Sunday, January 20, 2008


PROLOGUE: Summerhill


A Nation At Risk?

Excellence, Mediocrity, or Both?

The Mission of Public Education

Motivation and Learning: Lack of Interest/Improper Placement/Mediocre Instruction/A Narrow Focus on Vocational Goals/A Rigid, Authoritarian Environment

Our Nation's Children At Risk

Societal Influences

Altering Students' Perception of Learning


Reform Proposals: Reduce the Number of Required Classes Within the Typical High School Curriculum and Minimize the Number of Standards and Objectives Within Courses

Reform Proposal: Award Different Types of Diplomas or Certificates to Accurately Represent Different Levels of Achievement

Reform Proposal: Allow Students to Select Their Teachers

Reform Proposal: Allow Students (With the Consent of Their Parents) to Elect Not to Be Graded

Reform Proposal: Concentrate Academic Instruction in a Three-hour Block

Reform Proposal: Allow Students to Attend School Full- or Part-time, Days, Evenings, or Week-ends

Reform Proposal: Repeal Compulsory Attendance Laws

Reform Proposal: Remove the Upper Age Limits on Attending Public Schools Free of Charge

Reform Proposal: Remove the Lower Age Limits on Attending Public Schools Free of Charge

Reform Proposal: Allow Students to Attend Any Publicly Funded School in the State in Which They Live


Reform Proposal: Increase Pay for Teachers

Reform Proposal: Make More Effective Use of Technology and Existing Staff

Reform Proposal: Improve Working Conditions for Teachers

Reform Proposal: Develop a More Comprehensive Evaluation System for Teachers

Reform Proposal: Use Pre- and Post-Test Data Properly to Compare Teachers, Programs, and Schools


Reform Proposal: Use Standardized Test Scores As Part of the Process of Determining Grades

Reform Proposal: Utilize Reading Tests to Insure Proper Placement of Students


Reform Proposal: Govern Schools Individually and Democratically

CONCLUSION: It's Time for a Change

Prologue: Summerhill

Summerhill began as an experimental school. It is no longer such; it is now a demonstration school, for it demonstrates that freedom works. - A. S. Neill

Summerhill is a small private school in Great Britain. It was founded by A. S. Neill in 1921 and since that time has served as a clear and compelling demonstration of the full range of choices that could and should be offered within our system of public education. At Summerhill there are no required classes, no tests, no grades or grade cards. Students are given complete freedom to decide what they want to learn and when they want to learn. Some students have gone months or even years without taking any classes at all, yet numerous studies and reports indicate that the graduates of Summerhill have led happy and productive lives. Even allowing for a good measure of skepticism, it must be admitted that Summerhill’s students have suffered no apparent harm, or been handicapped in any way by the freedom they were given, and may very well have benefitted from the self-directed nature of their educational experience.

Within our public school system the option of an education based on the Summerhill philosophy could be made available by offering students and parents a full range of meaningful choices. Students should be able to attend any public school within their home state. A variety of programs should be offered within each school. We should award different types of diplomas or certification (college prep, a standard diploma, a certificate of completion, etc.), with at least one form of certification that involves fewer required classes and fewer requirements within classes, thereby allowing students more time for self-directed learning. Students should also be allowed to take classes without seeking a diploma. They should have the option of taking classes without being graded, or to be graded on the basis of exhibitions of mastery. Students should be allowed to choose their teachers. The option of attending regular classes at different times of the day, as well as attending part time should be offered, especially to older students who are working during the school year. We should repeal compulsory attendance laws and remove the age limits on attending public schools without charge.

While some parents and educators might react with horror to the idea of students being given this much freedom to determine the nature of their educational experiences, Summerhill offers compelling evidence that allowing students to direct their own course of study is not as crazy as it might seem to some people. It is highly unlikely that many parents would be willing to grant their children the amount of freedom given to students at Summerhill. Many parents might be interested in having their children educated in an environment that is less restrictive than the one that is presently in place, while stopping short of the Summerhill approach. Other options, including the status quo, should continue to be available for those parents who want a more structured educational experience for their children.

