All of my life I’ve maintained an interest in public policy and I’ve been no stranger to strong opinions. Taxes, healthcare, energy, foreign policy. If you want an opinion I’ve got one for you. Yet there’s been one area of public policy that I’ve had very little interest in: education. Until now.
Lately, I find myself stating some very bold opinions about education. My Facebook page is littered with quotes from Seth Godin’s new manifesto on education, Stop Stealing Dreams: what is school for? At night when I’m ready to curl up and watch a movie I find myself forgoing the oldies but goodies and instead turning on documentaries on education like Waiting for Superman.
What happened? Why the sudden interest? Wait, strike that. Why the sudden passion for education policy?
It’s because my wife and I have reached that point with our oldest child. Our son Jackson is 4 years old. Suddenly the theoretical question about what we’ll do in regards to our kids’ education has become a very practical one.
I’ll admit I felt a little unqualified to discuss the topic when my Facebook posts elicited responses from teachers who’ve spent, in some cases, decades in the classroom. What did I know about how to reform education? What gives me the right to be such an adamant critic of the current education paradigm?
I can’t and won’t claim to be a definitive voice in the discussion. Having struggled through modern American education through most of my schooling years I do have some serious questions to raise though.
- Why did my 4th grade teacher tell me and my parents that I would never amount to anything?
- Why would I, as an 11-year-old, think I was stupid?
- Why did my 7th grade science teacher tell me I was dumb when I gave the wrong answer after being called upon?
- Why did my pre-algebra teacher berate me for finding the right answer in the wrong way?
- Why were all of the things I was interested in not important in school?
And after asking these questions I ask this one:
Why would I subject my kids to that kind of environment?
Is the education system broken? Some, like Rachel Denning who opened this series on education reform, would say no. Rachel would say that our education system is doing exactly what it was designed to do: training compliant workers for an industrial, consumer-based society.
I don’t know if it’s broken or if it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do. Here’s what I do know:
The current education paradigm is not serving the needs of our emerging (already here) world. Whatever the original intent of compulsory education — whether sinister or altruistic — our world has changed, and school, largely, has not.
This is not a public school problem. Private schools, with few exceptions, operate within the same paradigm as public schools.
Yet for all my criticism of the modern education paradigm I have this one stark contrast for the way education could be. It’s an anomaly in the paradigm.
It’s Mr. Babbitt.
I never did well in school and by the time I was a freshman in high school I was placed on the lower-track. The system placed me in classes that were less likely to challenge me and less likely to prepare me for college in a world that places immense value on pieces of paper handed out at ceremonies by famous institutions.
Occasionally I hear people talk about how early on schools in Europe determine which kids will go onto advanced schools and which will continue on for a more basic education. We do the same thing in America, only in America the system doesn’t tell you.
As a freshman in high school, on a 4-point scale, I had a 1.2 grade point average. Yet I remember this being a time of heightened academic curiosity on my part. Most days after school I walked the 14 blocks to the public library. I was practically an amateur baseball historian, but my interest went beyond balls and strikes. I was interested in Babe Ruth as a marketing icon. Jackie Robinson became my hero and baseball became my gateway to learning about the civil rights movement. To this day I can still recount word-for-word the dialogue between Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson when Jackie was about to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
But in our education system, learning about the civil rights movement through baseball was like getting the right answer the wrong way in pre-algebra.
Report cards came and mine were laced with C’s, D’s, and F’s.
But then something happened.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered what my life would be like today were it not for Mr. Babbitt. It was like I was on that lower-track conveyor belt and he just reached down and plucked me off it and placed me on a different track.
He did something for me that no other teacher ever had. He believed in me.
As a junior in high school I sat in his U.S. History class and achieved something I hadn’t done in years. I got an A.
When I think back to my final two years of high school I realize there were other teachers along with Mr. Babbitt who inspired me. There’s something wrong, though, with a system that allows a kid to float through for 10 years thinking he’s stupid before a teacher like Mr. Babbitt performs a miracle.
I’m thankful for Mr. Babbitt. But systems shouldn’t be built on miracles.
