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The Left

Public Schools Need Not Crash

Image via Newsweek

We may need to tap into music, sports, video games and even some street talents to reach some students.

Do you ever wonder why they don’t make entire airplanes out of the same material they use to make the indestructible “black box?” It’s an old standup comic line that always gets a laugh and makes people pause to wonder, “Hey, why not?”

Physics, with a healthy cluster of common sense, makes the joke untenable as a life-saving measure. Yet it seems that our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos (along with President Trump) believes private/charter schools are the “black box” that will save our K-12 students from a crash into hopeless futures.

Mrs. Devos and her boss (both with a well-known lack of experience within public schools) have long pushed for a voucher-supported roll of the K-12 public school population into a private/charter school system. Problem is, just as with the black box and the aircraft, the nature of private schools prevents the same principles from working for all students.

For example, in charter schools, even if an open lottery is required, there are selective procedures applied to accepting the student body. Many kids who could use a better education are not raised in the family or under circumstances with the inclination, familiarity, time or means to be able to search out the best environments for their children. While Mrs. Devos promotes better scores as evidence of their value, enrolling students from stronger family situations deliver better results for the charters.

Cutbacks in public school budgets handcuff teachers from the crowded traditional schools more than it does in the smaller charters. Moving students into better schools is obviously going to benefit some—but only while producing a larger divide between the best and worst schools that’s as wide as the chasm between the wealthy and those on any sort of assistance. The victims will not only be the children with the least means, but also society as a whole.

Yet the black box scenario can work. While the charter school black box may be too small to fit around the entire public school system, a teaching black box can fit around each student. The good news is that building that box is no great mystery. The mystery is how a system filled with smart people has missed the obvious for so many years.

Bloom’s Taxonomy, the foundation of much of our educational system since the ‘50s, says students must first be capable of “receiving”—paying attention to what is being taught. If the student is not receptive or doesn’t pay attention, learning cannot take place. You engage students’ interest in learning by learning what interests them. Yet, instead of establishing this step, we assume it.

Central to effectiveness is a willingness to teach around a student’s strengths and interests. Each student’s interests and talents may not come in a neatly wrapped package, but we need to tap into the place where the child’s fire and comprehension lives and build from there. Better to start with what they understand than what they don’t, with what drives them not what pushes them away, with what changes them for the better, not what inhibits their desire to learn.

In many cases, we delivers the same education in the same way to every student – using the same techniques and expecting the same result in each student. Changing that will take reform with the students as the greatest beneficiaries – gifted, at risk and in between.

Most important in any teaching proposition is establishing the proper place to start each student’s place of knowledge and comfort. We may need to tap into music, sports, video games and even some street talents to reach some students. With their familiarity in certain areas that aren’t typical bases for academics a complete education can be constructed and expanded to other subjects, including the traditional scholastic ones.

Of course, what is comfortable for the student may be uncomfortable for a system encumbered by a teach-to-the-test mentality. But after so many years of causing discomfort for students it’s only fair that the system take on a little of its own.

The public school system black box should not be about embracing incompetence or lowering standards, but about having students recognize their own strengths—no matter what they are—and using them as a jumping-off point for a quality, well-rounded education. That’s a black box built not only to survive the crash, but to prevent it from ever happening in the first place.

Steve Young is author of “Great Failures of the Extremely Successful…Mistakes, Adversity, Failure and other Steppingstones to Success” (