And About that Sinking Ship…

I recently responded in a comment to a couple of readers that I would “write more in another post” in further discussion of educating our children. I’ve decided to do that in at least 2 parts: first, I’d like to point out both the central problem and focus for the public education system (along with a few side issues); and secondly, I’ll post later this week about the version of school we’re doing in our home instead. I’ve decided to do it this way, because I want to create some distance between these two issues — enough at least to consider them separately — and give proper consideration to them as they stand alone. I’m choosing that because, although I want to educate my own children at home (to whatever degree I am able), I also want all children to have access to a successful education (for a host of reasons, I don’t want to list at present), and especially if they have no option other than public education.

To begin with, I want to assume you are up to date on the conversation at present. So if you haven’t already, please familiarize yourself with what I’ve already written on how public education is failing our kids and making parenting harder, and how the whole public education system itself is a proverbial  sinking ship. Not that I’m pessimistic about it or anything… I just happen to think that the proper place to start in any discussion about public education is with the admission that it’s absolutely not working as is.

To make that point even clearer, please allow me to share with you my experience with Rick Ackerly. Rick’s been a public school system professional and scholar for 44 years, and he’s worked in the system as a school-turn-around principal and consultant for 36 years. You’ll likely want to bookmark his website for extended perusal. I was introduced to him recently by another colleague, and he and I both wanted to chat, so I thought of “interviewing” him for the blog. I got him on the phone, and the first question I asked was, “What is the greatest challenge the public education system is facing today?” Rick, paused, then cleared his throat, and rumbled into a brief discussion about how that was “not the right question at all…” — he went on to say the place to start is with the assumption that the schools are broken, that there’s a serious problem, “and the question is what can we do to fix it?” Remember, this is straight from the man who is up to his eye balls in the system, and who has been bringing schools back from the brink even as the system itself has made his work more and more difficult.

When I pressed him further, Rick’s central thesis on education (which I’ll share with you in a moment) popped out and transformed the discussion in such a way that it was immediately obvious I needed to reframe my understanding of the terrain from his point of view before I could properly interview him. So we just talked round and round for awhile, then he encouraged me to read some of his stuff before we continued. So I have…

Rick Ackerly is clear that (and he thinks we’ve had enough experience in the system now that we can be sure) raising standards for teachers and students doesn’t work. Rick even went so far as to say that, “It’s proven that really getting tough on standards really makes things worse.” And as for “fixing the serious problem” that schools are having educating and retaining students? Rick’s got one simple, beautiful bottom line: “The basic problem is that we assume that kids don’t want to learn.” He’s convinced that if we change the focus of the education institution itself, such that, (whatever model one decides to use in any particular school) everything is done with the understanding that kids want to learn and explore, and only require challenging and empowering in order to succeed in those endeavors.

As a home educator, and someone who has spent time exploring the concept of teaching children at home, this is an idea I was familiar with in terms of a good reason to home/unschool children. I’d never heard a public educator mention a concept like this in the context of public education. And I realized that I had seriously underestimated just how radical both that notion and Mr. Ackerly are to most people. Part of the trouble we experienced in the interview, was that I assumed he was going to be more “conservative” in his approach to schools and child psychology. Sorry, Rick…

The place to look and the thing to fix first in our public education system is what kind of system it is. The system we want is one that presupposes kids are creative, and ravenous to explore. The system we want is one that arranges itself solely to facilitate these two inherencies in the children involved. The system we want is one that offers children the opportunity to become their own authorities — on themselves, on their own lives, and their own interests. We want a system that empowers children to discover their world, and their own places in it. We want a system that aids us in equipping our children to become self-actualized adults.

I believe this means we cease and desist all standardized testing. I believe it also means we cease grading students and what they produce. We cease giving them hours of homework. We cease any action that belies a mistrust in children’s natural drives and abilities to learn. We cease treating them as imbecilic miscreants who must be spoon- or force-fed every piece of information we ever want them to get. And we cease and desist making them spend all their time proving to us that they “know” all the stuff we’ve crammed into their heads.

