Editor’s note: The “Education” focus page runs once a month in the fourth issue of the month. To suggest a student or educational event to focus on, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are many points Enumclaw School District’s guest speaker Will Richardson wants to make about America’s public education system.
Many of them can lead back to a quote from Peter Drucker, who has been described as the founder of modern management: “There’s a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing.”
Richardson, who was named one of 100 “Changemakers in Education” in 2017 by the international education-advocacy nonprofit HundrED and is the co-founder of Modern Learners, an online resource for students of all ages who want to refine how they learn in the modern day, will be speaking at the Enumclaw High School library Thursday, Aug. 29, at 7:30 a.m. about America’s public education system and how to improve it. Email email@example.com or call 260-802-7102 to RSVP.
Warning: this will likely be a very heavy conversation to have just an hour after sunrise. Luckily, coffee will be provided.
But back to Drucker.
The difference between “doing things right” and “doing the right thing,” Richardson has argued, is whether people are seeking to be efficient or effective, respectively. Or, perhaps more simply, doing things the easy-but-incorrect way, or the hard-but-correct (or maybe just less incorrect) way.
It shouldn’t surprise you he believes the American education system falls squarely into the former category, when we should be striving for the latter.
“In an education sense, I don’t think schools have changed that much at all,” Richardson, 60, said in a recent interview. “We still have pretty much the same types of systems and structures, we use the same types of assessments, we have pretty much the same curriculum, the same bucket of content we want to teach.”
That’s not really a problem in itself, he continued — he doesn’t want his listeners to think what schools are doing is bad or harmful to students.
But the problem the American education system has, Richardson said, lies in the fact that it really hasn’t changed since he went to school four decades ago, while nearly every other facet of the world has — but it’s been easier, and more efficient, to continue approaching school and learning they way we always have, rather than taking the hard steps toward making those approaches better.
“Schools were built on the idea that if you wanted to learn algebra, then you’ve got to come to school to learn algebra, because it wasn’t easily accessible anywhere else. That’s just not true today,” he said. “If you have access to the Internet and if you have some literacy around that, you can pretty much learn just about whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you are, with whomever you can find.”
This is not to say Richardson believes the idea of schools is outdated.
“What it means is, the value of school, the value of classrooms, the value of the environment is different,” he continued. “It’s really not about filling up kids with a whole bunch of curriculum as much as it has to be about developing them into competent, powerful, passionate learners who can go out and take advantage of all the access they have.”
Ironically, most people — especially educators — already believe this, he said.
“But when you walk into classrooms, what do you see? You see kids that have no choice, they have no freedom, they’re sitting in desks in rows, they’re waiting to be told what to learn, they’re being assessed on things that are not really that interesting or meaningful to them,” Richardson added.
So if the change isn’t starting in the classroom, where can it start?
With the community, of course — and Richardson hopes his talk can spark that kind of conversation in Enumclaw.
“What do you as a school community believe about how learning happens? What’s required for that to happen?” he said. “It’s taking those answers and saying, OK, are we doing that? And in most schools, the answer is, we’re not. At least not to any scale or any consistency. And that’s where the first shift has to happen.”
It can be difficult to pin Richardson down on what specific techniques or organizational systems could be used or implemented to improve the public education system, since every student, classroom, school, district, and state has different needs.
But he does make it clear he’s no friend of standardization, despite the fact he understands why it’s important to have a metric for measuring student learning and growth.
“Kids can’t be standardized. People can’t be standardized. It flies in the face of what we know about individualism and the way humans work,” he said. “Standardized tests, by the way, are a billion-dollar industry that has lobbied the government at every level… and we’ve put an inordinate amount of emphasis on test scores at the expense of real learning happening in schools.”
The Seattle Times’ Education Lab reported Washington state spent more than $16.8 million on federally-required reading and math tests in 2016. While that’s only a sliver of the state’s overall budget, it’s estimated that money could pay 500 additional teachers.
