Public Education Will Succeed When We Stop Forcing Horses to Drink

Horses will drink when they are thirsty, and students will learn when they have need of knowledge.

Every Horse Lover Knows You Can Bring a Horse to Water, but You Can’t Make Him Drink.

Horses will drink when they are thirsty, and students will learn when they have need of knowledge.

Public Education is Built on the False Premise that We Can Make Unwilling Students Learn.

In 1992, I left public education convinced the system was too broken to fix.  I loved learning.  I loved teaching.  I loved kids.  But too much of my time as a teacher centered around management of a few unruly students who simply did not want to be there.

Team teaching was in vogue at the time, so I worked daily with six teachers who shared 160 students.  The majority of these students were pleasant and inspiring to work with.  However, it was not uncommon to have a couple dozen kids among us who did not turn in a single assignment the entire year.   These kids were not pleasant at all.  No amount of parent contact, team conferences, individualized plans, or other interventions would change the outcome for these kids, because they did not value education.

A Rebel Who Hated School Became a Great Student Once He Found His Own Reason to Learn.

As I observed these teenage rebels who did not want to learn, I often thought about my own brother.  When we were children, none of us loved school, but my youngest brother absolutely hated it.  The teachers, in his mind, could do nothing right.  My brother never listened to them, and he was always getting in trouble.  My poor mother spent hours meeting with his school counselor.  She also picked my brother up from police stations and enrolled him intervention programs that we never discussed as a family.

Even I would sit up with my brother, on those rare occasions when he pledged to do better, and try to catch him up on homework he’d avoided all year. Sometimes, I sat with him for hours on end, explaining algebra, practicing problems, and checking his answers.  Yet even after a long night of study and an excellent assignment, my brother would skip school the next day and never turn in his homework.  He dropped out of high school his junior year.

The irony of this story is that dropping out of school was the best thing that ever happened to my brother.  Since he didn’t have to attend school, he got a job on a well drilling crew.  A few years later, he left the crew–they drank too much, and he started working road construction.  Finally, he sold frozen foods.

My brother worked hard.  Very hard.  And then one day in his early twenties, he decided it was time to go back to school. He completed a GED, enrolled at the university, and was holding a 4.0 average by the end of his first year.   He earned his A’s despite the fact that he also discovered a bad case of dyslexia-a condition that perhaps explained his frustration years earlier in public school.   You see, life and liberty had taught my brother the value of an education, in a way that no teacher could.  Once my brother wanted to learn, no amount of dyslexia could stop him.

It is worth noting that my brother’s foray in the school of hard knocks not only spared his teachers and the assistant principal from having to deal with his misbehavior, it also saved the taxpayer from paying for him to spend days in ISS (in-school suspension), but by working, my brother was actually paying taxes, bringing food and water to people in his community, and building highways!

Viewing Forced Education as a Violation of Basic Freedoms Changes the Way We Look at Kids Who Fail to Perform.

Growing up, I always thought there was something terribly wrong with my brother.  I didn’t understand why he was so angry, or why he acted out so much, or showed such little respect for those around him.

After I started teaching school, and observing those kids, who like my brother, were not ready to learn, my perspective slowly changed.   It slowly became obvious to me that there was something downright unethical about forcing students into classrooms that don’t meet the student’s needs and interests.  It is presumptuous to assume that we know the best time, and the best manner, in which all children should learn.  Education is a precious gift, and most children understand their need for it well enough to cooperate, even on those days when they would rather be somewhere else.   But even our favorite, most nourishing foods are nauseating when they are crammed down our throats.   Forcing education on an unwilling student makes as much sense as force feeding a toddler, or tugging on a horse’s reins to make him drink.  Note only is it grossly inefficient, it is also a violation of the child’s basic dignity, promoted by a lack of respect for the right to liberty and self determination.

As a teacher, when I observed the resources that went into helping unwilling Johnnys read, while students who wanted to learn patiently waited for attention, I would scratch my head in bewilderment.  I could not understand why the so called experts in education couldn’t see what was so painfully evident to me.  Forcing students to attend school against their will is both a tremendous waste of resources and a violation of the student’s freedom.

I knew my views were more radical than the system would allow, so I left the public schools, thinking I would never return.  But life takes us down strange paths.   Today, I look at our economy, our environment, and our healthcare crisis, and I consider the fact that each one of these domains is in disarray because of bad decisions made by individuals, corporations, and governments who don’t understand the consequences of their actions.  In essence, we are driving our society towards collapse, because we aren’t thinking properly.    We are falling because we lack the education necessary to understand the long term consequences of our actions.   So I find myself today, revisiting the educational process.

Standardized Tests Have Reduced Learning

Today, pubic education has fallen so much farther than in the 1990’s.

Then, teachers promoted reading.  Today, teachers promote highlighting, memorizing main points, and passing tests.  Teachers are tired.  Students are tired.  Taxpayers are tired.  Yet the stakes for effective public education have never been higher.   We have such grave need today for students who understand no only what the newest technologies are, but also how to evaluate the long term health, economic, and environmental consequences of their use.   We don’t need test takers.  We need holistic thinkers who can assess complex problems, and can exhibit the discipline needed to execute long term solutions.

The Schools of Tomorrow Will Invite Students to Attend

Education offered without force is an apple in anyone's eye.

Education offered without force is an apple in anyone’s eye.

It is my belief that the schools of tomorrow can produce students that quickly repair our healthcare, our economy, and our environment.  They can do so by allowing students the opportunity for self determination.   This includes allowing students the right to fail.

Instead of teaching and reteaching the same content to students who did not listen yesterday, teachers will have the opportunity to race ahead with the motivated students, and allow those who don’t get it to try a different class.  Students who don’t get it will have the freedom to choose a different teacher.  And teen students who simply don’t want to be in school will have the opportunity to work with their families to find suitable alternatives.

Once school becomes a choice, rather than a mandate, education will be sweeter for everyone involved. Teachers will enjoy their work.  Students will value what they learn.  Parents will take a more active role in helping their sons and daughters choose schools and teachers who best bring out their son or daughter’s potential. And those kids who drop out?  Let them hang out with their parents and learn from people in their communities.  Put them to work.  Let them experience what life without an education is like.  As soon as the student becomes thirsty enough, he or she will participate willingly in the learning process.

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