Was our nation at risk in 1983? Are we still at risk? Not to the extent stated by the commission. While our schools have improved only slightly, as a nation, we have maintained a pre-eminent position in the world economy, although many workers within our society are beginning to feel the effects of competing with well-educated workers from other countries who are willing to work for less money. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we are in an even stronger position militarily than we were in 1983. That doesn’t mean that there is no crisis in education. Although no “unfriendly foreign power” has “impose(d) on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today…” an “act of war” has been committed. This war is being fought in our classrooms. Teachers are trying to get students to learn as much as possible, and students are trying to learn no more than necessary to get by. Unfortunately for many students, they are winning, and when students win this war, they lose. They find themselves, as adults, handicapped by a poor education—unable to read or write well enough to communicate effectively and ignorant of important concepts and ideas that shape the human experience.
The three Rs as traditionally listed are “reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic. Writing actually begins with a “w.” Arithmetic begins with an “a.” Reading, of course, does begin with an “r.” The acronym that is formed with these alterations is WAR. We could end this war by focusing on three genuine Rs: receiving information, reflecting, and responding:
Reading is still the best way to receive most information. With the words fixed on the page, it is easier to pause to consider ideas or concepts being presented, or to re-read passages that are difficult to comprehend. As a result of technology, there are other means of didactic instruction available. We can make effective use of audio-visual resources without losing sight of the importance of learning to read well enough to comprehend important concepts and ideas.
Responding to reading selections in writing should be a regular activity. Writing promotes clear thinking and provides an opportunity for the writer (or others) to consider and reconsider, thoughts, ideas, beliefs, or concepts that are being communicated. Students can also respond to readings or other instructional input by other means—orally, through a work of art, by producing a video, etc.
The basic element of learning that is left out of the traditional version of the three Rs is reflection. Within the typical school day very little time is devoted to having students think about what they have read, or seen, or heard. Quiet reflection is an important part of the learning process and should be emphasized, rather than minimized.
If students develop their abilities to receive information, reflect on the ideas and concepts presented, and respond with carefully considered thoughts of their own, they will be capable of learning anything else they need to learn. By allowing students greater freedom to select the topics they study, we can assist them in this process without damaging or destroying their natural love of learning.
Until we develop a system of public education that is in harmony with the simple truth that we learn most effectively when we are learning something we want to learn, or recognize a need to learn, we will accomplish nothing more than putting fresh coats of paint on a structure with a crumbling foundation. We have imposed a system of compulsory education on our children that is incompatible with life in a country that calls itself “ The Land of the Free.” In doing so, we have caused real harm to many of our children by forcing them to engage in educational activities that do not meet the criteria of need or interest, by forcing them to compete for grades, and by labeling them as failures. Children who enter our public schools are at risk! They are in danger of losing their love of learning. We can, and must, do better!
The bottom line is that force-feeding information to students who are motivated solely by external rewards, if in fact they are motivated at all, will not work. Even if a student, in return for points, grades, or some other external reward, manages to memorize a series of bits and bytes of information long enough to successfully regurgitate them on a test, in the vast majority of cases whatever is learned will soon be forgotten because it is not relevant to the daily lives of the learners and is not utilized. The phrase “use it or lose it” applies with a vengeance where learning is concerned. Retention of what we have learned is much more likely when we utilize the skills developed, and the knowledge acquired, on a continuing basis.
Discussions of the problems facing our educational system have been clouded by rhetoric and a reluctance to acknowledge unpleasant realities. We talk about “leaving no child behind,” but we are less likely to achieve the stated goal of having one hundred percent of our students achieve at the “proficient” level on rigorous standardized tests than we are to eliminate crime or war. We are working with a very simple formula: Talent + effort = achievement. We cannot alter the fact that some students have learning disabilities which prevent them from being capable of achieving “proficiency.” Getting students to work harder is the only way to realize significant improvements in student achievement. Grades, and the rewards associated with them, have not proven effective with many students. Nurturing a genuine love of learning is a much more reliable means of motivating students to consistently work to the limits of their abilities.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to leave fewer children behind. Our present system leaves far too many people behind. Students who drop out of school are left behind. Students who graduate without acquiring the skills and knowledge needed to participate fully and productively as adult members of our society are left behind very quickly after graduation. Sooner or later, adults with no interest in life-long learning are also left behind. We cannot eliminate natural differences in aptitude, but we can provide opportunities for every member of our society to do their best to “catch up” if they want to, regardless of their age or income level. If we leave the doors of our schoolhouses open to students of all ages and provide courses, seminars, workshops, and other educational activities that address the genuine needs and interests of the public, we can accomplish much more than we do now.
Our schools are falling far short of accomplishing what should be their primary mission—preparing students for effective participation in civic affairs. Uneducated and under-educated individuals are acting as an anchor, holding us back as we strive to fulfill our promise as a nation. We must act now and act decisively to reduce their numbers. Democracy cannot be an effective form of government if only an elite few succeed in becoming well-educated. It can, in fact, be a dangerous form of government if ill-informed public opinion finds its way into law. Our nation will reap tremendous benefits if we succeed in developing citizens who have acquired the knowledge and developed the skills needed for informed citizenship.
We “teach” students about the values and beliefs that must be shared if democracy is to be an effective form of government but refuse to allow them the opportunity to gain practical experience in exercising the rights and responsibilities of citizens. Instead of mimicking the work week and the workplace, our schools should be democratic communities. Allowing students to participate in genuine decision-making within our schools is the most effective way to help them develop and refine their ability to make informed decisions—an ability that will improve the quality of their lives in many ways.
There has been a broad consensus, for some time now, that our educational system is in dire need of reform. A number of well-intentioned, but piecemeal, and largely ineffective, adjustments have been made in the way we conduct the business of education in the United States. Some of these reforms have resulted in pockets of slight improvement. Up to this point, however, we have not been willing to implement the type of basic, fundamental changes that will be needed to change students’ perceptions of school and learning. That is an absolute necessity if we hope to convince them to devote more time and effort to the process of acquiring an education.
The reforms proposed herein might be considered radical by some, and per- haps they are. They are also logical, reasonable, and necessary. Many people are afraid of change, particularly the sort of fundamental, structural changes that will be necessary to change the attitude of students toward school and learning. However, none of these reforms would be imposed upon anybody. Students and parents who are happy with the status quo would not be forced to abandon the current system. With the assurance that no changes will be forced upon them, they should be willing to support meaningful alternatives for those students and parents who do not feel well-served by the system that is in place. While there is some synergy between the reforms proposed herein, it is possible to implement some of them without implementing all of them. Students and their parents should be given the freedom to select the alternatives that seem most appropriate to them.
For over two hundred years, our nation has been proving that freedom and democracy work. The philosophical foundation of our educational system should be based on, and in harmony with, our fundamental beliefs and values. We must allow students (and their parents) the right to make the fundamental decisions that collectively determine the nature of their school experience. Those of us who believe in freedom and democracy should be allowed to act upon our beliefs. If students, parents, and educators unite in support of meaningful reforms, change will come.