College of Education > News and Publications > News: Oct. - Dec. 2011 > Commentary from a Long-Retired Teacher

Commentary from a Long-Retired Teacher

Commentary from Paul Bixby

Note: Paul Bixby is a professor emeritus of education. Some three decades after his retirement from Penn State, Bixby offers a keen perspective on the state of education.

by Paul W. Bixby (September 2011)

As 21st Century policy makers, school professionals and parents all struggle with public school problems, it is tempting to enumerate the many ways in which today’s schooling system is a near perfect match with the culture constructed during and after the 19th Century industrial revolution in the USA. We should remind ourselves that during the many centuries of agrarian civilizations, children learned close to the natural earth in family farm homes. Then, almost instantly, in the big sweep of historical time, an industrialized society demanded quick production of sophisticated leaders and a standardized production workforce. Industrial innovation based on a competitive culture fueled the 19th and 20th centuries and also appropriately motivated the founders of the education system we “love or hate” as the 21st Century begins.

When 20th Century schools for all children were designed and opened at the end of the 19th Century, the challenge was to identify the basic facts and skills all children should master to meet the needs of the fast growing industries; “what the best and wisest parents wished for their child’s education, America would provide for all” wrote Horace Mann, one of the founders of the free public school system. Compulsory attendance and state-approved school curriculum plans quickly followed. Reading, writing, computing and citizenship responsibilities were compiled by adults into a logical sequence (curriculum) that “professor” teachers were hired to follow. Tests accompanied textbooks to compare and rate student achievement; logic implied such test results would accurately mirror the effectiveness of the teacher. As a practicing teacher and sociology student, it appears to me America has exactly the school system it needed to fit its national intentions during the first half of the 20th Century.

Why So Much Negative Dialogue about 21st Century Schools?

The school “assembly line” was created using age-grade classification to identify learning achievement and move students through the adult-developed learning sequence. From its beginning the competitive school environment had enough successes to satisfy emerging needs for industrial workers and identify appropriate students for college admission, but in a few decades failures, drop-outs and learning problems have became increasingly troublesome to the school itself and its supporting community. The shrinking number of family farms no longer rescues the school’s “failures” into a peasant style farm-labor pool; 21st Century commercial/industrial society has limited jobs for school dropouts.

Enter the New Human Development Sciences

Teaching in the early days of the 20th Century was still defined as a process of moving information from the brain of the “professor” teacher (or the textbook) to the “blank slate” brain of the child. Quick and accurate learning (memorization) won classroom prizes and scholarships for advanced education. Those who lagged behind were urged to “try harder” or “practice longer.” Since efficiency was a guiding principle as a world of farmers changed to one of wage-earners, little resistance was expressed by those few parents and teachers who intuitively suspected learning was not a commodity that would respond well to procedures designed for manufacturing “things.” With the discovery of new sources of power that could be harnessed to increase production of necessities (security-food-housing) expanding populations were migrating to be near sources of jobs; city living mushroomed; required schooling also seemed a convenient way to meet the need for early child care so mothers could enter the workforce; after all, “practice” was what counted in school learning and community childcare seemed an efficient way to monitor needed practice. Across the landscape, small community schools were consolidated into management systems suspiciously similar to those of factories that efficiently produced “things” such as cars and washing machines with notable success.

By mid-century, the new research field of human development (psychology) augmented by scientific study of the physical human brain seriously entered the compulsory schooling dialogue. Intuitive parents and teachers had been doubtful from the beginning that borrowing the industrial-production model was appropriate. Brain scientists were discovering that learning is not a product to be affixed to a child’s brain but a developmental process that begins with infant curiosity and exploratory experiences to program the still maturing newborn brain; outside pressure to learn when the brain is not ready confuses the process—sometimes beyond repair. From the school’s perspective it became increasingly obvious that each child had a unique learning schedule that impacted success and effective social adjustment. Careful individual assessment would be necessary to discover readiness to learn and the appropriate tutorial style for each child.

But, “efficiency” won the day. Human development research and physical brain science were easily ignored by the new industrial society on a track to dominate the modern commercial world. Small rural schools were consolidated into larger buildings in or near urban population centers. Bus transportation increased separation from parental oversight as infants became preschoolers. Traditional schools became “dropout prone” with social adjustment problems never anticipated by the founders of required state-supported public education.

