For anyone concerned with the problems in our public schools. this book is a must read. As the author suggests in the title, Elizabeth Witbeck fully intends to stir things up with this book… a lot. Clearly, change is in the wind. “Our public school system is a wreck… Today everybody agrees that the system is broken.” Teaching to the test, then blaming teachers for institutional failures, will not solve the problem. There are other ways. Witbeck offers many progressive alternatives. We should, for example, engage kids “in life experiences in which they can apply what they are learning” by … exposing them to books, magazines, newspapers, trade journals, periodicals …”
Meanwhile, cloud-based (Internet) technology has leveled the playing field. Genuine learning and knowledge are no longer confined to brick-and-mortar schools. Kids can now connect with thousands of teachers, anywhere, anytime, at the touch of a smartphone or ipad. Customized learning is now on the horizon. When students attend lectures online, teachers are free to spend more time in one-on-one interactions in the classroom. This is a golden opportunity to make classroom learning both fun and challenging.
Witbeck quickly identifies the fallacy, also pointed out by such visionaries as Sir Ken Robinson, of grouping kids, as Robinson puts it, “according to their date of manufacture.” Indeed, the school-as-factory is a useful metaphor, because, as Witbeck argues, the school system is set up according to an archaic model based on a bygone era: the industrial revolution. Schools were, Witbeck would argue, set up to provide human resources to feed corporate interests. Yet few parents want to see their kids treated as cannon fodder to feed corporate gluttony.
If students are not getting what they need in school, then they, along with other stakeholders such as parents and teachers, will take matters into their own hands. Either the school administration will be open to radical change, or it will lose the popular support of the community. Ultimately, that will mean loss of political support as well. This book serves as a fine introduction to the central educational contradictions of our time. It is a call to action, a manifesto.
In Chapter 5, Witbeck provides numerous cases in which Americans “become wealthy and famous, often in spite of their education rather than because of it.” Witbeck argues that “factory-schools” suppress genius, rather than fostering it. Examples of such Americans include Howard Schultz, Michael Phelps, Danica Patrick, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, Jill Abramson, Ralph Lauren, Madonna, Richard Branson, and Susan Gregg Koger. These are just some of the creative and industrious individuals who made their mark on the world not by virtue of the public school system, but rather in spite of it.
Many questions are indirectly raised by the book, and many deserve further discussion elsewhere. Who will be the new authorities? How will schools and educational funds be integrated with tele-learning? How will high community standards—based on shared values, not on the old model--be maintained? How do we channel the energy of kids towards real achievement, and away from addictive videogames and consumption? Many kids are not yet mature enough to resist the dangers of advertisers who are after kid’s money, and care little about the future. Kids need our guidance and support. How can we mentor our kids, and break their habit—fostered by a factory-like school system—of acting like unmotivated employees? How can we empower them to become responsible at an earlier age? How can we help them take ownership of, and responsibility for, their own education? How can we teach kids to become their own teachers?
No one book has all of the answers. But far more important than the answers are the questions that are raised. “Raising Ruckus: The Decline of Public Education in the 21st Century” is both timely and innovative. The issues raised in this book certainly deserve a considered and open-minded response from educational policy makers. Those who simply dismiss it as glib or subversive do so at their own peril.
This book brings a fresh and enthusiastic—and ultimately quite optimistic—point of view within the easy reach of the genuine stakeholders in public education. Teachers are the unsung heroes of our public schools, and they suffer both economically and socially under the current oppressive system. Parents know their kids deserve a better childhood than they get in school. Students know they face unprecedented challenges in our rapidly changing global marketplace. Whether or not they agree with everything that is said in the book, all forward-looking people can benefit from Witbeck’s radical perspective on education.
The author dreams of creating a model school prototype that embraces the vision and values of her book. I, for one, eagerly await what she will have to say, as she struggles against the powers that be, to realize that dream. And struggle she will. It will not be easy to reach the tipping point. Corporations will funnel billions of dollars into resisting change.
Kids should be dreamers too—not factory drones. As Bob Dylan put it so well, in what seems like a bygone era, “the times they are a changing.” He also pointed out that “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
No, we are not back in the 60s. But with the new mandate of the 2012 election, to promote the middle class and resist authoritarian control driven by corporate greed, there is certainly a sense of déjà vu. Change is in the wind.