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Hard to Read

I offered a copy of my 2018 book, The Education Kids Deserve, to an acquaintance with a long career in public education. I looked forward to her feedback, to her honest assessment on what I had written.

Crickets. Many months went by without any response what-so-ever. Good. Bad. Indifferent. Nothing. Only pregnant silence.

At a social gathering, I found the occasion to ask: “Did you read my book? What did you think?” After a thoughtful pause, I heard from her the following phrase: “It was hard to read.”

Those five words put me back on my heels. “It was hard to read.” What did that mean? As much as I wanted to probe, the circumstance was not conducive for a round of professional discourse. So, I concluded the evening with a resounding, and unanswered, “it was hard to read” rattling in my head.

I have elected to not pursue a reprise of that stunning pronouncement. Rather, I have pondered her response in silent reflection. Was it my writing style? Perhaps. My wife suggests that, at times, I am too clinical, too rich in inside jargon. Or was I too casual, or too direct, or too (I don’t know what) that made it “hard to read?” I have asked myself these questions over and over; trying to understand while avoiding an additional confrontational encounter. But I think I have figured it out.

Thoughtful reflection will do that – offering clarity from a hazy cloud.

Educators do what they do with tremendous pride. They define their existence with the phrase “I am a teacher.” Let’s get this right. “I am a teacher.” It’s not a job. It’s certainly not a path to riches. Teaching, when done for the right reasons, is a calling. And for those folks, it’s an endeavor that they take very personally.

So, here comes a guy who offers a provocative critique on the state of education in our country. He has the audacity to look at the failed promises (and faulty rationale) contained in the history of American public education policy decisions. Here is an author who offers a degree of criticism regarding the assumptions and practices that prevail in classrooms across the nation. He questions whether these practices are contemporary and relevant to 21st century learners, he laments that student curiosity and creativity are under tapped resources and that maybe, just maybe, there is a better way to educate today’s children beyond the treasured status quo. He even goes so far as to suggest that our current over reliance on standardized expectations and standardized testing are actually interfering with effective instruction.

But I do not criticize teachers. Perhaps my reader should have turned a few more pages. Because the pretext of my assessment on the state of contemporary education does not lay blame with teachers. Quite the opposite. Teachers are champions. They toil daily with heart, grit and vision. Even my most potentially critical comment, “we teach as we were taught,” is a reflection that in the absence of another approach, teachers will rely on what they know. What worked for them. What they are comfortable with. Who wouldn’t operate within these paradigms in the absence of leadership that might lead to other directions?

The failure of our 21st century educational systems rests squarely there: systems. Systems are those structures that humans create to define and articulate the complexities of their daily existence. We create structures as a way of assuring safety and predictability: both are critical components of how we navigate our current reality. We need systems as an antidote to chaos. Systems assure stability. They suggest confidence, context and calm.

Systems, created by humans, remind us that humans have created what we toil and operate under. We made them. We can re-make them. We are not victims. We own our systems.

Systems might dangerously suggest complacency, an over reliance on the comfort of the status quo. Just because it worked yesterday, doesn’t assure that it will work today.

Systems exist for a specific purpose. So, what do current educational systems suggest?

· All kids can learn if offered an identical platform of experience. Kids will thrive in systems of equality.

· A personalized education is cumbersome and not practical. Systems of true equity are not reasonable.

· We can effectively assess student achievement through standardized approaches and tools.

· A systemized approach will yield tangible operational and instructional efficiencies.


Let me be abundantly clear. What we need to examine are not practices. What we need to desperately reexamine are systems, the systems that define, and control, what kids experience today, every day, in our classrooms.

It’s not teaching that is broken. It’s the systems that prescribe teaching that are broken. I return again to the wisdom of Tony Wagner, from his 2008 book The Global Achievement Gap: “Teaching all students to think and be curious is much more than a technical problem for which educators, alone, are accountable. More professional development for teachers and better textbooks and tests, though necessary, are insufficient as solutions. The problem goes much deeper - to the very way we conceive of the purpose and experience of schooling and what we expect our high school graduates to know and be able to do.”

Turn the page, my reluctant reader. Explore further, for it’s not you. It’s the system you operate in that hampers your instructional relevance, your effectiveness, and the student outcomes you strive to achieve.

It’s the system that is depriving children of The Education Kids Deserve. A system that is changeable if we have the vision and the will.


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