REFORM CANNOT HAPPEN –                                   REVOLUTION MUST HAPPEN


Dear Teacher:

Are you tired of sacrificing in too many ways to count and then being made a scapegoat or being blamed for the failures of others, or for the problems within “the bureaucratic system” over which you are powerless?


Have you heard the term “school reform” so many times it makes you sick, knowing that each new clever plan for reform will be stymied by the bureaucracy or by unseen forces? Are you aware that the supposedly fresh new ideas are in reality primarily all rehashed concepts from earlier grand reforms that went nowhere or were kept to a small scale and as temporary or token programs? The latest fads are privatizing public schools, charter schools, and alternative schools, however there have been hundreds or even thousands of bright ideas for fixing school problems, some that are truly effective solutions, none of which are adopted and utilized on a wide scale. It might be called the re-invention of the educational wheel.


            Does the incessant focus on testing and grades get in the way of your teaching and waste valuable time? Does following a curriculum ever stifle you or make you feel as if you are leaving too many important questions unanswered? Is the material too "canned" and pre-structured to allow any spontaneity, creativity, logical progression, or liberty in actually teaching the subject? Are you forced to repeat yourself and drill material that students don't find engaging and compelling over and over, in order for all students to get it and recall enough of it to pass tests?

 Do you spend an inordinate amount of time and energy playing the part of a disciplinarian or truant officer and trying to keep order when students are too noisy, anxious, disruptive, or disorganized in doing tasks? Is this any way to run a class, really? Do you feel like a babysitter too much of the time?


            The question arises as to whether or not these chronic and highly traditional problems are inevitable and whether or not there are new or adequate solutions available to teachers. If you have to be superman or superwoman to teach under these circumstances, or if you have to be a rigid disciplinarian who is despised by a majority of students for being too iron-fisted, is it possible that something is fundamentally wrong with how we have envisioned the educational process? Isn't education supposed to be more about a collaborative, cooperative and flowing process that builds constructively upon ever-more sophisticated concepts and positive experience?


Plato said,

“The elements of instruction...should be presented to the mind in childhood, but not with any compulsion; for a freeman should be a freeman too in the acquisition of knowledge. ...Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind. Therefore, do not use compulsion, but let early education be rather a sort of amusement; this will better enable you to find out the natural bent of the child."

Plato - The Republic


Bruno Bettelheim said,

"Whether in childhood or adulthood if one finds it impossible, first to influence one's social and physical environment, and later to make decisions on how and when to modify it, this is harmful if not devastating to the human personality..."


            While there are probably more than a few teachers working in our schools that don't have the level of skill or the temperament that is optimal for teaching children, teachers should not categorically take the blame for performance that has been declining for decades. In the systems that we have currently, there are so many factors working against both the capacity of students to learn and the opportunities for teachers to establish healthy relationships and to practice the skills they do have, that it is foolish to start making major changes with anything other than the institutions and establishments themselves.


            The best teachers in the world have already told us unequivocally that our approach from beginning to end is badly misguided and at best, totally obsolete. Please carefully consider the words of George Dennison, from his astonishing book, “The Lives Of Children” :

"The preferences of children lie close to their actual needs"


Here is more from Dennison:

"...And so the teacher cannot merely instruct, for in the whole of life there is no occasion within which mere information, divorced from use and the meanings of experience, appears as a motive sufficient in itself. The task of the educator is to provide experience. In order to do this, he must first interact with his students, not as a teacher, but as a person; for there is no other way to provide the second essential of experience, which is continuity. Dewey does not mean here merely the continuity of a curriculum, but the continuity of lives within which the school itself is but one of many functions. Now certain conditions are indispensable to interaction and continuity. If the teacher is to interact, he must know his students individually. But how can he know them unless they are free to reveal themselves, each one in his uniqueness? From considerations such as these, follow the structure of the school, the freedoms, responsibilities, and relationships I have described in earlier chapters."


