02/14/2012 06:49 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2012

Educating for Democracy: Fitting the School to the Student

The recent report in the New York Times, "Poor Further Dropping Behind the Rich in School", states what educators have been saying for many years: Poverty is a major contributor to problems in learning just as wealth provides many educational opportunities not readily available to the poor. The issue of how children learn and the solution to how to improve their learning has been recently, and largely erroneously, focused on the quality of teaching by using measurements through standardized tests that have little value in presenting an accurate picture of the gains and losses that children experience in the learning process.

Making parents the scapegoats will not improve the situation because poverty lends itself to the environmental disadvantages of largely single-parent households, over-burdened and over-stressed parents, dangerous living conditions, and few cultural opportunities the results which, according to the studies reported in The Times, transcend class even more than race.

It's increasingly apparent that the economic inequalities which plague our society will not be seriously addressed by a political system that is being bought and sold by the economic elite. And there seem to be few alternatives to the direction in which public education is going in many cities: demoralizing a student body which is being increasingly criminalized, turning public schools into a "pipeline" to the criminal justice system, and a traumatized teaching profession in which the most experienced and skilled practitioners are being turned off from the profession by data-driven administrators who operate with the mindless persistence of a deranged captain steering a ship into the path of an iceberg.

The problem is what to do to "reform the reformers" which the Obama administration is feebly attempting to accomplish by giving "waivers" to 10 or more states burdened with the No Child Left Behind limitations. Even if the public school systems were able to return to the status quo prior to the past 10 years, there is no evidence that the educational system will improve in raising the percentage of students who can read, write and calculate on or above grade. Since the inception of wide-spread public school evaluations since the 1950s, there has been " little significant improvement in national performance in terms of which students are "college ready" when they graduate from high school although there have been many attempts at "educational reform."

There are many complex causes for this stubborn fact but insofar as the nation's international standing is concerned the reason many other countries seem to have students performing better than us is that young learners in their samples are selectively chosen for academic programs while we include all of ours. It is an insane notion for school officials to think that this situation can be remedied by the extensive use of standardized tests which result in their misuse in order to close down neighborhood schools, fire teachers, and come up with the gimmickry of charter schools, "digital" learning, performance bonuses, and vouchers. What is happening is that the teaching profession will become the least desirable for any bright, capable and idealistic student which will result in the further intellectual impoverishment of public schools.

As has been pointed out countless times by such critics as Diane Ravitch and Leonie Haimson, the children of the "educational leaders" such as Bill Gates, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Obama go to the "traditional" elite schools that have smaller classes than most public schools, innovative and engaging ways of teaching a large variety of subjects, student participation in the learning process, and no room for test prep and standardized testing. If such programs are good enough for the elite, why not for the children of the rest of the populace?

The need for true educational reform, however, whether "traditional" or "innovative," is compelling because the United States needs a larger proportion of well-educated people than we have now, not only so we can compete globally, but for the preservation of a democratic society; a society that is not easily led by the half-truths and lies that pass for political discourse. We need an informed citizenry that will be skeptical in believing that the "free market" holds the solution to every economic problem and not believe that every scientific study that presents an "inconvenient truth" about environmental change is a hoax. We need an educated citizenry that has the reasoning power to distinguish rumor and innuendo from fact and has the intellectual tools to pick apart the simplistic rhetoric that passes for political discourse. We need a focused public that demands reasoned proposals to address our present challenges.

To make those civic and educational objectives a reality, we have not only to discard the false nostrums of the "educational reformers" but even challenge the former status quo, abandon the "Industrial Model" of education and adopt a model of learning styles that can serve young learners best. We must discard the data-driven notion of "measuring the immeasurable" which are the complexities of the learning process.

There are many alternative forms of pedagogy that are not only proposed but are being implemented in "progressive" education throughout the country such as the WISE program for senior high school students that nurtures independent and creative thinking: A more modest example of how young school children can learn by creatively using the outside environment was recently featured in an article in The New York Times in which a second-grade class was "introduced" to a parking garage.

The American public must not only realize that the present "reform movement" is destroying the quality of our school system but that there are alternatives that can be effective in improving our children's education if only they were given the opportunity to do so.