PopTech Lessons: “Prisoners of a broken system”

Deborah Kenny, head of the Harlem Village School, says that if you want to understand the gridlock in public education today, it comes to this:

“There are 75 different ways to teach middle school math,” Kenny said from the stage at PopTech. “I see all those choices as a good thing. My school district sees that as a bad thing.”

Kenny and her board member and back-up singer, John Legend, described our current public schools as the product of the industrial age, a time when the expectations of children were little more than to learn enough to operate inside a factory or on the family farm.

That early 1800s Industrial Model was designed to prepare people to be citizens in a less complex society. We continue to try to impose factory conditions and protocols on teachers instead of treating them as knowledge workers. So instead of fully engaged professionals, our system encouraged the creation of unions,  whose main purpose was protection of teacher’s rights and jobs rather than fostering of talent.

This “industrial mindset” has failed to bring out passion in many teachers and treated students like replaceable widgets. If we are going to create learning cultures that ignite a student’s passion for learning, we need an “Enriched Environment” where there is both autonomy and accountability for children and teachers.

There are plenty of examples of success. One of them, the Engineering Workshop at West Philadelphia High School was on display at PopTech. A group of students in this otherwise struggling school have won the Race du Sol with their own design of a high-mileage hybrid car, defeating for-profit car companies, engineering schools and even MIT. They also were finalists for the $10 million X-Prize for a 100+ mpg, commercially viable sports car.

What do these two examples have in common? Leadership at both schools gave teachers the autonomy and accountability to pursue the mastery of their specialty. Their progress fed their sense of purpose, which translated into an ability to excite and connect with students.

Notice it had nothing to do with the School Board, the Main Office or the Superintendent.

“Too many of our children are prisoners of a broken system,” Legend told the audience. “Our children need the space to dig deep. We need to realize that intelligence is not one-size fits all.”


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