"I would like to close this book with a word to parents and teachers, for we are not faced today by simple choices among methods of mass instruction---as if any of them were working---but by the Biblical question in all its severity: "If the salt hath lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted?' This is as much as to say that any hope for a new spirit in education lies quite outside the present establishment. It lies among parents themselves, and in revitalized communities, and among younger teachers. I would like to say why this is so, why our school professionals, taken as a class, an institutionalized center of power, are fundamentally incompetent and must be displaced. My purpose is not to castigate the bureaucrats, but to recall parents and teachers to an awareness of one crucial truth, a truth that should be, but is not, the gut-wisdom of everyone: that in humane affairs---and education is par excellence a humane pursuit---there is no such thing as competence without love. This is the sort of statement that strikes many people, and especially our technocrats, as being sentimental, and so I would like to speak of it in some detail and make clear its truth. And I want to stress that I am not speaking here of excellence of performance, but of mere competence. Let me stress, too---because the question of competence comes down in the end to the characteristics of individuals---that I am not saying that among our fifty thousand bureaucrats there are no persons of real worth. The issue is precisely that of the effect of the institution upon the individual. The institution, the educational system in all its branches, is corrupting to the individual, and though the corruption may in many cases take the form of considerable expertise, the fact remains that competence is destroyed.

In naming love as the necessary base of competence in humane affairs, I am referring not only to the emotion of love, nor just to the moral actions and feelings that belong to caring, but to loving and caring in the very generalized, primitive sense in which they constitute a background condition of life, as we say of young children that they live 'as if in love,' and as adults, when they are simplified by disasters and extreme demands, reveal a constructive energy and compassion which are obviously generalized and basic." p. 275-276. 



            Millions of people CAN be wrong. We are inducted into schools and into the ‘cult of school’ at a very early age. Few escape the powerful conditioning that leads students to believe, as “Stockholm syndrome survivors” do, that they alone are responsible if they fail to conform and fit adequately into the roles prescribed by the people who have “helped”, “educated”, controlled, dominated, exploited, and sometimes abused them. MANY WONDERFUL AND SELF-SACRIFICING TEACHERS SHOULD BE CREDITED WITH QUITE LITERALLY SAVING THE LIVES OF STUDENTS. However, those professional heroes perform their small classroom miracles in spite of the current paradigm and typically by subverting rules and restrictions, usually at great risk to their careers. Treating children with dignity and allowing maximum autonomy is still frowned upon in a majority of schools. Postman and Weingartner's seminal book of 1979, entitled, "Teaching as a Subversive Activity" is even more relevant in the 21st century. 


             While this message is extremely unpopular and uncomfortable for 99.9% of the people receiving it, it is not based in irrational or unscientific beliefs. The literature in support of this well-researched position is voluminous. The condemnations and extremely critical analyses and studies of our schools generally have been nothing short of scandalous.


            The discoveries by astute observers that coercion and education are incompatible and antithetical goes back centuries. None other than Plato was very clear about this as the following quote demonstrates:

"The elements of instruction...should be presented to the mind in childhood, but not with any compulsion; for a freeman should be a freeman too in the acquisition of knowledge. ...Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind. Therefore, do not use compulsion, but let early education be rather a sort of amusement; this will better enable you to find out the natural bent of the child."

Plato - The Republic


              The great Russian writer and school headmaster Tolstoy fought against the passage of mandatory attendance laws and wrote eloquent essays on the topic in the 1860’s. Innumerable authors, observers, commentators, (true) educators, and child advocates, have since argued against these laws during their long history.


              One would be hard pressed to find a major newspaper or educational report on any given day currently or in the past century that, despite glowing happy prognostications for the future, does not entail highly negative revelations and that doesn’t reveal facts, statistics, and controversies that tell a sordid story about our beloved schools. We are in fact incredibly schizophrenic when it comes to our beliefs and feelings relative to schools in the US.  


Note: This website will be evolving and expanding for an indeterminate period, depending on time, resources, and the amount of assistance available. Currently, it is the product primarily of just one principal author and one or two technical assistants. Some pages will clearly not be completed or have a conclusion or satisfactory summary until time allows. It has been decided however, that the message as it exists so far is important enough and well-enough organized to date to merit publication in order to inform and involve others who may find it inspiring and motivational. 



ADDITIONAL DISCLAIMER: This website is not about teacher bashing or blaming teacher unions or for that matter the denigration or criticism of any individuals or groups for the obvious problems in schools. We have all had our share of good teachers and even some great teachers whom we have loved. While there are reasons why the public schools have become havens for those few teachers who are not well qualified, the vast majority are highly competent professionals, dedicated, caring, and willing to learn all they can about their field or their special subject matter. The chronic problems are structural and built into the framework that establishes our institutions as top-down bureaucracies. Teachers are typically victims of a systematic assault on autonomy and on organic processes and normal relationships because of external factors caused by the legal framework that dictates arbitrary conditions.