We must accept the fact that students differ greatly with regard to their needs and interests, their academic abilities, the degree to which they are motivated to pursue a formal education, their learning styles, and their goals. Rather than waste time and energy trying to agree on a single system or approach, we should simply agree to disagree. Within and beyond a course of study designed to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to be an effective citizen within a democracy, we should allow students to select the educational experiences that most effectively address their individual needs and interests. We should allow students (and their parents) to make the choices that are right for them from a range of options representing the full spectrum of educational philosophies and practices.

Excerpt from:
Edutopia: A Manifesto for the Reform of Public Education
© 2003 Gary Winston Apple.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Permission is hereby granted to make or post copies of this excerpt from Edutopia for personal, non-commercial use, provided that each posting or printed copy attributes the source and includes the copyright notice.

A Nation At Risk?

For as long as we have had schools, critics of the existing institutions have felt there were better ways to organize and run them. For as long as we continue to have schools, that will be the case. The level of concern ebbs and flows and only occasionally reaches a level that translates into meaningful action.

The most recent cycle of widespread reform began twenty years ago. It endures in large part because the changes implemented thus far have had little impact on the perceived problems within public education. A broad consensus among educators, business leaders, and politicians, that public education was, and is, in a state of crisis, has resulted in a deluge of legislation at both the state and national level and a steady stream of reforms at schools throughout the country. The net result, up to this point, has been small pockets of modest, and often temporary, improvement. We are still searching for effective means of improving student achievement and the quality of education offered by our schools.

The publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983 deserves much of the credit for bringing the present educational crisis to the attention of the political establishment and the media, and through them, to the general public. A federally funded report published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation At Risk included several memorable lines that were widely quoted at the time of its publication: ". . . the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people." "If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
The primary concerns voiced by the authors of A Nation At Risk were related to our ability to compete with other industrialized nations within the global economy:

The world is indeed one global village. We live among determined, well-educated,
and strongly motivated competitors. We compete with them for international
standing and markets, not only with products but also with the ideas of our
laboratories and neighborhood workshops.

The report stated that “. . . on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with [students from] other industrialized nations, were last seven times.” While the report also included statements of concern related to our failure to achieve the “. . . high level of shared education [that] is essential to a free, democratic society . . . ” the emphasis throughout was tilted strongly in favor of economic matters.

tudent achievement (more specifically, the lack thereof) was the primary evidence cited to support the fact that our nation was at risk. All of the thirteen “Indicators of the Risk” cited by the commission are related, directly or indirectly, to declines in achievement as measured by standardized tests. The report also echoed and further stimulated the complaints of colleges, business leaders and the military regarding the necessity of providing remedial programs, in reading and other basic skills, for high school graduates who were not adequately prepared for either college or the workplace.

In the wake of A Nation At Risk additional studies were commissioned, and a seemingly endless stream of books and articles were published further detailing and defining the problems plaguing public education in America and proposing various solutions. Among the most influential of these was a series of books by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., beginning with Cultural Literacy, which stressed the importance of being literate in a much broader sense of the term than is typically used. Hirsch maintained that in order to communicate effectively within a particular culture, certain terms, names, and events need to be familiar and understood. An individual lacking knowledge of these common references will not be capable of meaningful participation in civic affairs.

While A Nation At Risk marks the onset of the present cycle of reform, Cultural Literacy and subsequent related titles by Hirsch represent the essence of one of the most common responses to the perceived crisis in public education - the development of standardized lists of curricular objectives.

