcomed as they are, where strengths and areas of growth for all students are known and supported, where adults positively respond to the social-emotional, wellness and academic needs of every student. We need a system where students engage with tasks that develop the strategic thinking skills for full participation in their local communities and the global society.
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on so many aspects of our society. Do we have the political will to change the systemic racial barriers that exists in public education and transform our system that provides the conditions for all students to excel and eliminate all racial disparities that our current system is designed to produce? Do we have any other choice?
San José Spotlight columnist Chris Funk is the superintendent of the East Side Union High School District. His columns appear every third Monday of the month. Contact Chris at [email protected] or follow @chrisfunksupt on Twitter.