Observant professional educators assisted by caring parents were by mid-century trying to identify those children in most danger from the compulsory assembly line and helping them into personalized channels for their most vulnerable years, but such flexibility could be afforded for only a few selected individuals because of laws, financing and the general misunderstanding about the nature of learning and proper roles for parents and teachers. Every opening day of school saw newly “age-packaged” groups of learners arriving at information-graded classrooms where perceptive teachers and many sensitive parents identified individuals who were about to begin an unfair competitive race toward graduation and social maturity. What to do about them? “Quiet! Find your seats and hurry!” became the tone of overloaded classrooms with trained “teacher/managers” in charge.


Can the schools now be rescued from the mistaken assumptions about learning?

Increasingly the production-line school became organized frustration as the developmental scientists continued to open the secrets of childhood learning while school policy boards invented mottos such as “no child left behind” to “encourage” greater effort by both learners and professional teachers to do the impossible—i.e., help every child successfully compete in the “same race” when their maturation and individual neural systems varied widely in readiness for the challenge.

Because parents have the first and most favorable opportunity to prepare the developing brain for satisfactory lifelong learning, parenting has become the center of attention by alert professional teachers and support professionals. Peasant family-farming life had for many generations held young humans physically close to parents through early dependent years; the new commercial society threatened such early parental opportunities. Mid-century found alert professional teachers increasingly identifying children unable to use the adult generated course of study to move them toward learning independence. Learning was a process in the human brain that happened when the time was right in ways often unique to the individual learner. Learning differences were natural and required respectful attention for satisfactory results. The established public school system could not change its organizing direction right now. Based on new knowledge of brain and personality development, many individuals in each age-graded contingent of students received inadequate—sometimes damaging—learning support. Attempted system-wide fixes always ended in failure with struggling teachers in the spotlight.
Staffing and supervising the enlarged production-line schools have also encouraged adoptions of faculty personnel procedures borrowed from industrial workforce experience. The work of the teacher is too often downgraded to routine classroom management; effective teachers are deserting their calling—their “chosen soul-work”—for leadership positions that promise to be more honest, creative and challenging.

Perceptive parents are today searching for spaces (gaps) in the system of mass education where room can be found for their children to naturally grow and learn with less pressure for conformity to standardized efficiency goals. Much too slowly, awareness is growing that learning can never be successfully treated as a commodity—that readiness to learn emerges with the growing brain and that learning is best achieved by appropriate experiences at auspicious readiness stages. Professional teachers have strengthened their observational skills to identify those opportunities and in cooperation with concerned parents make proper help available; the growing human does the independent learning and rightfully claims the joy and the honor of achieving the only goal worth having—successful independence in the competitive job-holding, planet-wide, commercial society.

A professional teacher’s worth is clearly related to much more than student immediate memory-test results; evaluation is necessarily delayed and impossible to quantify for current job-oriented pay checks. “Best teachers” tend to move quickly to leadership positions where their rewards can be based on professional competence rather than negotiated job contracts. Too many children are damaged by this misdirection of professional talent.

More generations of evolving American culture will need to pass before the 21st Century obsession with competitive memory-game tests can be removed as the focus of universal education. No professional educator should be surprised to discover that today’s students, teachers and administrators, under pressure from unfair competitive social and financial standards, resort to record-manipulation to hold positions and save careers. Conclusions from human studies research—nonexistent when the public school system was designed—now are available to guide a better approach to organized education in a democratic society and more realistic ways of determining proper compensation for professional learning specialists.

Can American society change its approach to educating its children? Of course it can and will, but time is needed for parents and professional teachers to slowly rediscover the richness that competitive cultural innovation has stolen from a learning environment embedded in nature and early life with parents. Safety islands for more timely and less competitive learning are increasingly appearing in the troubled stream of 2011 job-centered American public education.


Special note: State College, Pa., and other innovative school systems have for decades operated alternative schools that partially absorb the shock misfit assignments for a limited group of parents and children with courage to create individualized learning plans and assume responsibility to make them happen. I advise my grandchildren who are today parents of school-age children to find exceptional teachers and principals who are there in every school system and offer to help in finding the right channels and timing for my great grandkids who are entering the competitive schools now. The genuine professionals are there in every school I ever studied in my long career and are eager to help parents who care enough to make the first move and steady enough to follow through. I call this “finding soft spots in the crust of the public education loaf.” It is the best chance we have to participate on behalf of those infants who are here now and will be grown up by tomorrow—with or without happy learning experiences.

Special note #2: Today, September 23, 2011, President Obama announced the end of enforcement for the “No child left-behind” national law. This may encourage more parents and teachers to search for “soft spots” described above. Every such move should help, but change is still out of reach for too many of America’s youthful learners destined to be tomorrow’s citizen job seekers.

Special note #3: Please read a recent letter sent to some new parents searching for ways to insure good childhood education for special kids who are here now.