In Cultural Literacy, Hirsch included an appendix entitled "What Literate Americans Know" containing a rather lengthy list of names, events, titles, terms, phrases, and places with which Americans should be familiar in order to be culturally literate. In response to the interest of many readers regarding the items included in the list, and perhaps reflecting the intellectual laziness of many of those readers, Hirsch and his associates published A Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, which offered brief summaries related to each item, A First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (for younger students), and a series of books designed to let parents determine the degree of cultural literacy of their elementary school children: What Your 2nd Grader Should Know, What Your 3rd Grader Should Know, etc.

Although questions regarding what should (and shouldn’t) be included in a student’s course of study have always been, and always will be, a topic of debate among educators and other interested parties, the publication of A Nation At Risk and Cultural Literacy inspired educational organizations, school districts, state legislatures, and commissions formed at both the state and national level, to develop and publish detailed lists of standards and objectives for each subject and grade level setting forth the knowledge that should be acquired and the skills that should be developed by a student at each grade level, or in each course.

Many of these curriculum proposals have been adopted by school districts and/or enacted into law by state legislatures. Standardized tests have been developed and/or rewritten to measure whether individual students have mastered the required objectives and met the specified standards. Some states and school districts have begun to hold students accountable if they fail to meet stated expectations.

Approaches such as “outcomes-based education” and “mastery learning,” which make promotion from grade to grade contingent upon demonstrating the accomplishment of stated objectives, have been introduced. (In some districts these strategies have already come and gone.) Exit exams are becoming more common - requiring a student to score at a certain level in order to be awarded a high school diploma.

Improving the quality of instruction offered in our schools has also been the focus of a wide variety of reform initiatives. Research on effective teaching and learning has been conducted and the results disseminated. A plethora of alternative teaching strategies, including numerous forms of co-operative learning, have been developed and introduced. Madeline Hunter rose to prominence as the guru of lesson planning for teachers. Lee Cantor emerged as the “sage on the stage” regarding classroom discipline with an approach he called “Assertive Discipline.” To propagate the wisdom of Hunter, Cantor et. al., and to promote the use of “effective” teaching strategies, workshops, seminars, and other professional development activities have been offered to teachers, and in many cases required of teachers. (Sort of an adult version of compulsory attendance.)

Textbooks and supporting materials have been rewritten to conform more closely to adopted standards, particularly the standards of larger states, theoretically making those teachers who rely on them more effective. Some states have introduced competency tests and replaced lifetime certification for teachers with temporary certification, making continued employment contingent upon additional training. Colleges and universities have added additional requirements for prospective teachers.

here has also been a broad range of other responses to the crisis in public education. Schools and school districts have adopted wonderfully inspiring mission and vision statements. Countless books and articles detailing the nature of the crisis facing our schools and offering a wide range of relatively moderate solutions have been published. Although most of the sets of standards that have been put in place seem reasonably demanding, calls continue for expectations to be raised still higher. State legislatures have mandated improvements in education, and have occasionally even increased funding as part of the legislation. The federal government has now weighed in with its own mandate that “no child [be] left behind.”

Nearly all of the goals and objectives included in the standards that have been developed and adopted have some merit. Raising pay for teachers certainly helps to attract a larger pool of qualified applicants to the profession, although compensation for teachers has not been increased to the point that significant numbers of talented individuals are being lured away from other professions. Some of the opportunities for professional growth have helped the teachers already in our schools improve and refine their skills.

Although many experienced teachers maintain that Hunter and Cantor simply re-packaged and re-introduced time-tested methods, their recommendations are worthwhile. Alternative teaching strategies have helped to improve the quality of instruction offered in our schools, although in many cases they accomplish little more than making the classroom a somewhat more tolerable place for non-readers. Now, however, after two decades of earnest, but superficial, attempts to reform public education, we have seen very little improvement. Average student scores on standardized tests - the primary evidence cited to demonstrate the existence of a state of crisis in public education - have not improved significantly. The “crisis” continues.

