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Learning at its Best

Is Our Education System Broken? Maybe Just Its Definitions

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! In honor of tomorrow, I thought I’d try to tie in my post to the holiday in some way. It might be ham-handed, but I saw a connection! More on that later.

I have been having some lively discussions lately with a valued colleague at my university regarding American schools. He argues that my assertion that schools are broken is not accurate; rather, that only some schools are broken (those that serve the poorest children/families). He is essentially, in my view, railing against the inequity that exists, but is satisfied that the kids not in circumstances of poverty are actually doing very OK (hence, he argues, the high number of Nobel laureautes who have been educated in the American public education system). My impression of his argument has been that he believes American schools, as they exist for the most privileged in our society, are excellent, and if we could only get such schools for everyone (equity), then all would be well.

Educational historians and other researchers (e.g. chapter 3 in this book) have pinpointed equity and excellence as two conflicting forces in American education. We strive for both these things in our public schools, but in some cases they seem to work against each other (e.g. some educational critics have implied that opening up education to all students as a result of the Civil Rights Act and IDEA has “dumbed down” or lowered the excellence of American Schools).

My colleague and many others argue that we should work to attain both equity and excellence. I agree. HOWEVER, my definition of excellence, I believe, differs from the normative understanding of that word. What is an excellent education? I believe most people, if asked, might argue that an excellent education is one in which students learn a large amount of basic academic knowledge and skills (including some critical thinking, problem solving, and employment skills), which ultimately result in good-paying jobs. I am certainly not opposed to such a definition, but I see excellence much more broadly defined. In addition to the above, I would add that an excellent education would also include a lot more work in

  • developing students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills,
  • building their appreciation for the arts,
  • enhancing their social skills (especially in terms of working with a diverse array of people),
  • developing their citizenship and sense of community responsibility (going far beyond social studies classes and taking part in canned food drives),
  • encouraging optimal physical health,
  • helping students find out their passions and strengths in life without the comparative elements that exist in our public schools today (in which students are made to feel “less than” if their interests and strengths do not coincide with the school-valued ones),
  • encouraging independence and curiosity,
  • and developing students’ self-confidence and respect for others.

I attended public schools in one of the United States’ top 15 wealthiest counties (Montgomery County, MD). I graduated on time, and attended college and graduate school on numerous scholarships and fellowships. I have a good job now. Is this evidence that my K-12 education was excellent? In the most narrow definition detailed above, yes; but in my broader definition, no. I left high school and my undergraduate years with no abiding passions (other than showing off my credentials to others), with minimal to no involvement as a critically-thinking or active citizen, I was not involved in art or music in any way, I was (and still am) socially awkward (way too competitive and narcissistic – though I am working on those!), and rarely had dealings with people not like me. In addition, I wasn’t particularly curious or independent; in fact, I was frequently content to “do as I was told” in order to continue to garner positive evaluations.

Am I alone in this experience? I think not, as my discussions with many students (undergraduate and graduate ) evidence (they attest to the fact that their experiences in K-12 schools were quite similar to mine, that they learned to play the game of school well). It was not until much later in my life and after a doctoral degree (which most people do not get) that I began to do some of the things that I think schools ought to promote more (e.g. volunteering in my community, being politically aware and and active, trying to work on my emotional health and social skills). I believe that my K-12 education had nothing to do with excellence in this regard, and THAT is part of why I think American education is broken. Not only is American education vastly inequitable (BTW, for an awesome read on inequality and its impacts on social and health problems, please read The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. I just finished it and loved it!), it also has an impoverished definition of excellence.

An analogy that ties into Thanksgiving might help make my point here. I want everyone who sits down to celebrate the Thanksgiving meal to have an ample amount of food at the table (equity), but I also want that meal to be excellent. Excellent not just in tasting good, filling us up, and leading to a wonderful nap, but also excellent in terms of the fellowship it engenders, its levels of healthiness, and its minimal abuses of the environment in preparing it. We must broaden our definition of excellence in our society/schools and couple it more with equity. Only then will we truly have an unbroken educational system.

About Kristan Morrison

Dr. Kristan Accles Morrison taught for seven years at conventional middle schools in North Carolina, which drove her to research alternative forms of education based on critical pedagogy and social justice. She earned her Ph.D. in the Cultural Foundations of Education from the University of North Carolina Greensboro and is now a professor in a teacher education program at Radford University, where she makes a point of introducing her students to educational alternatives. In this blog, Kristan reflects on her attempts to bridge the worlds of conventional and “alternative” forms of education. She considers how to bring more democratic and freedom-based practices into the realm of standard education, and how to discuss educational alternatives with a conventional audience. She explores the paradox of many teacher educators: preparing her students for teaching in the schools as they are, while also preparing them to help create the schools that could be.


5 thoughts on “Is Our Education System Broken? Maybe Just Its Definitions

  1. The American educational system isn’t failing because of the influx of IDEA/ADA eligible students in it. The system is and has been failing because the adults within the system don’t know how to properly educate students. There should be no thing as “Special Education” because every teacher should be required to learn both what is required to teach “normal” students and students with disabilities. The fact that the system feels the need to waste time teaching teachers on two different standards of educating students when both of those standards can be combined to better educate. Its these illogical practices that hinder potential in education when its obvious that it works, otherwise some districts and charters wouldn’t put two teachers in a single classroom or put a TA with special education background in with a normal teacher.

    Posted by Jabreel Chisley | November 23, 2011, 10:46 pm
  2. Kristen,

    I join you in your quest for less ‘divide and conquer’, both by way of dividing students from one another and by way of fractioning off subject matters – everything fits together, or nothing fits at all.


    Posted by Brent Snavely | November 24, 2011, 9:18 am
  3. Education should lead to all sorts of discoveries about self and others in community – and I include the world and all its pieces in “others.”

    That public education measures human worth by test scores is the most glaring and damning condemnation of its inaccuracies, inequities, and inadequacy.

    What comes next?

    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 24, 2011, 11:05 am
  4. Kristan, Having just woken from my post-Thanksgiving nap, I’m ordering The Spirit Level. If I had more energy in my body I would heartily salute you and say, Hail and Agree! On all.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 27, 2011, 4:41 pm


  1. Pingback: The Demands of Learning | EdReach - November 29, 2011

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