When I think about education reform I think about Mr. Babbitt. What did he do that was so right that so changed my life?
Mr. Babbitt gave great lectures. Had I said so at the time I think my friends would have laughed at me, but I remember sitting in his classroom being absolutely captivated. But more than being my teacher, I would say that Mr. Babbitt was my coach. I still remember little comments he interjected into discussions he heard me having before or after class. I still have books that he gave me in response to those same conversations that challenged my way of thinking.
None of that stuff was on the test. He didn’t care if my introduction to the civil rights movement was Jackie Robinson and he let my fascination with Ronald Reagan open up a whole world of learning about economics, communications, global politics, nuclear war, and on and on.
At the beginning of my senior year of high school I approached Mr. Babbitt about participating in the Hoosier Academic Super Bowl. Schools throughout the State of Indiana fielded teams to participate in particular topics and because of my interest in history I was interested in participating in the Academic Super Bowl as a part of the history team. Mr. Babbitt was the coach of all of our school’s academic teams and thus the man to talk to.
He told me he thought I should instead do Academic Decathlon, where each student participates in 10 subjects. Math, science, literature, music and visual arts, history — the gamete.
I asked him if he knew my track-record in those other courses. He did. And he wanted me on the team anyway.
Participating in Academic Decathlon was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It was a rigorous academic exercise that intensified as the year went on. It was collaborative. I was on a team with eight other students. We had a coach, a leader. Other teachers became resources we turned to to fill in gaps. It required a significant commitment, arriving at school very early in the morning and staying late into the evening. Then we’d do a full day on Saturday.
After months of work we won the state championship and advanced to nationals. It was the first Academic Decathlon team Mr. Babbitt coached to the state championship. He hasn’t lost since –15 years running.
After my team competed in nationals we came home to wrap-up the final few weeks of the school year. For months we’d been arriving at school at 5:30 in the morning and that first Monday morning after nationals several of us arrived at 5:30 again, and we continued to do this until graduation. It became a time for reading, collaborating, and throwing around ideas — the type of stuff we didn’t typically get to do at school. We had become life-long learners, but not learning for learning’s sake. We wanted to figure out what we could do with this stuff.
Seth Godin titled his treatise Stop Stealing Dreams. I experienced a bit of that.
Mr. Babbitt taught me to dream again.
Mr. Babbitt is an anomaly. Anomalies destroy paradigms.
Because of modern education’s emphasis on test scores and doing things the “right” way, my wife and I have decided to (you choose the term) home/world/road educate our kids. Like all parents, it’s something we’ve been doing since they were born. The only difference with us is that we’re choosing to continue to be the primary facilitators of their education while many of their peers enter the school system.
Having made the decision to continue to be the primary facilitator of our kids’ educations, why worry about all this public policy stuff?
The question isn’t whether I care about my own kids. The question is whether I care about kids everywhere. My kids are going to be fine. My wife and I will help provide a truly world class education for them. But our path is not the path of every family and I’m not willing to look at a kid somewhere whose parents aren’t involved and say, “Sorry, kid. Your education was your parents’ job.They didn’t do it.You’re just out of luck. Sorry.”
That’s why I’m a part of this discussion. I write this with trepidation, but I personally feel a moral obligation to do whatever I can to ensure that kids everywhere — not just my kids — have access to an educational system that will excite them, challenge them, and help them develop into dreamers and doers.
Those doers of dreams will create a future my kids and I will want to live in. They’ll develop new technologies, alleviate hunger, and cure diseases. Those things will happen not so much by memorizing the periodic table or the English monarchs but through the type of creative collaboration I learned from my learning coach, Mr. Babbitt.
Clark Vandeventer is on a quest to work less, live more, and travel the world with his family. Just setting out on that quest was no easy task. It came after a ridiculous amount of success in his career followed by a steady dose of failure. A former non profit executive, Clark is now a fundraising consultant and a merchant services rep while working to become what Mr. Babbitt always told him he was: a writer. You can follow Clark and his wife Monica on their journey at Family Trek.
This post is one in a series about Redefining Education. Other articles in the series are: