Think about the early history of public education when a one-room schoolhouse, staffed by one teacher, was responsible for teaching a classroom of students from ages 6 to 17, all at different points on the learning continuum, with different abilities and objectives. Some students might have hoped to attend college while others needed to learn enough that they could work and someday take over responsibility for the family farm.
In this environment, the sole teacher had a clear purpose or mission. It was “to help each student learn as much as they could, at their own best pace, according to their own life’s goals.” Can you imagine that there was ever a time when teachers of that period pushed a student on to a new lesson before they were ready; before they understood and were able to apply the knowledge gained from a current lesson?
It was easy for these teachers to avoid being distracted from their purpose. There were no secondary agendas with which they were forced to deal.
Now, think about what happens as a community grows and the number of children of school age multiplies to a point where the community needs a school with a dozen classrooms and enough teachers to staff those classrooms. Do you think the decision makers, in those early years, decided to alter the purpose for which the school existed? Almost certainly they did not. They had every intention of continuing their efforts so that each child would “learn as much as they were able,” given their unique set of abilities, at their own pace, and in pursuit of their personal academic objectives and future goals.
At some point along the evolutionary development and growth of public education, however, administrators found that managing the actual operation of their school(s) was becoming more challenging. This is not a phenomenon unique to education. This happens in every type of organization that exists to produce a product or service. The larger an organization grows and the more people it involves, the more complex it will be and, therefore, the more challenging to manage and lead.
The precise way it happened does not matter, now, because it could have happened in any number of ways. What we must understand is that somewhere, at some time, an administrator decided it would be easier to organize and manage a school operation and easier for teachers to teach their students in their classrooms, if we organized students according to age. It would only seem natural, along the way, for teachers and/or administrators to also see a benefit if teachers were to teach children of that same age, every school year, because each age presents different challenges.
The next step in the evolution of this logic may have been to identify each age group and their teachers by “grade level.” These changes may or may not have happened quickly, but it would be only a matter of time before it would occur, to someone, that if each grade level is made up of children of the same age, maybe they should all be learning the same material.
It is likely that there was never a conscious decision to sacrifice the fundamental purpose or mission of schools that “all children learn as much as they are able.” No doubt, just the opposite was true, and educators and policy makers made the logical leap that the more effectively and efficiently they were able to run their school operation, the better things would be for their students and teachers.
I can almost hear the echoes of teachers expressing concern that if we move his or her class along a path outlined by academic standards, from lesson to lesson based on the way textbooks are organized, that some kids may have trouble keeping up. Teachers are, no matter what some critics would say, genuinely concerned about the welfare of their students and have a sincere desire that each of them is successful.
It is, also, easy to hear the echoes of school principals and other administrators, urging teachers not to worry. “There will be opportunities to spend extra time with those students who are struggling, to make certain that they do not fall behind.” The reader can also be assured that that such assertions were not disingenuous. After all, it was perceived that the number of such students would be small and well within an individual teacher’s ability to accommodate.
Such events in which one’s purpose is sacrificed for administrative efficiency or organizational convenience happen with such subtlety that most of the actors are unaware that anything has changed at all. It is only later, when the demographics of the population served by a school have changed and the number of children who struggle to keep up grows to a point that they can no longer be ignored and, that a teacher’s ability to respond, effectively, is compromised. Amid these evolving developments, I’m sure most teachers can recall occasions when the response from administrators, to their queries, was to “work a little harder.” Easy for them to say, particularly if they are the sort of administrators who have forgotten what it is like to be a teacher in a classroom.
Unfortunately, even the best leaders, those who are willing to work with teachers to help them find a way to provide the extra attention that some of their students require, are unaware that, gradually, the education process with its structure, standards, and arbitrary schedules, has re-prioritized the entire purpose of the institution of public education.
This is not the fault of leaders, individually, and this type of bureaucratization of organizations is common across all venues. The larger organizations grow the more bureaucratic they become, the more likely it is that an organization’s primary purpose will be marginalized by secondary agendas. The fault lies with the institutions of higher education that do not provide students who will become leaders of organizations, irrespective of venue, with the skills they will need to lead people and to understand the ubiquitous principles of organizational dynamics; principles by which all human organizations are governed. Colleges of education in our nation’s universities are not the only programs that fail to prepare their students for future leadership responsibility. In any organization, it is leadership that determines the quality of outcomes.
Throughout our nation, the fundamental purpose of our public schools, “that all children learn as much as they are able,” has been sacrificed for administrative efficiency, organizational convenience, and the arbitrary schedules on which our public schools rely. This is also true in private, parochial, and charter schools. Why else would the dedicated men and women who teach our children be willing to accept a reality in which they must tell children, through their actions if not their words:
• “I’m so sorry to give you a failing grade!”
• “I know you are not ready to move on to the next lesson, but I have no more time to give you.”
The subtler but equally disturbing messages that educators are sending are:
• “I know that because you do not understand this lesson, future lessons will be more difficult for you!”
• “Yes, I know these failing grades will follow you throughout the rest of your time in school and I understand that they will color the expectations that your future teachers will set for you.”
• “Yes, I know there is a limit to how much failure you can handle before you give up and stop trying.”
Taking the time to make sure students understand and to help them develop the skills they will need for the rest of their lives, may be the job school policies state that teachers are expected to do; but, in the environment in which teachers work, it is not the job the education process is tasked, structured, and resourced to support.
Simply stated, there is a disconnect between what we tell teachers they are expected to do and what the education process we have created for them allows them to do.
Please take the time to examine a new education model, designed to all teachers to focus on purpose: https://melhawkinsandassociates.com/education-model-white-paper/