Our educational system is centered on academic achievement. In spite of tremendous reform efforts over more than a half century, this focus has helped increasingly create one very rich America and one very poor one. It also fails to serve those of African, Hispanic and Native American heritages as well as it serves those of White or Asian heritages.
This is happening because the business-political-university leadership believes America needs an academically proficient work force in order to successfully compete internationally. So like ancient Sparta, American schools first and foremost educate its children to protect the state, and like Sparta, utilize the motivation of competition.
Given that our founding fathers built America as a democracy emphasizing individuality and equality, it is surprising our leaders didn't model education after the democracy of ancient Athens, which emphasized citizenship and Socrates' concept of "Know Thyself," utilizing the natural curiosity of children to learn.
Observe the enthusiasm of a kindergarten class--children begin schooling eager to learn! American children enter our schools with an infinite variety of abilities, skills, family backgrounds, attitudes, problems, etc. Whatever our skills in dealing with each child, children can determine how deep our concern is in trying to help each of them develop.
A child comes into this world experiencing the fear of abandonment. If we in schools can reassure the child we will always be there for him/her and then demonstrate our ability to help the child learn and grow, we will surely become an integral part of the child's life.
Isn't this the kind of teacher we want for America's children and the kind of schools they need? We are Athens, not Sparta. I'm not talking about babying American children. I'm talking about giving each one the respect and genuine concern he/she deserves. I'm talking about working hard to help ensure each child fulfills his/her true best in life.
This means stop perceiving American children primarily in terms of their academic potential and start seeing them as our founding father envisioned them: individually and equally, which the Constitution and Bill of Rights they created now supports.
Seeing an American child through this lens, our first concern should be to ensure that child's character and confidence. While we may not control that child's home, we do control that child's educational experience in school. Parents will respond to a school's genuine concern for their child's development and be heavily influenced by it.
The great Horace Mann, considered the father of American Public Schools, said, given a year to teach spelling, he'd spend the first nine months on motivation. I say he's clearly telling us in teaching, first focus on getting the student interested and confident in what we're going to teach, as well as getting the student's trust.
The next step is the entire class will gain from the findings of Carol Dweck, whose studies reveal groups who are praised for their effort on a series of tasks will ultimately consistently outperform groups who are praised for being smart.
So once the class is ready to tackle academic development, the Dweck studies tell us they will do superior work to traditional classes if they are graded not on achievement but on effort!
Thus if we are willing to individually address the needs and confidence of each American student, and then motivate them by emphasizing effort, we should develop a much higher academic achievement level in our schools, while reaching many more American children than we do now.
What would happen to the very talented academic student in this approach? I tried to teach algebra this way and would occasionally throw out hypothetical questions for students to consider. A bright student named Hank grabbed one, and actually was still working on it the next year with me, even though I didn't have him as a student. Last year I got a book in the mail, Hacker's Delight, by Dr. Henry Warren, dedicated to me, who "...taught me the joys of mathematics."
My point is a livelier class that respects all students provides the more capable student with more opportunities than present classes that are often held back by unmotivated students.
At present, our system caters to a minority of the privileged and/or more academically talented students. All students have potentials. Work to make them part of a broad educational process and we will create strong students, strong families and strong schools. With that base, we will create a strong work force and a strong America.