Department of English

Spring 2011 Edition

Academic Regeneration

Rachel Mitsvotai
Argumentative 1010 2nd Place
Professor: Joe Willis

Within the realm of public school systems there lies a myriad of problems, but what is the solution? In John Taylor Gatto's essay "Against School," it sounds as if the whole public school system's goal is to limit the intelligence of the public in an effort to create a manageable society. He mentions the success of students who are home-taught in comparison to those who go through the public school system. He leads one to believe that public schooling could be more harmful and wasteful than helpful and useful; that society could be better off without it. In many ways, the public school system has areas of weakness that need to be fixed; however, it must maintain balance. There are many who have separated themselves from the public school system and reverted back to home-schooling that have great ideas and have found great success. Evidence shows most home-schooled students do very well on achievement tests, often outperforming their public school peers (Romanowski). On the other hand, it is a concern that home schooling centers on issues of individual rights and private benefits, rather than the public good (Lubienski). This is a legitimate concern since the general public sees public school as a way to ensure that every child is given an education. There lies a way to create a school system that envelops the benefits of private schools while maintaining the welfare and good of the public as a whole. Its true purpose should be to produce a successful, intellectual, intelligent, and productive society. In order to provide proper reform, home-school parents and public school educators need to understand each other's responsibilities (Romanowski). It is necessary that the public school system be reformed, yet the positive changes being made will require cooperation of public and private schools, home-schoolers, and especially the parents of students. Public schooling has a plethora of problems in an array of areas that need to be changed in order to create a more productive society, but since it is unnecessary and unrealistic to abolish the whole public school system, we must find a way to fix the problems by reforming and changing the current system.

Why does public schooling need reform? First of all, the rate of success in the school system is too low. It's frightening to consider the rate of high school dropouts in the country and the small percentage who actually go on to gain a higher education and a college degree. Three out of ten U.S. public school students don't even graduate from high school, and only about half (52 percent) of students in the principal school systems of the 50 largest cities complete high school with a diploma ("1 of 2 Students Graduate"). Statistics such as these make it clear that there are problems and changes need to be made in the schools. Some problematic areas include wasted time, grading systems, bad teachers, and emotional aspects, such as a physically unsafe environment and a malignant academic work place.

Wasted time was something I noticed in my public school experience; not only in the classroom, but also in some of the assignments given.

In class, too much time is wasted on useless topics. The quality of education has been sacrificed for quantity, and as a result, academic inflation and the devaluation of information has turned intellectual ambition into apathy and bright minds into gray mush… Fact of the matter is that at least 3/4 of the time spent in school is waste. ("Horrors of Public Education")

Students should know the objective behind whatever subject they are studying and assignments should have specific purposes. A good way to make assignments more productive is class presentations because if a student has to explain something, they have to really know more about it.

The grading system becomes a problem because for the students, fulfilling requirements and getting a good grade too often becomes the purpose and focus of being in school. In Alfie Kohn's essay "From Degrading to De-grading" he explains that "grades tend to reduce the student's interest in the learning itself.…the more people are rewarded for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward." The amount of work given is huge compared to what a student actually learns from it. All of this busy work given to students puts them under stress. The waste of time is combined with the pressure of the grade causing students to just get by with minimum effort.

There are multiple consequences to this program of quantity over quality. Children are under a lot of stress nowadays in schools due to this, and as a consequence they shift into a survival mode…This survival mode consists of taking shortcuts and getting by with the least amount of effort possible… Grades become an ends to a means, and studying is only applied toward taking the test, but not for retention thereafter. ("Horrors of Public Education")

So much pointless homework also deprives children of free time to spend at home, which often causes them to be imbalanced and dysfunctional.

Another problem many students face is that approximately 10% of public school teachers are incompetent. They lack proper training and tend to develop negative relationships with students causing them to have a bad experience in the class and dislike that particular subject ("Actual Incidence of Incompetent Teachers"). This applies directly to the high rate of high school dropouts. It is extremely frustrating for a student to feel his or her teacher is underqualified, or to feel as if he or she doesn't know much about the subject or don't enjoy teaching it. When school seems like a waste of time, the motivation is destroyed. Many students that dropout of high school are not academically challenged. They only lose interest in school ("High School Dropout"). A key action in improving public education is found in hiring quality instructors as well as eliminating those who are causing problems. "Recruiting, training, and encouraging good teachers will go a long way toward improving public schools, but not far enough. The second, uglier task is to get rid of teachers who aren't doing their jobs" (Shenk).

In Gatto's essay, he lists six basic flaws of modern schooling as its actual purpose. The first is what he calls the adjustive or adaptive function, which has to do with boredom. Basically, since many of the assignments given are pointless, boring, busy work, this then creates habits in the students of reaction to authority, which is not necessarily a good thing. One of the goals of an education program should be to create members of society who are independent, not the opposite. If students complete the assignments despite whether it seems to be foolish or a waste of time, they are rewarded. The motivation comes from knowing that if they fail to complete it on time they will get a bad grade. This acts as a label to the world of their apparent lack of intellectual knowledge and scholastic success. Society is trained to relate the idea of success with "schooling." An individual's level of success is usually rated by his or her level of achievement in school—a certificate or degree. Oftentimes, their actual ability to apply that knowledge is overlooked.

