Disrupting the Classroom, or How Self-Styled “Education Reformers” Always Get It Wrong, Part 3

In Parts 1 and 2, we examined AltSchool’s ideas about how to “disrupt” education using data and technology.  But the problems with education are not only due to a lack of technology, and they are certainly not due to teachers, teacher tenure, teachers’ unions, flawed lesson plans, or grading rubrics. The real problem is poverty. 

According to UNICEF, one in three children in America grows up in poverty. That is probably a significant underestimate, given that the way the US calculates the poverty line bears little relationship to the actual cost of living. By the time these children take their seats in (usually overcrowded) science classrooms, where they are expected to distinguish mitosis from meiosis and to apply Newton’s laws of motion, they have good reason to be suspicious of adult figures. The lessons of the science classroom must seem completely divorced from the hard reality these students face.

Assigning homework makes optimistic assumptions about a child’s home environment. Access to a quiet space to work, a family supportive of schoolwork, and even tutoring support on tough topics are basic things that many students (particularly in high poverty areas) don’t have access to. This is the reality for too many children in this country.

Then into the impoverished lives of students march self-styled “education reformers,” equipped with naive ideas about how to “disrupt” schools, but politely avoiding the real issues students face. The magical thinking of such “reformers”—Technology will make it different! We’re going to shift the paradigm! Lazy teachers will work harder if we just remove the stability of tenure and threaten their jobs!—crashes against the reality of student poverty. Any “reform” which does not first address the literal hunger in children’s bellies cannot work. Any “disruptive” idea that does not first acknowledge that children cannot learn when they are afraid, or when they don’t know where they are going to sleep that night, is simply doomed to failure.

AltSchool is typical of many such would-be “reforms” in that it focuses on “skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future.” But this is a myopic vision for education that doesn’t bode well for the young children attending AltSchool. Ask yourself this: which facts you learned in third grade apply directly to how you make your money today?

Worse still, the focus on education as a direct path to specific employment has the effect of transforming education into a commodity. The commodification of education encourages a lost generation of students to think of themselves as consumers and of their teachers are mere cashiers exchanging data for tuition. That’s not what education should be.  

The commodification of education is particularly toxic for science education, which already struggles with the perception that science is merely a list of facts to memorize. In this model, students are given information or lab procedures to memorize, without ever being asked to consider the why rather than the what. This is the resigned surrender of Khan Academy videos, where even the most nuanced topics are reduced into 10-minute nuggets for easy memorization, but devoid of critical thinking, deep questioning, or challenging interaction with a mentor. In such a commodified education, students might learn the difference between mitosis and meiosis but they won’t learn the more important thing: the process of science.

If we really want to reform education, and if we really want science education to teach how science operates, the steps would be to reject all future “reform” fads, to let teachers at last do the job they were trained to do, and to have the courage to address the real reason behind so much student failure: poverty. Maybe the next fad to come out will address these issues, and finally disrupt the disruptors, allowing teachers to teach.