Teaching, Marketing and Leadership: Why Public Education is a Broken System

Education is one of the strange social contracts we are born into. We don’t get a choice. We have to go to school. It starts before we can possibly understand what it would even mean. School is where we learn about the social conditions that lead to school. Education is such an intrinsic part of the U.S. citizen’s experience of childhood that we don’t even question it. It is too close to us. It has become normalized. We have been culturally conditioned to believe in school.

Have we been lied to?

Education offers no guarantee of social inclusion or financial success. Anyone who does the work to really study and understand a subject will likely benefit from that education, but that is probably a very rare experience among the vastly wasteful and traumatic institution of public education, generally. For most people, school is the closest they will come to being in jail. 

If education was what it said it was, if schools and teachers were adequately funded, then people would be attracted to attend. The fact that we compensate teachers so minimally reveals something closer to the truth about the value of education. As it exists now, it is not worth as much as it should be, and it shows in the way teachers are rewarded. The secret truth is that education is a system that needs to be radically reconsidered and reformed to fit the world we are building. We need a technological revolution in education. We need to rethink how it is done.

When I was in graduate school and teaching at UCSC, there was this trend that was disturbing to a lot of people at the time. Students would evaluate the performance of their teacher at the end of the course and there was a general sense of entitlement and an attitude that is more typical of a customer than a student. The fact that the university is using graduate student labor to teach undergrads, however, is another example undervaluing education. It is a commodity, and it is sometimes a low budget production that is also incredibly expensive. 

Would it be better if we treated education like a business? It would be more honest. We would try harder. There is something about how our educational system is designed that takes the best from us and does not prepare us to succeed in any way, except through compliance. It teaches us the consequence of non-compliance. If school was a good system, it wouldn’t need to rely so heavily on the threat of punishment. 

And yet, school can be a great system. It can work really well for some people. When it is adequately resourced, education can be a thriving and vital culture. When I went to Lewis and Clark College, there was a lot of feeling of freedom. The educational resources were there for you. There was a 14:1 student to professor ratio. You went to dinner at your professor’s homes. It was an intimate experience.

I remember one of the best teachers I ever had, John Haugse, was a visiting painting instructor and he was giving us advice about applying to MFA programs. He said show up to the school on a Friday afternoon and see how busy it is. If the place is humming with activity and people have their hands dirty, then that’s a good sign. If it is quiet, the program is lackluster and won’t get you where you need to go.

Higher education is a gnarly careerist culture. The politics of academia are mind numbing. People are competing for positions of power. It is some strange cross between celebrity-based reality television like programming and pencil pushing accounting. A lot of it is just paperwork. But it is all highly political and therefore everything becomes politicized. You would think that there would be a meritocracy in education, but nepotism and relationships matter as much or more there than in other industries. 

The fallacious foundation of K-12 public education is that it is necessary, which prevents most educators from seeing it as a business. They see it as a utility and therefore do not take it as seriously. In higher education, at least, there is some sense that you have to compete to achieve status. The high school teacher has what power they have because the state gave it to them.

Here’s another way to look at it. In any college curriculum there will be some courses that are mandatory and some courses that are elective. Teaching a course that is a requirement is so much harder and less rewarding than teaching a course that is elective. When people choose to be there instead of having to be there they perform and behave so much better it is hard to describe. It is like the difference between being a prison guard or being the coach of a basketball team. An army of volunteers performs better than an army of conscripts.

What is the original sin of U.S. children that they need to endure 13 years of mandatory institutionalization? What crime did they commit? Why are we asking them to pay with so much of their valuable time? Why don’t people want to go to school? Why don’t they want to study the topics? We haven’t made the experience good enough for them to want to attend. We haven’t earned their attention. 

If we want education to become a better system, we would do well to look at why it relies on a system of punishments. What alternatives could we come up with that would engage with students on a level that would help them to thrive? How can we save our educational system?