Systems Thinking in Education Denies Needs of Our Children, Their Teachers, and Our Society

Yesterday I blogged about National Public Radio’s recent report on a worrisome drop in the number of  students seeking to become certified teachers. And this doesn’t mean students are flocking to the alternative shorter programs like Teach for America.  Their enrollments are down as well. Suddenly thousands fewer young people are seeking to become school teachers.

In response to my blog, the Rev. Richard Sindall, a retired Presbyterian minister sent me his own reflection on the very same subject, posted on his blog on Monday of this week.  I urge you to read Rev. Sindall’s piece, a savvy reflection on the technocracy that has been grinding up our public schools for fifteen years now. Sindall believes thoughtful, skilled teachers are being spit out by a system that has no use for them.

According to Sindall,  education “reformers” operate through the logic of systems thinking, the kind of technocratic planning and management that benefits from massive data sets and computers’ capacity to process the numbers. “The idea is to simplify complex and variable processes by denying validity to the factors the administrators cannot control.  Laws of nature are ignored, and complexities of human development denied relevance…  The deciders and controllers must be able to ‘read’ all that is happening with simple charts, now made much more powerful and convenient with computers.”

Systems thinkers deny the variable and the human: “Trees must line up and grow as the experts command.  Crops must obey and follow the plan.  Peasants must uproot and conform to the demands of collectivization or be destroyed.  And now children must fit the over-simplified and conveniently measurable goals of corporate education reform…  Child development is not their concern. Children will develop as the reformers say they must: that is mandatory.”  Sindall would agree with Dr. James Comer, whose life work at the Yale Child Study Center was to promote education that developed the whole child: “In our School Development Program we consider six pathways critical: physical, social-interactive, psychological-emotional, ethical, linguistic, and cognitive-intellectual.  Contemporary education addresses primarily the linguistic and cognitive pathways.  But it is growth along all these pathways that prepares children for school and for life.  They must gradually take primary responsibility for their own growth, development and performance.” (Leave No Child Behind, p. 74)  As standardized tests cannot measure emotional, ethical, physical or social development and as we lose sight of the overall goal that students must become self-aware and responsible for their lives, we narrow the purpose of our schools to the subjects we test, mathematics and reading.

And what about the teachers? According to Sindall, in the new systems-driven education, “Good teachers are the enemy, because the reformers don’t want teachers; they want trainers, meaning low-wage, no benefits classroom managers who may know little more than the students themselves and so will follow the lesson plans exactly and without question or who, at least, will know nothing of child development and learning theory and so will raise no objections to the inanity of the system…  So it is that the reformers express publicly their contempt for education departments in universities and for teachers’ colleges.”

Sindell is disturbed by the uniformity of systems thinking, its denial of the human—its denial of the local.  And he has a sense that we have a lot to lose: “The tragedy of such grand schemes is that their failure does not come until they have already done terrible damage that may well be irreversible.  Once American public education has been looted and destroyed, how will it be restored from the ashes of corporate reform?”

It is instructive here to return to a vision of public education—reported in 1995 before the imposition of No Child Left Behind’s wave of test-and-punish, data-driven systems reform—in Mike Rose’s Possible Lives, a vision developed in four years’ of trips to visit the classrooms of excellent public school teachers across America.  Rose worried even then, and in his final chapter he describes what he had observed visiting classrooms and what we have to lose: “Vital, varied, they were providing a powerful education for the children in them, many of whom were members of the very groups defined as inferior in times past and, not infrequently, in our ungenerous present.  What I began to see–and it took the accumulation of diverse classrooms to help me see it—was that these classrooms… represented a dynamic, at times compromised and contested, strain in American educational history, a faith in the capacity of a people, a drive toward equality and opportunity, a belief in the immediate link between mass education and a free society…  The teachers I visited  were working within that rich tradition.  They provided example after different example, of people doing public intellectual work in institutional settings, using the power of the institution to realize democratic goals for the children in their charge, and finessing, negotiating, subverting institutional power when it blocked the realization of those goals… When a local public school is lost to incompetence, indifference, or despair, it should be an occasion for mourning, for it is a loss of a particular site of possibility.  When public education itself is threatened, as it seems to be threatened now—by cynicism and retreat, by the cold rapture of the market, by thin measure and the loss of civic imagination—when this happens, we need to assemble what the classroom can teach us, articulate what we come to know, speak it loudly, hold it fast to the heart.” (Possible Lives, pp. 412-433)

I am certain Rev. Sindall would join me in hoping that Mike Rose’s reflection on the public role of education in America has not become merely a quaint memory.

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3 thoughts on “Systems Thinking in Education Denies Needs of Our Children, Their Teachers, and Our Society

  1. Jan: I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy reading your blogs.

    Nancy Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE smartphone

  2. Thank you, Jan. I do indeed join you in that hope that Mike Rose’s reflection on the role of public education does not become just a memory. We are, as you know, in grave danger of realizing the worth of public education only after we have lost it to corporate greed and managerial tunnel vision and arrogance.
    Dick Sindall

  3. Pingback: Systems Thinking in Education Denies Needs of Our Children, Their Teachers, and Our Society | PAChurchesAdvocacy.org

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