The public education system in America doesn’t have to be like it is now, and it doesn’t have to fail so miserably. We don’t have to lose nearly 30% of our students before graduation. We don’t have to squeeze students through years of grading, testing, and rating, only to still have them graduate unable to write a decent sentence. We don’t have to leave kids so poorly off at the end of their high school career that they cannot even qualify for the military. We don’t have to leave them stunted by or stuck with a system where of those graduating high school only an average of 24% are prepared to study at a 4 year college. Yes, you read that correctly, of all the students that actually make it through public high school and graduate, and intend to go to college, and therefore, proceed to take the college entrance exam known as the ACT (that’s 47% of the total number of graduating seniors), less than one quarter of them are even ready to go and begin work on a Bachelor’s Degree.

But that doesn’t have to be our story.

With one simple adjustment to our focus, one change in the trajectory of our approach, we can unlock the potential that we are now party to destroying.  We simply have to assume that children want to learn, and approach teaching them with the intention of nurturing their own motivation, challenging their own interest(s), and spurring their own thirst for knowledge, skill, and mastery. Every human was born to learn. As Rick Ackerly put it in our phone conversation, when it comes to educating them we just have to “act as if it’s a natural act instead of an unnatural one…” And we both agree that this is the pivotal piece to the transformation necessary in the public education system, and the keystone to the mounting education revolution.

I haven’t asked Rick, yet, but I think some further considerations for the new face of public education would be:

  • How late can we wait before children have to begin formal education? Currently, we push early education in the U.S., especially for the poor, but that push doesn’t seem to be helping us or them. I would argue that if we, instead, encouraged healthier, long term parent-child bonding, and/or more extended family bonding, that our students would all wind up better off in the long run (i.e. intellectually, emotionally, and socially). Montessori schools have been pretty good at showing that students who learn to read later are no less capable than ones who learn earlier (and there is actually some evidence of the opposite).
  • How can we accommodate better teacher to student ratios? Our public educators are outnumbered 30 to 1 in many cases. Now, teachers are bogged down trying to manage crowds in every classroom, instead of being able to spend enough time with any student to challenge and empower him in his explorations. Whether its with aides who all report to a head teacher, or class down-sizing and hiring of new teachers, or some other ingenious method — how can we get those ratios down?
  • How do we bring emotional intelligence and empathy into public education?
  • How do we give the students enough? How will we accommodate their drive(s)?
  • How will we measure or refer to progress without relentlessly testing, patronizing, or trying to manipulate students, and without standardizing our methods or our perspective on what works?
  • How will we keep student’s families in the education loop (without homework)?

If we can adjust our focus in the above way(s), and begin to address some of the corollary considerations mentioned, I think we can build a new ship of education that our children could sail around the world. If we give them the trust and the right challenges, our children can become the most potently educated in history. If we can change the above things in our public education system, I’d probably even let my kids go there…

Now we just have to find a Commander in Chief brave enough to let us blow up the old Titanic of public education so we can get busy building that new ship…


Be well.


And just in case you’re wondering… I do still have plans to successfully interview Rick. I’ll be sure to post it here when I do. In the meantime, let me know if there’s anything you want me to ask him…



About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
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2 Responses to And About that Sinking Ship…

  1. kloppenmum says:

    Great post, Nathan. A later start to academics works well in the Waldorf/Steiner system, too.
    I think what most people don’t realise is that most state education systems are based on what Plato wanted. That is, an education system that turns out academics to run the country, lots of public servants to support the academics, soldiers, good employees, and citizens who are compliant. Being an academic, a public servant, a soldier or a good employee aren’t necessarily bad in themselves – but as the sole aims for a whole education approach… We can say we’ve given Plato a good shot, and I think we can say his idea hasn’t worked.
    Also, very anti-homework here. Looking forward to learning more about your take on unschooling.

  2. Good post. I have to say though that the failing education system is only the tip of the iceberg. You touched on it briefly when you mentioned encouraging healthier long term parent child bonding.

    I do believe one of the biggest problems faced by the education system is that many children entering it do not have a healthy parent-child bond. Many of them entering are there to fulfill their parent’s dreams and expectations. It doesn’t matter whether they have any interest in the particular area or not, their parents do and that’s enough. Many children are there simply because their parents need a break, need a babysitter. Or plain and simple want someone else to teach their children to behave differently.

    If parents were taught how to parent in a positive nurturing manner prior to having children, given more support (without threat) during the first five years, then I think the system could change a lot easier. As it is, by the time children enter the system many of them have already lost their natural curiosity, many no longer WANT to learn. And that makes it impossible to change the system.


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