When I taught middle school, Grease was incredibly popular with the seventh and eighth graders. I remember discussing this with my colleagues. Why would a twenty year old movie, set twenty years before that, be so popular with the Gen-Yers?
The best theory we could come up with was that it was the ideal, pop-culture vision of what high school was “supposed” to be. It was all school dances and crushes and cliques and cars and malt shops. For middle schoolers, it was a vision of high school before the reality of 9th grade set it.
In some ways, everyone is an expert in education. Students spend about 900 hours per year in school. Over the course of a K-12 career, that’s more than 10,000 hours spent in school — enough to make anyone an expert. Our parents and legislators and chamber of commerce members and radio hosts and voters have all been to school. They know what it’s supposed to be like. A little nostalgic piece of them wants school to be like Grease. But a bigger piece wants it to be like it was when there were going to school. As institutions, public schools pass on a set of cultural norms. There’s a heritage embedded in the experience that is schooling. That heritage includes the three R’s, but it also includes football and prom and student council and 45 minutes classes and lockers and homework. Passing on that cultural heritage is a big part of what we do.
Teachers are part of this as well. Many teachers chose their profession because they, as students, had great teachers. They chose to follow in the footsteps of those role models. Back in the dark ages when I was in college, my teaching methods professor saw this as a problem. “Teachers teach the way they were taught,” he would say, “regardless of the way they were taught to teach.”
Public schools need to change. I don’t think there’s much argument on that point. When you take a look at the phenomenal change that has happened in our society over the last generation, it is ridiculous to expect that a traditional education, with a foundation in knowledge transfer from teacher to student, will meet the needs of next generation learners. We are seeing this reflected in the choices our families are making when given the opportunity. If the public school is not meeting MY child’s needs, we’ll go elsewhere.
But we need to recognize that public schools can’t change on their own, because of the cultural tradition tied up in the institution. We need to change the vision of what school is. We have to alter our society’s expectation of what it means to be educated, what it means to be a learner. The schools aren’t going to do that themselves, and they’re certainly not going to do it while facing the constant barrage of criticism about how much teachers are paid, or how many disaggregated subgroups aren’t passing the high stakes tests at sufficient levels, or how if we just looked at schools like businesses, everything would be fine.
We have to start conversations in our communities — in our LOCAL communities — about what education WAS, what education IS, and what education NEEDS TO BE for our children. In the United States, at least, education has always been a local responsibility. We need to have honest, local conversations about what a free, appropriate public education should look like for next generation students. The community needs to push the schools to define the new norm for public education, and it needs to support the schools as they pursue that new vision.
Photo credit: evmaiden on Flickr.