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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Schools – Fortresses of Uncreativity 03-04

Schools – Fortresses of Uncreativity

Friday, March 4th, 2011

A teacher whose name we shall not mention (Natalie Munroe) writes a vicious blog, calling her students all sorts of vile names. A high school fires its staff in Rhode Island. Then, that fair state fires an entire school district. 

Teachers unions are openly attacked by the governor of Wisconsin, and only teachers and their fellow unions and union supporters raise their voice in protest. Detroit announces plans to close half of its 142 public schools by 2014. High Schools across the country knock on the door of a 40% dropout rate, and many school districts in large cities have blithely waltzed through the door with well over 50% dropout rates. U.S. School children score quite poorly in standardized tests compared to students from many other nations. Functional literacy is on a severe decline. Over a quarter of the people polled on the 4th of July last year did not know that America had won its freedom from England!

What’s going on, here? Let me use one non-word in answer – uncreativity.

Okay, since I’m making the word up, I’ll need to define it. Let’s say for now that “uncreativity” is the systematic attempt to limit, negate or destroy any creative energy, idea or function. That will be our working definition, though we’re not making a bid for the dictionaries – not yet. (By the way, for those of you upset with me for using a “non-word”, stop indulging in uncreativity. You’re better than that.)

Schools are focal points for uncreativity. So are large corporations and governments. Even though (and because) each is gifted with tremendous resources and longevity, they try very hard to solve their problems with “business as usual”. After all, what was done earlier placed them in the rich position they’re in, one of power and longevity.

 Why should they change?

Politicians may dress their “solutions” to today’s issues in new jingoisms and jargon. Governments and corporations may glibly talk about their “five year plans”. Schools may proclaim the advent of “new math” and “no child left behind” – but it’s all the same old stuff, approaches that worked (or appeared to work) long ago, but today are brutal failures. I give you as evidence the remarkable failure of classrooms, testing, grading, grouping by age and grade level, homework, and the entire panoply of rotted and hoary tools the world of education insists on continuing to use despite their obvious and abysmal failure.

Can’t they do better? Can’t they create something new, a new approach that will better benefit our children? Why do these massive institutions share this unhappy trait, a reliance on and rigid adherence to some imagined glorious past? One must assume that, somewhere in their ranks, these great organizations each have at least a few creative people providing innovative solutions to current problems. So one must then also assume that the innovators are being shouted down, shut down, silenced, fired and buried.

Why would this be so?

First, large organizations tend to be backwards-looking and conservative in nature. They tend to wish to “conserve” their position and assets. They call this “consolidation”.

The principle asset of government is control, and they are doing an all-too good job of consolidating it. The principle asset of any corporation is its reputation with the public, hence billions are spent on promotion and marketing. These assets – control and reputation – lead to wherewithal, to pay day, to money. How much money did the media say Egyptian President Mubarek fled with, stolen from his people when he finally stepped down? $75,000,000,000! Now that’s successful government! Success of a sort, anyway. Not as successful as United States’ schools, whose “take” is far grander in the long term, but impressive, nonetheless.

The principle asset of any school is its student head count. Attendance leads to money and control. The more students a school has, the bigger its pay day. This is true of both public and private schools. Why are teachers instructed to take roll call first thing each class period? To make certain that each child has arrived safely? That is the public face placed on roll call. But the truth is a little less student-oriented. The money that a school makes is determined by the number of students who show up. How’s that for simplicity! Schools, like governments and corporations, are businesses.

As to control, obviously if the school can force your student to show up in a certain place at a certain time every weekday, voila! All the homework they pile on is a further effort to control, to enforce, to guarantee the school’s income line. This is every bit as true of private as of public schools. Hence, teachers and teacher unions lobby politicians and the law to enforce mandatory schooling and attendance. After all, if a child had the right to not attend a school he found dangerous, or oppressive to his own unique interests, and dominant of his time, his attention and energies – how many children would attend? Without the fearsome support of the truant officer, how much money would schools really make? As an adult, would you subject yourself to the nonsense most schools put children through if you had the option of walking away? Of course you would not, and neither would your child.

Schools are huge. School districts are crazy-huge. A school district might invest tens of millions of dollars in a given math curricula based on the recommendation of elected officials (often not “educators”), called a “school board”. When that math curricula completely fails the children in the school district, is it changed out for something more effective? Are you kidding?! Given the investment made, not to mention the added cost of teacher training to implement the failed curricula, the likelihood of a school district being able to afford such a change is damned unlikely. 

The money and time have been spent and there’s nothing left to change direction, a concept in economics called “opportunity cost”. The real cost? Your kids are stuck with what has been done before and failed before. A wonderful example of the doom contained in consolidation.

The same thing applies to the methods of schooling that have been employed for over 100 years. Example: Eliminate grading? (The administrator frowns unhappily.) But how CAN we? It’s “built in”, has been forever. (There’s a lie.) We can’t do without it; it’s how we assess progress. (No it’s not, it’s how teachers stigmatize and control students and their parents, nothing more and nothing less. The same thing is true of all tests as they are currently delivered.)

 Besides, your kid can’t get into a college without that all-important grade point average (GPA) controlled entirely by…um, the school. Right?! (Wrong. Many colleges are now admitting solely on the basis of tests they issue. This is a growing trend. And almost anyone can get into a good college after attending Jr. College for two years. That’s if college is one’s goal.) So grades and testing STAY! Don’t bug us!

Eliminate classrooms? (The administrator is now sweating and wondering why you’re still talking.) Impossible! How else should we group the vast number of children we are responsible for? How else can we control that number? (How else can we take roll?) Now be off with you! I have more important matters to deal with, like planning next year‘s sabbatical.

And what of the few teachers possessed with the courage to point out that the system has failed. Not many do protest, nor will they. They would risk their rather significant pay check, tenure, and other perks very few people in America have today. After all, who is really hurt by a teacher’s silence? (Are you groaning or laughing?) No one knows better than the teacher today how miserably failed the system is, how poorly serviced the students are. So what would a teacher’s cry in the wilderness do to this unstoppable thousand foot tidal wave of failure except to make waves and ostracize the complaining teacher? Better to stay still, stay quiet, shut up, go along.

New ideas are expensive and time-consuming. In large organizations, new ideas are often seen as dangerous, a threat to the desired status-quo. Schools are the poster child for status-quo. They are not going to change, despite increasingly dire results. Schools will not change so long as the money keeps pouring in. So they simply must continue to consolidate, and make a policy of uncreating any new approach or idea that might alter that status quo.

Schools aren’t going to change, not for the better. To most school boards and administrators, not to mention teachers, creativity is the enemy.