“And that price tag only covers what the state pays two contractors to deliver and score the reading and math tests. It doesn’t count other state-required tests such as those in writing and science. It also doesn’t count what districts pay to cover costs such as buying the computers students need to take online tests, postage to send results to parents, full-time testing coordinators and the extra pay and time it takes school staff to conduct the tests, ” reporter Neal Morton continued, adding that the true cost is estimated to be more than $32 million.
It’s possible the price tag would be worth being able to accurately assess students, but Richardson argues the metrics for standardized tests are way off.
“Test scores are a really great measure on how well you take a test. You can prove that by going to different ZIP codes and seeing what the standardized test scores are… go to affluent communities, test scores are up. Go to not-so-affluent communities, test scores are down,” he said. “It’s not so much about whether or not kids are smarter or more intelligent or whatever else — in a lot of cases, it’s about whether kids have access to tutors, test prep programs, whether or not kids have been read to, if they have books in the household, all those things. It’s a very interesting metric we use — it’s not equitable at all.”
The New York Times 2016 article, “Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares,” showcases a study that reveals simply being in a higher socio-economic bracket or living in an affluent area could help put students multiple grade levels above where they’re expected to be, whereas being in a lower bracket or attending a less affluent school can hold students multiple grades behind.
Besides, Richardson continued, it’s not like the facts he learned for the tests he took were much use to him anyway.
“Most of the content I was taught in school, I never used in life. The only reason I learned it was to get through the class and pass the test,” he said. “Why are we teaching so much stuff that kids forget really quickly and never use?”
In fact, with the Internet almost omnipresent in our daily lives, school should be less about teaching kids about facts and figures and more about fostering a passion for learning and developing social skills necessary for thriving in life.
“Thrive, to me, means that you can make sense of your world, and you can participate in that world in interesting and valuable and productive ways,” he said. “If you’re not a curious person today, if you’re not creative, if you’re not able to collaborate with other people, if you’re not able to consume and create media, if you’re not able to share it and interact with strangers in good ways, if you’re not able to communicate using different media, all those types of things, you’re going to have a much more difficult time learning your way through the world.”
So instead of teaching a subject for the subject’s sake, Richardson continued, classes should be more amalgamous and overarching.
“The problem with the way we conceptualize learning in classrooms right now, and we’ll use history as an example, is that right now we want to teach our kids history instead of teaching them how to become historians. We want to teach them chemistry, instead of teach[ing] them to become chemists. You can keep doing that for just about every subject area,” he said. “In a history context, the dates, the name, the stuff that ends up on the tests, is pretty irrelevant. Again, it’s not so much about learning that stuff as it is being able to contextualize it, and understand how those events in history play out today.”
For example, Richardson pointed to a 2019 New York Times Magazine article, “What does a traffic jam in Atlanta have to do with segregation? Quite a lot.”
“Just looking at that headline, that’s really interesting. You can make connections between today’s world to the things that happened in the past. But that’s a historian, someone who was able to go back in time and play out all the ramifications of a particular event moving forward into the present day,” he said. “It’s harder to assess if you’re a historian than if you know history. It would require us to look at a child and say, do you have the inquisitive nature that historians do? Are you able to think critically about the information that you’re seeing? Do you have the research skills?… In general, it’s a shift between teaching a subject and instead, teaching a mindset or a practice around that subject.”
That shift in thinking has to happen first at a community level before it reaches local schools. And until it does, Richardson continued, any other changes that could be explored or implemented will continue to be based on a foundation of efficiency, not effectivity; doing things right for the ease of convenience, rather than endeavoring to do the right thing, even if that means not getting it right the first, second, or any number of times after.
“You can make structural and systematic changes, [but if] those changes aren’t rooted in a deeply shared and coherent definition of what learning is that people are committed to making happen in classrooms, those changes aren’t going to matter,” he said. “You can throw more money at it, it’s not going to matter. You can buy more technology — not going to matter. You can add more teachers, but it’s not going to matter. When I say fundamental, that’s what I’m taking about. We have to get to the foundation of our work in public education, and our foundation is around learning.”