One of my central insights to life came in high school. It is, oddly, a lesson whose import I still struggle to convey.
I attended three high schools and was, marginally, a part of a fourth. I attended high schools in Northern California, Southeastern Washington, and here in San Diego. People outside of California probably don’t realize how distinct is each region: the Bay Area is as liberal as Orange County is conservative; Palm Springs is as dry as Eureka is wet; Beverly Hills is as affluent as El Centro is poor. Living in different regions of California is like living in different states. I worked for uncles on farms in Montana; my Montana cousin was a day older than me and we spent time with his friends and classmates from this little farming community.
One thing was common to all these high school communities. Cool was essential to acceptance. If a person was not cool, they had trouble with all the rest. Athletic helped. So did good looking or smart or funny. But lacking an element of cool, all that was for naught. If your classmates thought you were cool, you were set. If they thought you were not cool, well, you may as well go kiss a rock.
By the time I got to San Diego, I had learned something about cool: cool was a construct. It was just made up. What made a person cool in San Diego – the affable easy-going “dude” of the surfers in flip flops – would have made that person alien and distinctly un-cool in Montana, where it was the ability to ride bulls, not waves, that commanded respect. My own sense of liberation probably went too far. I was a terrible student in high school. Atrocious. One semester, I remember my poor father wondering how I could have received 26 absences in one class. (Years later, I was consoled to learn that the amazing singer / songwriter Tom Waits did not just skip some of the same classes I did, but went so far as to drop out of the same high school from which I graduated. I felt somewhat vindicated.)
Knowing that cool is a construct is both liberating and, if one is not careful, alienating. I felt both. But it laid the foundation for a particular kind of worldview. When I was about 15 or 16, my English teacher couldn’t quite figure out a short story I wrote in which the protagonist, Butts Cigar, killed a parallel character from Russia named Buttiski and once he looked down at the corpse, he found a reel of tape that played the same instructions that Butts had received – a moment of existential revelation for Butts and a probably defeatist (or at least ambivalent) ending. The story included mention of parents and teachers as programmed programmers. The idea of programming was still nascent in 1975, but it seemed to me an apt description of the process of socialization.
Years later, I discovered the management philosophy of W. Edwards Deming. Deming stressed the importance of systems – in education or business or government. Deming pointed out that systems are just made up and that once they are, individuals too often focus their attention on performing well in them rather than on changing those systems. This insight seems to me both obvious and profound – as with any useful insight.
As a case in point, let’s go back to high school. (Please, says the reader. Let’s not.) Michael Kauffman used to sit on the board of the Deming User Group with me here in San Diego. I learned quite a bit from him about collaborative creation as an alternative to improvement. Michael continues to work with schools to transform the experience of education rather than improve it.
There might be no better example of the futility of improvement (rather than transformation) than the current mania for standardized testing. Three generations ago, my daughter might have been a teacher, nurse, or mother. A generation ago, her career options might have numbered in the dozens. Today, my daughter plans to be a professor of cognitive science – a field so new that the vast majority of her professors in the cog sci department do not even have degrees in the field. Never have we lived in a time of more options and variation. Never have we lived in a time of greater emphasis on standardized testing. Does no one else see this as foolishness on steroids? We don’t need to improve our ability to score on standardized tests: we need to transform how high schools prepare children for adulthood.
Michael recently posted about the drop out rate in high schools. As it turns out, the states report graduation rates with two sets of books: Mississippi, for instance, calculated their graduation rate as 87 percent in reports submitted to DC and in another exercise reported a rate of 63 percent.
His post shows how things are worse than reported. I think even this misses a bigger point: our education system has stable outcomes, regularly failing about 20% of the students it begins with. Given our emphasis on performance within systems, we have construed this to mean that students are failing. But a system that regularly “fails” such a percentage of students ought to be labeled as a type of failure. More emphasis on meeting the current criteria will not help this or result in transformation. Only starting anew at the state of the individual – each individual – offers hope to make the system work for students.
There are so many ways to succeed in life. We all know people who performed miserably in school but shame us in their business or romantic success. By no stretch of the imagination does school guard the single door to success.
One way to begin the transformation of schools is for communities to begin the conversation about what makes for a “successful” life. Generating a list of what determines success – determinants as varied as competence in relationships and adherence to exercise and diet plans to the ability to make money and influence people to a sense of meaning and engagement in the everyday – is to quickly point out all that is missing in a dozen plus years of education. Until schools do a better job of addressing the many dimensions of being human, they will continue to do a poor job of addressing the needs of more than 50 to 80% of their students. They “fail” the various kinds of students because they fail to address the various ways of being human. Changing this will require transformation.
After all, school is a social construct. Like cool, it is just made up. We don’t have to accept this. We can make up something new – something that better accords with the reality of what it means to be human in the 21st century.