Excerpt from:
Edutopia: A Manifesto for the Reform of Public Education
© 2003 Gary Winston Apple.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Permission is hereby granted to make or post copies of this excerpt from Edutopia for personal, non-commercial use, provided that each posting or printed copy attributes the source and includes the copyright notice.

Excellence, Mediocrity, or Both?

We are not likely to turn the tide in our battle for a more effective educational system until we achieve a better understanding of the true nature of the crisis. Scant attention has been given to the question of what caused a “tide” of mediocrity to “rise” in the first place. Ironically, at least some of the culpability of our public schools, with regard to any increase in mediocrity, is directly related to the success of our efforts to keep students in school.

Throughout the history of public education in America, we have been engaged in a delicate balancing act with regard to the conflicting goals of excellence and inclusion. Maintaining excellence is much easier when opportunities for advanced schooling are limited to the academically talented. Mediocrity is more difficult to avoid when all children are allowed, encouraged, and/or required to remain in school.

Over time the scales have tipped slowly, but surely, toward inclusion. The United States has come tantalizingly close to achieving the goal of a high school education for every member of our society. The percentage of students attending, and graduating, from high school has grown steadily throughout most of the history of public education in America. In 1890, only 6.7% of people between fourteen and seventeen years of age were enrolled in school. By 1970 that percentage had increased to over 90%. In 1890, a mere 3.5% of adults between the ages of 25 and 29 had earned high school diplomas. As recently as 1940 that percentage was still only 38.1%. Between 1940 and 1980 it more than doubled to 85.4%. Since 1980 the graduation rate has more or less leveled off, although efforts continue to lower the drop-out rate still further. At the present time a significantly greater percentage of adults in our society have earned degrees from four-year colleges than had earned high school diplomas in 1920.

This success has not come without a price. Standardized test scores peaked in the mid-1960s and then entered a lengthy period of slow, but steady decline, only recently beginning to rebound ever-so-slightly. It is worth noting, however, that during the period from 1970 to 1980 the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 who had graduated from high school rose from 75.4% to 85.4%. Percentage-wise that increase is greater than the decline in test scores during the same period.

The “bell curve” is a reality. Just as some people are gifted with more musical, artistic, or athletic ability than others, some people learn faster than others. Some people are able to retain more knowledge than others. Even within the realm of education some students are gifted readers, but weak in math, or vice versa. While extraordinary effort on the part of students with less natural academic ability can narrow the gap, there are limits to how much each individual is capable of learning. There will always be differences in achievement.

It may well be the case that the percentage of people within our society who are capable of meeting the standards we claim to expect of high school graduates is less than the seventy-five to eighty percent who are presently receiving diplomas. The easiest way to increase test scores would be to stop requiring and/or encouraging students with limited academic abilities to remain in school. On the other hand, making it even easier to get a high school diploma by lowering standards and reducing requirements is the easiest and most logical method of increasing the graduation rate. As much as we might like to achieve both excellence and inclusion, there will always be a trade-off between the two.

Keeping marginal students in school longer has contributed to lower average test scores. On the other hand, the welfare of our children is more important than test scores or other statistics. Convincing students to stay in school is a worthwhile goal when they are putting forth a reasonable effort to learn what is being taught. Keeping students enrolled in school is a hollow victory, however, when they are putting forth little or no effort to learn. We have been increasingly successful in our efforts to keep students in school longer. We have been noticeably less successful in helping marginal students achieve at the levels we claim to expect.

In spite of the fact that published standards have been raised in many states and school districts, de facto standards have been lowered at many schools, primarily through social promotion and grade inflation. To accommodate students who work during the school year and to keep marginal students from becoming discouraged and dropping out, we have lowered our expectations with regard to both the quantity and the quality of work required. Students are passed along from grade-to-grade and given credit for classes, despite the fact that they have not truly mastered the objectives within the approved curriculum for that class or grade level. As a last resort, summer school and night-school classes offer marginal students an easy way to earn credit without having to meet the alleged standards for a particular course. The end result of all these machinations is that many under-performing students are awarded high school diplomas without acquiring the knowledge or developing the skills that we claim to expect of a high school graduate.

