Not Broken!

One of the big arguments for alternatives–like charter schools–is that the public schools are broken, so we need choice.

Who says they are broken? It’s one of those knee-jerk commonplaces in public discourse that has nothing to do with reality.

You want a standardized-test measurement? We will ignore for a moment that standardized high-stakes tests reveal little to nothing about good education happening in schools (I agree with this commentator on that). You can see from this page, if you don’t mind wading through all the statistics, that most states are doing decently with  children passing tests.

I cannot speak for schools and students throughout the nation, but I’d like to give you a snapshot of a few experiences I’ve had lately in my high-poverty rural area.

Here’s one: our little recorder ensemble, consisting of four players (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, trading parts), doing serious classical music, mostly arrangments of madrigals, was invited to a local elementary school to do a performance for about a hundred second- and third-graders learning to play the recorder. It was a less-than-ideal environment (banging from cafeteria tables being put away etc.), but those students were 100% engaged, smiling, participating. When we told stories about the songs, they participated whole-heartedly, laughing, smiling, engaged. When we played the songs, you could feel everyone focused, engaged. They were so sweet afterward, as they toted their chairs back to the classroom and we packed up the instruments and stands: “You guys are awesome!” “Thank you SO much!”

This type of openness, freshness, engagement, and the unique and charming thank-you notes afterward (“Dear Ensemble, You made my heart nearly burst. Thank you for coming to our school”) let us know that this was an unguarded, genuine educational experience we shared together. It made our hearts nearly burst too.

But even more important, it revealed that these young students in a typical school are learning in a deeper way, that they are alive and engaged–and that all is well in that school.

We can extrapolate that things are going well generally in our area. I surely see it in my junior high where I teach art. My students–all my classes–walk into class and avidly set up without being told. They launch into work without me having to remind them about anything, and they clean up cheerfully the same way. When I teach them new things, they are always game to give it their best try. There’s that same openness and cooperation, that high level of engagement, that sweetness and curiosity we saw in the elementary children.

From the educational internet groups I participate in, I glean the same kinds of things. The schools struggle with budgets, schedules, and personality differences; so what’s new? This is true of every organization, big and small. We don’t just say they’re all failing because of it.

It’s too easy to denounce the whole (expensive, I agree) system as broken. Of course, I would change the system, mainly getting rid of those standardized tests and going for a whole-child arts-based curriculum, like the Waldorf schools do. My desire for that doesn’t say that the system is broken, though! It’s not.



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