Parent-Teacher Cooperation

The Flaws of a One-Size-Fits-All Educational System

“I know my son will read well. He’s just not on the school’s timetable for doing it.” One parent says kids should discover, not ignore, their talents in the classroom…but does our current educational model allow that?

ADHD students taking a test
ADHD students taking a test

When I was in fourth grade, in the mid-1970s, my teacher announced to the class that I was going to be an artist. The truth was that she didn’t think I had any academic talent to speak of. I was an “ADHD boy” who couldn’t follow directions, figure out what page we were on in the book, or turn my work in on time. With a severely limited understanding of the brain, my teacher simultaneously overestimated my artistic talent and underestimated my intellectual gifts.

School, particularly elementary school, was not for boys like me. And, 25 years later, even the best schools have changed only slightly. Like many others who deviated from the norm, I learned more from exploring my passions than I ever did from a structured school setting. With the help of numerous mentors, I taught myself to write op-eds, lead teams, speak, and advocate. I cared about ideas, not primarily because of school, but in spite of it. The Washington, D.C., area, alive with political discourse, was the perfect place to exercise my passions, and I moved here in my early twenties to take a job in advocacy.

Do Our Schools Really Work?

Now I have two boys of my own, neither of whom has an ordinary learning style. My teenage son goes to what is widely considered an excellent private school in the area, with wonderful, committed teachers. But, like nearly every other educational institution in America, it’s built on an outmoded model.

I began to question the current model of education when the headmaster of my son’s school showed a video clip at a graduation ceremony of Ken Robinson, speaker, author, and international advisor on education in the arts, discussing how education kills creativity. Robinson, author of The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, maintains that we are using a model of education, left over from the Industrial Revolution, in which schools are organized along factory lines. “We educate kids in batches, as if the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture,” he states in another video on the topic.

Influenced by Robinson, best-selling author Seth Godin recently published a manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams, on the need for radical education reform. He lays out the need for a post-industrial educational model that caters to diverse learning styles, passion for ideas, and what students care about. In such a school, teachers are coaches who help students in a journey of self-discovery. Students have a lot of choice in determining what they study and how they study it, in stark contrast to the one-size-fits-all system of today.

Your child is right when he says he will never use trigonometry (unless so inclined). Exposing him to variety is one thing, but forcing the same subject on him for 13 years is another. In the modern marketplace, depth is as important, if not more so, than breadth. Schools are all about breadth.

Does School Bring Out Our Kids’ Greatness?

In today’s schools, the “good” students conform, diminishing their prospects for greatness, and the rest end up in an excruciating battle with themselves, their parents (trust me on this), their teachers, and a string of tutors. My job as a parent, I’m reminded by the school, is to enforce the absurdity of the current system – to make my kids turn everything in on time — which I faithfully do because there seems to be no other choice.

My younger child, a rising second-grader, as rambunctious and restless as any child you’ll run into, has “fallen behind” in reading. He is “not sufficiently available for learning,” we are told. His teachers and guidance counselors, loving and well meaning as they are, insist that he take ADHD medication so he can amp up his reading and catch up with his classmates. He’s a creative, bright, independent boy, who will, there’s no doubt in my mind, learn to read well and become successful. He’s just not on their timetable for doing it.

We are forced, to use the word of Ken Robinson, to “anesthetize” our son so he can function in an antiquated classroom setting. Ritalin will do nothing to make him a more successful human being, a better thinker, or a more productive member of society. It will help him keep up with the masses, and, potentially, drain him of his creative juices. By forcing him and many children like him to take these powerful drugs, schools deprive the future economy and society of the creative talent they will need the most.

Says Greg Selkoe, the 36-year-old CEO of Karmaloop — a Boston-based company that is one of the world’s largest online retailers of streetwear, with revenue of more than $130 million a year — in a recent interview in Inc. magazine: “I was diagnosed with ADHD in elementary school, and got kicked out of several schools before landing in one for kids with learning challenges. What made me not do well in school has been very beneficial in business, because I can focus on something intensely for a short while and then move on to the next thing.”

Yet today’s schools insist that we prescribe drugs to our kids to rid them of their valuable hyperfocus.

I’ve talked with a number of educators who see the writing on the wall for the current education system. They know that economic reality demands that schools change. But they also know that parents would balk at such changes, fearful that it might lessen their kids’ chances to go to a good college.

It will take far-sighted leadership to change the current educational mindset and model. In the meantime, my kids will struggle through school, battered along the way, and, like their father, be forced to discover most of their talents and passions on their own, outside of school.

DAVID BERNSTEIN is a nonprofit executive who lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He has two sons, ages seven and 15.