The key to striking the proper balance between excellence and inclusion is to stop obsessing about both test scores and drop-out rates. We should do everything possible to improve the quality of the educational opportunities we offer through our public schools. We should make a broad range of meaningful alternatives available to students, especially those who are not succeeding within the present system. We should encourage every student to put forth their best effort in learning. On the other hand, we should allow young people who are not interested in formal instruction to choose a different path. A system of public education that afforded every member of our society the chance to discover and fully develop their gifts and talents would be an “excellent” system, even if some people failed to take advantage of the opportunities available to them.

Excerpt from:
Edutopia: A Manifesto for the Reform of Public Education
© 2003 Gary Winston Apple.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Permission is hereby granted to make or post copies of this excerpt from Edutopia for personal, non-commercial use, provided that each posting or printed copy attributes the source and includes the copyright notice.

The Mission of Public Education

Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. Without learning, men are incapable of knowing their rights, and where learning is confined to a few people, liberty can be neither equal, nor universal. - Benjamin Rush

Assessing the success or failure of our schools with any reasonable degree of validity is complicated by the fact that there is confusion and disagreement regarding the mission of public education in America. Although philosophical matters pertaining to education are rarely discussed, there are fundamental differences of opinion regarding the basic goal of our public schools.

In the early years of the republic, Thomas Jefferson and others who lobbied for the establishment of public schools, argued that educated citizens were an essential component of effective government in a democratic state. The primary justification for educating all children at public expense was that education would make it more likely that voters would elevate the most worthy candidates to office. Jefferson’s plan also called for additional education at public expense for the most talented students, thus grooming them for positions in government. The nation, as a whole, would experience the benefits of good government.

In addition to preparing students for informed participation in civic affairs, Horace Mann and other early supporters of public education saw our schools as a place to combat immoral behavior. As our nation continued to grow, through westward expansion and immigration, this idea evolved into the belief that schools should provide a means of civilizing and homogenizing the burgeoning population of the United States. Public schools were to function as a “melting pot,” assimilating the children of Native Americans, African-Americans, and recent immigrants, into the mainstream of our society, by inculcating the values and beliefs of the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant majority.

Frustration with the gap between the ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence and the reality experienced by many groups and individuals led some reformers at the turn of the nineteenth century to attempt to turn public schools into crucibles of genuine democracy. Revisiting the idea that the primary mission of public education should be preparing students for their role as citizens, Margaret Haley, Ella Flagg Young, and others argued that our schools should function as democratic communities. They promoted the idea of democratically governed schools as the most effective means of promoting and protecting democracy within the broader society. They believed that genuine democracy in our schools required the active involvement of both teachers and students in decision-making, as well as a great deal of freedom for self-direction on the part of students.

The Industrial Revolution was the catalyst for the most powerful transformation of our schools. Support for public education, the number of children enrolled, and the number of years of schooling each child received, all began to grow steadily as the idea that our schools should be preparing children for their roles as workers in an industrial society began to take hold. The development of intelligence tests and other types of standardized testing gave rise to an “improved” version of preparing students for their roles in the workplace, providing an apparently scientific means for schools to perform a sorting function. Tests were used to determine what classes students should take to prepare them for their appropriate positions within the economy.

Another level of tracking and sorting was added as American colleges and universities pushed for, and won, the right to act as gatekeepers to the professions. As our institutions of higher education standardized and certified the requirements for entry into a growing number of professions, backed by state laws requiring such certification, they also managed, quite successfully, to dictate standardized curricular models for secondary schools.

Today, more than two hundred years after the founding of our nation, arguments regarding the missions and goals of public education continue. Competing views of the mission of our schools tend to co-exist. Our system of public education has attempted, with widely varying degrees of success, to fill all of the roles described above. Over time, however, vocational goals have slowly, but surely, claimed the dominant role in public education. “Tech Prep,” “Career Pathways” and “School-to-work” programs, as well as other reforms promoting vocational skills, are being implemented in more and more schools and school districts.

