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The One Thing That Really Annoys Me

The One Thing That Really Annoys Me

June 13th, 2012 // 2:54 pm @

I think I’ve heard every side of the education debate over the past two decades, including different theories of education, the pros and cons of each new educational fad and curriculum, and the opinions of those who support the typical education system versus the many differing views from those who don’t.

I find most of this discussion healthy and intriguing—after all, all the passion shows that many people care deeply about the education of our children.

But there is one thing that really annoys me.

I read it again just this week.

An otherwise stellar writer and usually wise thought-leader said it, and though I’ve heard it before I still cringe whenever it comes up.

It’s the one thing you can’t really say about fixing education, because it is just plain wrong.Reading to children 200x300 The One Thing That Really Annoys Me

This frustrating argument goes something like this: American education needs serious reforming, there are a lot of good ideas on how to do this, but if the changes depend on parents it just isn’t going to work—the experts, in public and/or private schools, are the only ones who can lead this.

My response? This idea is totally false.

Moreover, it’s downright dangerous to a free nation. Those who promote this idea either don’t know what they are talking about or have some dark agenda.

The Bible says those who hurt our little ones should have a millstone put around their neck and be thrown in the ocean.

Okay, that’s not exactly what the Bible says. And clearly I’m putting too much angst into this. Many of the writers are probably good, well-intentioned people.

I need to calm down. Breathe. Live in the now. Zen.

But, as you can probably tell, this topic really gets my ire up.

I think one of the reasons it is so frustrating is that at first glance it sounds quite reasonable. Many people hear this and nod their heads reflexively.

That’s how much we’ve come to trust experts in modern times. “Give me an expert. Any expert…”

The truth is something quite different.

If parents don’t buy in, no educational reform is going to work, no matter how many experts, think tanks, studies, politicians and Presidents support the change.

More to the point, significant and lasting change will only occur when parents truly lead out.

Parents are the indispensable individuals in reforming education.

Certainly there are exceptions to this, examples of students with little parental support who succeed anyway, but the overall direction of education in society is led by a nation’s parents.

It’s time we admit this and approach education reform accordingly.

The future of our society doesn’t depend on Harvard, it depends on our dinner tables.

Current proposals to fix America’s education system are divided into roughly two categories: (1) those that recommend top-down reforms by experts, and (2) those that suggest changes by parents and students.

Both can help, of course.

With that said, there are very few of the second type, and these are given very little credence by the educational elite.

For example, Montessori, Charlotte Mason, homeschooling and other such bottom-up approaches are seen by the education bureaucracy as perhaps useful for a few children and families but not legitimate systems for widespread improvement of education.

This is the old mistake of aristocracies and meritocracies, where innovators become leaders and then their posterity, from their perch at the top of society, routinely discounts the validity of rising innovations.

An executive at 3M once told me that the company was founded by creative and innovative entrepreneurs, but that today none of them could even get an interview at 3M—their resumes just wouldn’t be enough to get through the door with the new-fangled HR guidelines.

Actually, some of the expert proposals for educational reform are quite good, even innovative.

But the attempt to apply them from the top-down, with expert educational theorists training school managers, is doomed from the start because parents are almost entirely left out of the formula.

The future of our educational system—and, by extension, nation—depends on the values of innovation, initiative, creativity, individualism and entrepreneurialism.

These are hardly the natural lessons of our school environments or curricula, nor are they the example set by most of our current cadre of teachers.

Indeed, with all due respect, emulating many of our modern educators or applying the universal lessons of our typical school environments and textbooks is as close to the opposite of innovation, creativity, initiative, individualism and entrepreneurialism as possible.

This irony is central to our education problem.

The system is widely institutionalized, bureaucratic, anti-innovation and conveyor-belt oriented.

Only innovators can really teach innovation, but innovation is by nature risky and therefore seldom a point of career advancement in our teaching system.

The opposite is true, of course, in the growing non-traditional education sector, which is the source of nearly all proposals of the second type.

Many parents face significant criticism when they choose alternative educational paths for their children, but it is exactly such courageous initiative which trains students to be innovative and creative.

On the one hand, prestige and credibility in education are headed in the direction of more of the same, even while the experts give lip-service to innovation but refuse to actually innovate in major ways.

On the other hand, one generation’s innovators are the next generation’s leaders.

Such non-traditional education may appear strange, or even arrogant and indulgent, today, but it is better to be risky than stagnant.

One cliché remains demonstrably true about history: Change happens, and those who try to achieve progress by refusing to innovate are always disappointed.

Homeschooling is profound precisely because it is led by parents.  Indeed, the people who make this choice are, by definition, innovative, creative and courageous—or will become so if they stick to it. The same holds true of many other non-traditional educational choices.

The truth is, many professional educators already know this.

For example, I grew up in the home of two teachers.

My father taught fourth grade at the local public elementary school, and later taught third grade and served as a vice-principal before he retired.

His entire career was spent in public schools.

My mother’s career was similar. She taught high-school English and spent a few years teaching English at the local community college before returning to teach high school.

Both of them repeated the following mantra so many times that I grew up assuming everyone knew it: Most of the students who excel in public school are those whose parents are deeply involved with their education.

Homeschooling, Montessori, unschooling, and other non-traditional educational models may not be for everyone in our complex modern nations, but one fact remains a verifiable law of educational reform: Any reform that doesn’t engage and involve the nation’s parents will fail.

Write it in stone.

Parents are the indispensable individuals in society’s educational success.

If you want to influence the future of education, get the parents to lead it.

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odemille 133x195 custom The One Thing That Really Annoys MeOliver DeMille is the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of Thomas Jefferson Education.

He is the co-author of New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

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One Comment → “The One Thing That Really Annoys Me”


  1. peteropolis

    2 years ago

    I think a good test at how well a “top down” reform would work would be to give the very top of a states school system 100 million dollars, and tell them “its for the kids, please delegate accordingly. Then give the same to a fund that is controlled by the vote of the parents in that state. Which system would do more good, why, and how was each fund spent. I can give a good guess that the first fund would be completely wasted as is most funding for education these days (we’re mostly working from the top down). Why is it that that more money would actually go to the children if spent from the bottom up?? I believe a good example can be found in the state of NJ schools system. A hint can also be that it has nothing to do with it being about “the kids”, more so for the admins expenditure on their cheap thoughts and lives.


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