One advantage private schools have over public schools is simply the smaller size and number of students, which creates a more personal learning environment. Several high schools across the country have used this strategy in school reform:

Small high school start-ups have been designed to help teachers personalize instruction and meet students' needs as learners. A number of large, comprehensive high schools have 'converted' into small schools or small learning communities to remove the structural barriers that impede effective teaching and learning and to use more student-centered instructional pedagogies. (Feldman, Lopez, & Simon)

Viadreo argued that smaller schools can reap benefits simply as a result of teachers having smaller student loads and greater opportunity for one-on-one conversations" (291). So part of public school reform should be to minimize the size of each public school, or at least limiting class sizes to promote these "one-on-one" teacher-student discussions.

Providing students with applicable knowledge is one of many ways to spark their interest, motivating them to learn, and to do well in school. In high school, I remember students always asking the question, "How am I ever going to use this when I'm done?" Teachers should get students involved with learning the skills they may enjoy and know are worthwhile, not only useless requirements or a conforming program that is the same for everyone. Other possible ways to improve motivation and success of individual students could include identifying students with special needs and providing personal contact with somebody in the school, namely tutors or mentors. Generally, at a public school, students are taught to think, act, and talk obediently and in a politically correct way. The goal is to be like everybody else so you will fit in with society: "…you spend more time learning how to obey and what to think, instead of and how to think and think for yourself" ("Horrors of Public Education"). This can cause problems with students feeling like they don't fit in and give them reasons to give up and quit:

When you see a student, what you're really seeing is someone low on ambition and initiative, but starving for recognition and self-esteem…Knowledge, having been made into the source of his distress, is put at the bottom of his list of priorities, as he has to do whatever is possible to regain his self esteem, recognition, and peace of mind.

The use of personal tutors and mentors in the public schools would help with this problem. It would enable students to have more one-on-one discussion about the curriculum, helping them to better understand. This would then lower their stress level and give them a greater motivation for learning.

Students get frustrated when they are forced to repeat tasks in areas where their performance is inadequate. It would help to make school more a place of freedom than a prison. It should be a safe place physically, educationally, and emotionally so they know they can be successful ("High School Dropout"). Students that are taught privately or at home seem to get opportunities like these more often, partially due to the fact that they have a positive relationship with their parents as opposed to the relationship many students have with their teachers. Home-schooling has an all around safe environment, along with several other aspects previously mentioned that should be considered and emulated by the public schools. I feel like I can honestly attest to this because I experienced an education at home.

I was home-schooled through 7th grade and then I went to high school, so I experienced a public, compulsory, mandatory schooling environment with the ability to compare it to a free, home, educational environment. Some of the aspects I really enjoyed about being home-taught were the all-around safety of the environment, the freedom to choose curriculum, and the ability to have more one-on-one attention. Since my mom taught us, she was always there to explain things and help us understand the lessons. One of the problems about the whole idea of compulsory education is that it is forced and manipulative. Students are told exactly what classes to take, what to study, and are required to do certain assignments. The freedom of creativity and the choices that are eliminated take away their motivation for learning. This leads to the reality that many students don't even get the general, "dumbed down" education that is required (Gatto 437). They may be exceptionally smart, have the potential to think critically and to come up with brilliant ideas, but since they aren't motivated, their minds turn off and they focus only on fulfilling requirements for a grade. This they do seeking the dignity and social status of a high GPA and avoid the label and placement of the unfit. As I reflect back on my public high school experience, I find it to be true that the grading system can be an obstacle for learning and a false reflection of the amount of knowledge a student actually gets out of a class; how well they know the subject isn't determined solely by such measurements. With the desire to prove myself as a successful student, I was obsessed with grades. The most important thing to me was that I received an A in all my classes. Now I feel like I need to take some of the classes over. Most of the knowledge that stuck with me was the education I received at home. Reflecting on my experience leads me to wonder whether it is really necessary to require children to go to school.

Some of the most brilliant thinkers of America were not products of a public school system. Among these are most of the minds that founded and organized this country—George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, etc. "Plenty of people throughout the world today find a way to educate themselves without resorting to a system of compulsory secondary schools that all too often resemble prisons" (Gatto 508). School should not be comparable to prison, but sadly, it is in some ways. For most students, going to school is a chore; it should be the exact opposite. Gaining knowledge should be an exciting privilege. It should increase a student's freedom, increase their capacity to think outside the box and make a difference in the world, and enable them to teach themselves.

The government purposely limits the education of students in order to create a manageable society (Gatto 509). It is as if they are afraid of people becoming too smart for the more knowledge a person gains, the more powerful that person becomes:

…we have so eagerly adopted one of the very worst aspects of Prussian culture: an educational system deliberately designed to produce mediocre intellects, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students appreciable leadership skills and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens in order to render the populace 'manageable.' (Gatto 509)

Education should create influential, productive, successful members of society not "manageable" robots. It is believable to me that public education could be used as a tool to manage society by creating equality of education and instilling certain beliefs and habits into the public whole. Public, compulsory schooling discourages creative and independent thinking. Students should be taught to think for themselves. Public school administrators and faculty should know about these flaws and do something about it. Knowledge is power and students should be empowered with the greatest amount of knowledge they are mentally able to attain. This will enable them to become spectacular, influential additions to society. That is what we need in America. The solution is not necessarily found in the total abolishment of the public school system and reverting back to home-schooling; that may be the solution for certain families, but for the public as a whole, what needs to be done is some wise reform and cooperation.

Cooperation is needed in order to adopt the advantageous aspects of home and private school into the public school system. "The most common--and most damaging--conflict between public school educators and parents who opt to home-school is the "us versus them" attitude grounded in their limited and often negative experiences with each other" (Romanowski). If public and private school teachers, along with home school teachers would each humble themselves enough to work together for the better of one another, to share resources and ideas, maybe then significant changes could really be made that would improve our school system and the quality of an education that a student receives.

Works Cited
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