Within education the term “tracking” refers to the practice of sorting students into different courses of study based on their academic abilities. Brighter students are enrolled in a “college prep” curriculum that includes more of the elements of a traditional liberal arts education. Students with limited abilities are tracked into classes focused on the development of job-related skills. Tracking has come to be viewed as discriminatory, and the term itself has fallen out of favor. In reality, the practice is alive and well. The difference is that more and more students are being tracked, and are tracking themselves, into “vocational” classes. Wood shop, metal shop, and homemaking have been replaced by programs that have a more direct connection to the job market of today. Computer programming, appliance repair, auto mechanics, and other career-oriented classes are very popular. Even students who are preparing for and attending college are focused on vocational goals. An ever-increasing number of community college programs have a career focus. The primary goal of most students attending four-year colleges is acquiring the certification necessary to enter a “profession.” For all intents and purposes, our colleges and universities have been converted into “vocational” schools.

At both the high school and college levels, some elements of a liberal arts education remain in place, but the primary focus of most students is on preparation for the job market. Although a few lone voices cry out in the wilderness, very few students, parents, educators, or politicians seem to question the dominant view that the primary purpose of public education is to prepare our children for the workplace. The original justification for educating all children at public expense has been relegated to the back burner. There is very little discussion about the importance of developing the skills necessary for informed citizenship. Our schools and the school day are structured and designed to simulate the workplace and help students develop the habits that they need as workers in an industrial society: arriving, eating, and being dismissed by bells, working diligently at assigned tasks (no matter how boring or irrelevant those tasks might seem), and following orders.

While the contention that higher levels of formal education are necessary to meet the requirements of the modern workplace is reasonable up to a point, there is a continuing demand for unskilled and semi-skilled labor. Our factories may have more and more robots scattered in among the workers and typewriters may have been replaced by desktop computers, but there is still a need within our economy for workers with limited skills, but good habits, workers who will be in their assigned place on time and who will follow orders without question, workers who are not stifled to the point of ineffectiveness by jobs that are repetitive and boring. Although there is always room for improvement, our economy seems to be doing reasonably well. There may be some structural unemployment as a result of the rapid pace of technological change, however, a bit of skepticism seems to be in order when employers bemoan the lack of qualified workers and then lay off workers with college degrees and/or years of experience in the process of “downsizing” to improve profitability.

Our system of public education is doing a fairly effective job of cranking out dull, uncritical individuals who will quietly accept their role as cogs in the machinery of our economy. A sufficient number of reasonably talented individuals are developing the skills and acquiring the knowledge needed to service the machines that are taking over the workplace. And a fortunate few are surviving their journey through our educational system with their curiosity intact. The work of this elite group continues to fuel the expansion of the frontiers of human knowledge. Much of that knowledge is applied to the marketplace. There are winners and losers, of course, but our overall level of material wealth is impressive. If the essential purpose of public education is to prepare our children for their role as workers, neither the low test scores of many students, nor the elements of coercion and control that dominate our present system of public education, need trouble us too greatly.

On the other hand, if we are attempting to prepare students for the role of citizens in a democracy, we should be greatly concerned about our present approach to education. Effective citizenship requires the acquisition of a broad base of knowledge and the development of the critical thinking skills necessary to make informed decisions. We are in grave danger of seeing the electoral process in our country turned into a political version of “The Jerry Springer Show.” The ability to listen to, or read, opinions that are contrary to our own, with an eye toward understanding the perspectives of others, has always been rare. Today, open-minded individuals, capable of considering a range of viewpoints before formulating an opinion on public issues, are rapidly becoming an endangered species.

