Can We Escape the Matrix?

The MatrixMany people are talking about what’s right and wrong with education; Luba Vangelova’s Steve Hargadon: Escaping the Education Matrix is a thought provoking position.

Hargadon’s idea that we are in an “education matrix” of which many of us aren’t aware clarified my confusion over why people aren’t rebelling against this new wave of mandates. Why are intelligent people allowing the government to use our tax dollars inappropriately?

Part of the problem is, unless a person is an educator, most American citizens believe the propaganda coming from media and big businesses that teachers are to blame for the state of education; therefore, most Americans support the current testing trend that is purported to weed out the bad teachers. However, the only thing this trend is doing is pushing out the great teachers and destroying our children’s individuality.

The government is taking money allocated for education and giving it to wealthy textbook companies to create these tests. The result: Our tax dollars aren’t edifying our children; instead, our money is used to label our children as advanced, proficient, partially proficient, or unsatisfactory. Why are parents allowing this to happen to their children? As an educator, I have no idea how these labels help my students, and I have yet to see how these tests improve education. Instead, these tests are taking money out of the classrooms.

Hargadon addresses this testing movement in education:

“If we really want children to grow up to become self-reliant and reach their full potential, ‘we would be doing something very different in schools. We live in a state of cognitive dissonance.’ ”

Testing does not create self-reliant children. Testing does not help children reach their full potential. All state testing does is label our children and make them feel inadequate. As a parent whose child is struggling in school, I don’t need a test to tell me that. I know he is a struggling reader because of my interactions with him. I know he is a struggling reader because the diagnostic tests he takes at school confirm it; diagnostic tests identify weaknesses with immediate feedback.  State tests are not diagnostic. They claim to be, but all they are is an expensive waste of time. State tests are usually administered in the spring, and the results don’t come back until the fall. How does that help my child right now? How does that help his current teacher find out what interventions he needs today?

We need to decide, as a nation, what we want for our children and for the future of our country.

Not all schools are bad, just as not all teachers are bad, but we are all paying the price for a top-down mandate, where non-educators are deciding what they want the majority of children to know.

“What are most kids getting out of 12 years of school?” he asks. “The honest answer is they’re learning how to follow, and that was the original intent. Public schools were based on the belief that what was needed was a small group of elites who would make the decisions for the country, and many more who would simply follow their directions” —hence a system that produces “tremendous intellectual and commercial dependency.”

The students who are free-thinkers are the exception not the rule, and they became free-thinking individuals because they had educators who taught them to think for themselves, educators who largely ignored the federal and state mandates. They also had parents who encouraged them to think for themselves. Unfortunately, the majority of our youth don’t have these type of people in their lives.

I try to reach every child in my classroom, but by the time they get to me in high school, it’s too late for some of them. They have been beat down by a system that tells them that they are not good enough, that they need to conform:

And the notion that the smartest students rise to the top, regardless of family and social circumstances, “sends a message to the majority of students that they are losers,” Hargadon notes, which doesn’t square with a professed belief in the inherent value and capacity of every child.

Our children are suffering because of these irrelevant labels; they begin hearing as early as eight-years-old that they are not part of that “small group of elites” who will be successful adults. Is it any wonder that more and more students are cutting themselves, attempting or committing suicide, bullying or victims of bullying, committing or victims of school shootings? Sadly, this self-harm and directed anger is starting earlier and earlier. Yes. Each case is different, but what do they all have in common? A school system that is failing to meet their individual needs:

The system’s fundamental design also leads to a host of unintended consequences, including bullying. “We’re placing kids in an artificial environment,” he says, “telling most of them they’re not good at things, and then expecting them not to explode at each other? Of course they will. . . . it’s more a reflection of how kids are being treated than a reflection of kids. It’s shocking that we put up with it.”

I find it shocking as well, and here is where Vangelova and Hargadon really opened my eyes:

The reason so many adults find the situation tolerable, he says, may stem from the fact that they experience little control over their own lives. Additionally, they themselves are products of the system and, as such, find it difficult to envision an alternative. “People are almost in this Matrix-like existence,” Hargadon says. “They don’t question schooling. How do you tell a story that opens the door to rethinking what people have believed for decades?”

Hargadon’s article helped me understand that the most important thing I have to do is to educate those American citizens in my circle of influence about their choices and what they have control over:

“The people who benefit from us not being active citizens, from all buying the same things, and being willing to take jobs that demand we leave our personal values at the door—they all benefit from the current schooling system, because it produces a populace that does not feel confident in being critical,” he notes. “At an institutional or personal level, those who benefit don’t have much incentive to promote changes in education that would lead people to question their motives or challenge their practices.”

Hargadon’s point about “not [feeling] confident in being critical” is a little misleading.

Contrary to what he says, we do have a lot of people who are extremely confident in their criticism, but their criticism is based on uneducated opinions, especially about education. The overly critical people are the ones who have never been teachers, who don’t understand children, and who think their opinions are correct because of their limited experiences as students. The majority of our citizens don’t do the research before they spew out their thoughts. It’s shocking how many tax payers believe that their money is best spent on tests and making publishing companies richer, rather than putting money into the classrooms or helping the impoverished areas provide health and nutrition for poor children or into the teaching profession to attract better qualified teachers.

On the other hand, we do have a lot of people who know they have little experience with the right and wrong of education and don’t think they can do the research to find out what is really at stake here. They are not confident enough to support a movement to protest the direction of education. These people are victims of this very institution: They have been taught not to question authority. They have been taught to allow those who are “more intelligent” to do the thinking for them. They have been taught to accept and not to rebel. Vangelova explains:

[Hargadon] sees a need for more people to “stand up and say: ‘This is not the right thing for children—it’s not a healthy childhood.’” But families must also reclaim ownership of learning, rather than viewing it as the responsibility of schools and government, and also resist the tendency to make decisions for others. “In some ways, traditional schools have co-opted a lot of traditional parental responsibilities,” he says. “That’s really unhealthy, and it becomes self-fulfilling. And when society says it knows better than the family, it’s a recipe for disaster. Some family circumstances are not ideal, but it’s a slippery slope. It’s about trusting and respecting the capacity of individuals to make choices.”

Parents have more say and control than they think. Not only do they need to take back some of their parental duties that they have too willingly given to the school systems, but they have to stand up for what they want their children to learn, what they want their money to fund.

“As individuals, families and communities, we need to reclaim the conversation around learning, and to do so in such a way as to recognize the inherent worth and value of every student, with the ultimate goal of helping them become self-directed and agents of their own learning.”

“Living in a democracy means involving people in decision making,” Hargadon says. “You can’t just create a new system to implement top down; you have to provide the opportunity to talk about it and build it constructively.”

Whether you have children in school or not, remember, you are an American citizen, and what our educational system produces is your responsibility and will be your reality, one way or another.