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Public Education is Anything but Free

This is not a very complex issue to date. Systematically, our public education system has been about training students to sit still and listen to the information politicians, administrators, and teachers have determined is important for them to know. Their job is then to repeat back that information to confirm its transmission. Our current educational reform climate does nothing to change this. However, it might just provide enough wiggle room for us to break free.

Our public education system continues to be a top-down system where federal politicians decide what will be happening in schools. The next level of control is the state, followed by the school board and superintendent, then the teachers.

The last person to ever be asked what it is they want to learn is the student. In a traditional school trajectory, perhaps only at the doctoral level does a student begin to articulate her own desires for learning.

Thus, currently, our standardized-testing obsessed culture is built-upon tyranny. It is declared the rule of the land by those in power, backed by the lobbyists of the billion-dollar-a-year plus education economy, and thus, everyone else’s livelihood in the system depends on following these orders. Administrators, teachers, and students, are all bound by the decree of what education is today. It is essentially a totalitarian system., as it requires complete subservience to the state.

Of course, some are able to escape this condition, and that option is called economic privilege and private school.

As the adults, the responsible ones in our system, we must begin to liberate ourselves and thus the children from this educational culture of oppression.

It could be said that all public schools are not all the same, that there’s a spectrum. Sure that’s true. There are maximum security schools and minimum security schools, but in my experience they are all still prisons. Prisons of bodies and minds. Administrators are the wardens and teachers are the guards.

I have found one exemplar as of late in the public sector, New Country School in Minnesota. Of all the innovations in public and charter education, this is the only (and please show me more if you know of them!) example of a public school breaking down the institution of education, and, instead, allowing for the nature of learning. Here’s one of their core values: “The schools goal should apply to all students, although the means to these goals will vary as those students vary themselves.” They were named one of the eight highest performing charter schools in the U.S.

As can be expected, people do what they need to in order to survive. This is true for administrators and teachers, who follow the rules so that they can get paid, and true for students who follow the rules so that they can get grades. Now I have great respect for teachers and students. I know that many would not be doing it this way, if we didn’t “have” to.

So here’s the deal people. There has to be some sort of civil disobedience. Decide right now to dedicate yourself to being a force of lasting change, or not, but decide now. Begin in small ways that will not cost you your job right off the bat. Also develop a plan that does not injure students as they are the innocent bystanders in the battles in education. Perhaps it’s developing an innovative grading policy that frees your classroom from their addiction. Perhaps its a classroom sized decision-making process that begins with students’ voices, instead of ending with their drop-out rates. Find ways to begin transitioning the responsibility of learning to students along with ways to allow their passions to guide that learning. Support students in opting-out of standardized testing while supporting them in alternate ways of proving their ability to college admissions departments.

Find allies. If your principal or superintendent isn’t one already then you will need a stronger show of force than just yourself. Use the PLN as a resource, colleagues and students, too. Begin researching and formulating your argument and backing up your decisions to change course. Articulate your aims from the outset, develop strategies to achieve them. Begin with small, achievable actions to strengthen your resolve and belief that this can work. The toughest battles aren’t going anywhere.

History is written every minute of every day by our individual actions (or inaction) collectively aggregated. Politicians and lobbyists are going to do this for us.

With hope,



About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


8 thoughts on “Public Education is Anything but Free

  1. Adam, the other day on Twitter, I saw this: When you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the 1st person to stand up and join in.

    LOOK for the people in your school doing good stuff and give them kudos so they’ll continue. Praise them to your principal and parents. Build them up so they can continue–and take a page from their book and begin your own change–or, if you’re already moving, after building them up, share your successes as well.

    Hear the voices of our learners–all of them–and find ways to meet their learning needs. Let them share their successes, passions and show what they are doing outside of school that they could be doing INSIDE if we would let them.

    Let’s let the voices of democracy drown out the tyranny of control!

    Posted by Paula White | March 22, 2010, 4:31 pm
    • Paula, I very much appreciate your thoughts. I especially like the thoughtful voice given in support of colleagues taking risks for the benefit of students and authentic learning.

      You are right that the walls between “inside” and “outside” school need to be made more permeable.

      The “lone nut” video is interesting, as it exemplifies group-think, this can be creative or destructive. Not only can the “lone nut” be one of us dancing and screaming about the way schools need to change for authentic and democratic learning, it is also someone screaming about the need for more standardized testing, or to inject Christianity into the forefront of our US History curriculum. We all need to be conscious of our participation in group-think and make clear decisions as to what we are rallying around and why. While we make think we are a “first-follower” we are also often one of the hoards that comes piling in without knowing why.