Developing the skills necessary for informed participation in civic affairs is a lengthy and difficult process. Students must be given frequent opportunities to read and discuss opposing viewpoints related to a variety of contemporary issues. Furthermore, they need opportunities to engage in authentic decision-making. Students are almost never involved in the decision-making process within a school, even when those decisions impact their own schooling experience. Our schools are administered in a bureaucratic, top-down manner, with students on the bottom level of the pyramid . It is difficult to acquire the skills necessary for informed participation in civic affairs within a dictatorial environment. They are much more likely to be fully developed in an environment that encourages freedom of thought and allows students to be meaningfully involved in the government of their schools.

When considering the purpose of public education, we must also weigh the public good, as opposed to the private good, of various missions. Our nation as a whole should benefit from schools that are funded with tax revenues, particularly considering the fact that a sizeable percentage of those revenues are generated from levies on people who have no children enrolled in school. On an individual basis, the financial benefits of staying in school and getting good grades are beyond dispute. There is a strong correlation between income and level of education. Money, in and of itself, is a powerful incentive to develop job-related skills. Students whose educational focus is on enhancing their marketable skills, and the businesses and industries that will profit from their labors, should pay for the cost of classes that are directly related to preparation for the job market. There is also some benefit to our nation as a whole, in having each individual acquire the skills needed to succeed in the workplace. As the percentage of the population properly prepared for gainful employment increases, crime and violence decrease and productivity increases. Still, taxing all members of our society so that some individuals can get better-paying jobs, is an approach that could be questioned and challenged.

As a nation, we will derive a much greater benefit from doing a better job of preparing our children for their role as citizens. If more voters are capable of informed participation, we are more likely to elect public officials who will rule wisely. We will all enjoy the benefits of better government. Taxing everybody, including individuals with no children enrolled in public schools, is therefore, much more justifiable, if effective citizenship is the primary mission of public education. Furthermore, the critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills acquired as part of a liberal arts education in a democratic school environment also prepare students for any type of job training. (This is important in a society where workers may change jobs and careers a number of times during a lifetime.) An education focused almost exclusively on preparation for the job market, does not include the skills and knowledge needed for effective citizenship.

The character of our society is greatly affected by the attitude toward learning of the populace. A narrow focus on vocational goals has blinded students (as well as parents, educators, and legislators) to the value of being well-educated in a broad sense of the term. Although we claim to value education, the truth of the matter is that we have come to view education as nothing more than a ticket to a good paying job. Although most of the adult members of our society have the skills needed to engage in life-long learning, the inclination to do so is extremely rare. Very few of us survive our journey through the present educational system with our love of learning intact. If we are to be a well-educated society, citizens of all ages must not only be capable of self-directed learning, they must also be motivated to pursue learning opportunities without being compelled to do so. The primary mission of our schools should be to develop an educated and informed citizenry capable of, and interested in, active participation in civic affairs.

Excerpt from:
Edutopia: A Manifesto for the Reform of Public Education
© 2003 Gary Winston Apple.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Permission is hereby granted to make or post copies of this excerpt from Edutopia for personal, non-commercial use, provided that each posting or printed copy attributes the source and includes the copyright notice.

Motivation and Learning

The heart of the problem with our present system of public education is discussed in a section of A Nation at Risk that has never been widely published or commented upon. The report included the following message to students (a message few students, parents, educators, or politicians have ever seen or read):

You forfeit your chance for life at its fullest when you withhold your best effort in learning. When you give only the minimum to learning, you receive only the minimum in return. Even with your parents' best example and your teachers' best efforts, in the end it is your work that determines how much and how well you learn. When you work to your full capacity, you can hope to attain the knowledge and skills that will enable you to create your future and control your destiny. If you do not, you will have your future thrust upon you by others. Take hold of your life, apply your gifts and talents, work with dedication and self-discipline. Have high expectations for yourself and convert every challenge into an opportunity.

