Pen ‘Em Up, Line ‘Em Up, Push ‘Em Through

“Fixing Education,” began the headlines.

Yeah, let’s grab our tools and go fix education! Oh, that’s not what they meant? Well, send in the technicians, experts, and politicians to fix it.

If only it were so simple.

Tools can fix a leaky faucet or a broken chair…but not education. Technicians and experts can design and advise and politicians can pass laws, but that doesn’t fix education.

Maybe the real problem is our fixation on “fixing.”

The “fix it” approach views schools as input-output production systems like factories – raw materials in, finished products out…students in, graduates out. If the output doesn’t measure up, tinker with the production system, i.e., “fix it,” until output improves.

Our colleges and universities turn out teachers and administrators grounded in the production system. Our federal and state departments of education design rules and guidelines to perpetuate the production system.

Production systems work pretty well when the input is of consistent quality, like in the old days when schools could flunk out “slow learners” and “problem students” to get rid of the bad input.

Compulsory attendance and No Child Left Behind changed things. They require schools to retain and process all students in their districts (Google “the blueberry story”). High drop-out rates and inconsistent quality show the production system just can’t handle such diverse input.

Early childhood education aims to make the input to schools more consistent…getting children more ready to learn when they start kindergarten. Drop-out prevention, in-school and after-school programs seek to help students keep up with the production process. These are well intended “fixes” designed to make the production system work as best it can.

Montessori schools and home schools are not grounded in the “fix it” production system. They favor a more student-centered “grow it” process. For example, Montessori elementary classes may include students of varying ages, recognizing and valuing that each child does not learn at the same pace. Failure to advance, which carries great negative implications in the production system, is not a problem in student-centered schools.

Mississippi public schools have not embraced education approaches outside the production system…or outside school district lines. Parochial and private schools, which have no district lines, have done better. The huge increase in home schooling shows parents like educational approaches that value students more than the system.

Charter and other innovative schools abound in states that embrace student-centered approaches. The Mississippi Legislature recently took a small step in that direction, authorizing a limited number of charter/innovative schools confined to bottom-rated school districts.

Can’t mess with those school district lines, you know.

Mississippi remains challenged to offer more than our pen ‘em up, line ‘em up, push ‘em through production system.

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