      Posted by Adam Burk | March 23, 2010, 6:05 am
  2. Adam, your call to action is judicious and timely. As a result of our work here, I’ve apportioned about 20% (19.8%) of class time to student-directed learning in support of reading and writing goals and projects kids have identified as important to them. I think my next steps are figuring out how to move from 20% to the NCS 100% PBL model and formalizing a learning-friendly assessment system. I appreciate the push to do so. I hope to put more together in writing, share it with my leaders, and blog more on the process in action.

    What do you think administrators should do or read to support the liberation of learning in public school classrooms? What would be prudent, but definite communications or policies you’d like to see to bridge us from prisons to places of joyful learning?

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 23, 2010, 7:43 am
    • Chad,

      I am so happy to hear that our work here is informing your work in the classroom. It was our vision and mission, thank you for actualizing it. I look forward to reading more about what you are doing.

      Administrators need to be on board, that is phase one. Then they need to work as team players fulfilling their roles to work on policies and politics to ensure teachers can do their jobs.

      Policies may include regular meetings of all stake-holders to deliberate and decide on school rules-Summerhill/Subdury Valley Style. They can create time (is that possible) for teachers to have creative time to revamp the curriculum. If they are skilled facilitators, they can also help guide that process, but please don’t become a stumbling block to keep it moving forward!

      They could abolish grades, while creating meaningful assessment tools including student self-reflection. They could forge relationships with professionals in their communities to provide mentoring to students who have interests in their fields and allow for credit to be given for this internships. Create means for independent learning, whether that is using on-line tools or otherwise. Create systems and means so that students and teachers do not have to be in the classroom all day!

      What are your thoughts on what policies/communications would help facilitate this transformation?


      Posted by Adam Burk | March 25, 2010, 6:16 pm
      • Giving students and teachers discretion in pursuing learning is key. However, “managing” that learning top-down is too hard for a school administrator to do, and it’s not desirable that he or she do so. I think we need to delegate more – to ask and listen more to students and teachers via meetings and summer professional development and school improvement work. What do students want? Which teachers are drawn to which wants? How can they be teamed? How can they structure the school day to address students’ wants and school requirements? What structures can be developed around standards to allow students to create their own curriculums? How can schedules allow for community meetings to improve learning and for teacher time to assess student work and coach individual students?

        If principals chartered teachers to create houses within larger schools tailored to stake-holder groups, we could make progress in student and teacher efficacy, learning, and efficiency in scheduling and staffing.


        1. Dedicated and resourced summer time to gather student info and let teachers self-select groups to develop programs that address student wants.
        2. Teacher teams designing efficient structures, schedules, and systems to support students’ standards-based learning as students want it.
        3. Ongoing community meetings during the year within each program to improve learning.

        Grades can go, too.

        What do you think?

        Posted by Chad Sansing | March 27, 2010, 7:44 am
  3. Hey Adam,
    I enjoyed this entry immensely. While I enjoyed many aspects, two things that struck a cord with me.

    The first — the image you created with the school and the prison. Developing a sense of oppresion and slavery to the mind and body, excellent imagery.

    The second — one tiny little phrase toward the end…”Articulate your aims from the outset, develop strategies to achieve them. Begin with small, achievable actions to strengthen your resolve and belief that this can work.” This is so critical for newly minted teachers to go into the classroom, with this mindset.

    So many, even so called, progressive educators, enter into a classroom with these ambitions but are quickly coward into not implmenting their ideas. They are told to, “keep your head down and shut your mouth.” It is the three year process before being tenured that hinders newly, energetic teachers from speaking up. It was a shame during my observational hours, to hear such enthusiasum and energy from progressive teachers in the car ride to and from the school and to see a shell of that teacher in the classroom, adminstrative meetings and teacher conferences.

    One final thought for you to chew on…while this prevelant at Goddard, many of the other teacher and master degree programs seem to have educators teaching in college who have forgotten or never knew about truly progressive educational ideals. What is your thought about a revolution beginning through the progressive teaching of future educators?


    Posted by Casey Caronna | March 23, 2010, 9:46 pm
  4. Chad, I think your proposal is excellent and is doable. Now how do we go about getting schools to try it out?

    Posted by Adam Burk | March 27, 2010, 11:24 am
    • Assemble our teams; ask our questions; do our homework, as well as the work; ask schools like the Brooklyn Generation School and New Country School for help in drafting our requests for waivers; sell our teams to building and district level administrators, community centers – like houses of worship -, and school parent-teacher organizations simultaneously. One of our co-founders, speaking about start-up schools, said it best: starting a new school is like running for mayor.

      Posted by Chad Sansing | March 28, 2010, 2:40 pm

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