Very few students work to their “full capacity" or "with dedication and self-discipline" within our present system of public education. Most students seem to view learning as an unpleasant task - a chore to be completed as quickly as possible so that they can get back to more enjoyable activities. Many students do not have the benefit of parents who provide the "best example." Some teachers do not put forth their "best efforts." These problems are critical and must be addressed, but in doing so, we must not lose sight of the fact that, ultimately, it is the effort put forth by each individual student that determines "how much and how well" she or he learns.

Effective learning requires the active involvement of the learner. Even relatively "passive" forms of learning, such as listening to a lecture or watching a videotape, require the mental involvement, and to some extent the physical involve­ment, of the student. In order to learn effectively, a student must be paying attention to the source of instruction (the speaker, videotape, etc.), concen­trating on and thinking about what is being said and/or shown. When a student is having trouble understand­ing any part of a lesson, she or he must ask questions.

There is a direct relation­ship between the amount of time and the quality of the effort a student devotes to learning and the achievement level of that student. Students who are motivated to learn will learn more, learn more efficiently, retain more of what they learn, and ultimately attain a much higher level of achievement than students who are doing little more than going through the motions.

Finding more effective means of motivating students to consistently put forth their best effort in learning is the key! Nearly all of the problems and shortcomings of our present system of public education are related in some way to the central problem of a lack of motivation on the part of many students to learn what is being taught. We must identify, understand, and address the factors within our schools, our families, and our society that contribute to the fact that very few students consistently put forth their “best effort in learning.”

Understanding the nature of the motivation to learn and why some students are more motivated than others, is a complex matter. Myriad combinations of a number of variables affect the degree to which students are motivated. Within the parameters of public education, the most important factors are: a lack of interest in what is being taught, improper placement, mediocre instruction, a lack of appreciation for the intrinsic value of being well-educated, and the institutional environment within schools. To further complicate matters, the relative impor­tance of each of these factors varies from student to student and may also change over time.

Excerpt from:
Edutopia: A Manifesto for the Reform of Public Education
© 2003 Gary Winston Apple.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Permission is hereby granted to make or post copies of this excerpt from Edutopia for personal, non-commercial use, provided that each posting or printed copy attributes the source and includes the copyright notice.

Our Nation's Children At Risk

The fact that the schooling experience of many students contributes to a diminished interest in learning is a matter that should be of great and immediate concern to all of us who care about our children and the future of our country. The failure of our schools is typically measured in terms of the things our students don't know and the dismal performance of our students on standardized tests, especial­ly as compared to students in other industrialized nations.

While it is indeed lamentable that a substantial percentage of our students emerge from thirteen years of education with little knowledge and few skills to show for their efforts, the most basic failure of our schools does not lie in the things our children do not learn, but rather in one thing that far too many students do appear to learn. They come to associate “learning” with school and to believe that learning is a boring, tedious process that has little, if any, intrinsic value.

That is a very damaging misconception. There is a great deal of value in being well-educated, and the benefits go well beyond the size of the paycheck one can eventually earn as a result of a diploma or degree. The educational experiences of students should be structured to work in harmony with our natural curiosity. If we allow students the freedom to learn what they want to learn, or recognize a legitimate reason to learn, we could eliminate or minimize the elements of compulsion and control that tend to diminish students’ motivation to learn.

Some people will argue that students will not learn as much if they are given the freedom to direct their own learning. With some students this might be true. However, as long as an individual maintains an inquisitive nature, growth and development continue, gaps in knowledge can be closed, and missteps or mistakes can be overcome. (In many cases, we may even learn from our mistakes.) When the motivation to learn is diminished or destroyed, realizing the goal of a happy and productive life can be considerably more difficult. Our schools should be actively nurturing our love of learning. At the very least our schools should not be run in a manner that contributes in any way to a diminished desire to learn.

Excerpt from:
Edutopia: A Manifesto for the Reform of Public Education
© 2003 Gary Winston Apple.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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