U.S. Education: The Rite of Spring-By Michaela Murphy

Rite of SpringThe education system in the USA is a very exciting place to be working right now. First of all, it is a broken system. Dropout rates are at an all-time high and U.S. global rankings continue to decline. It’s depressing to write this, yet also exciting, especially because I am so passionate about education and consider my time in the classroom as a teacher to be a privilege.

Being a teacher is my favorite occupation; and I am very lucky to have many other favorites: I am a storyteller, writer, speech-coach, and communications consultant. These additional occupations have afforded me with many more enjoyable pursuits. For example, I wrote and performed a play that was produced Off-Broadway and my work has been featured in both The New Yorker and at The White House. I have also taught classes at many universities including programs that I’ve directed at both Yale and Barnard College. My thirty-year career is a diverse career and spans a broad range of industries and disciplines. I entirely credit my unique education background for this great fortune.

I posit the current educational demise in the U.S. as exciting because I am attracted to systems that are about to be disrupted.  I have a similar attitude toward the low completion rates observed among international students at U.S. undergraduate universities.

Let me explain.

I believe that some systems, processes, and traditions must break—violently or gently—so that they can be re-imagined, reinvigorated, and reborn. In 1913, when Igor Stravinsky first debuted his symphony, ‘The Rite of Spring,’ there were riots in the streets of Paris—it was such a radical departure from traditional classical music that it set people screaming to the streets.

When I look at the astounding education statistics regarding not only the U.S. but those of many countries, I chose not to despair but to look at what is working and get ready to innovate the changes to come.

This could very well be The Rite of Spring.

As I look back at my career and at the education that helped to forge my success, two very different events come to mind.

One, the cutting of arts programming—during my middle school years—to public schools in Rhode Island; a trend that extended throughout the U.S.  The day that these cuts were announced, at the very beginning of the school year, teachers went on strike to protest and made the evening news. I remember watching my beloved art teacher so angry and upset, screaming at passive school officials who countered that these classes and programs were frivolous and that their elimination (and the loss of many jobs) was necessary.

Once the strike ended and school began, students would walk past the empty art, music, and theater rooms confused by what was lost—and why these classes were deemed dispensable. While I loved my math, English, and science classes, it was the music, art, and theater classes that helped me to see how it all connected. I have always been a storyteller, and my ability to map connective patterns was how I made sense of the world.  My classmates and I were not fully aware of the implications or of how the changes would impact our lives moving forward, yet there was a pernicious sense that we had been robbed of a fundamental part of our education.

My career as an educator has reinforced my belief in the importance of arts in the classroom. When significant cuts are made to programming that provides an exploration of the soul, that system is likely to produce a society that is unaware of who they are and are often lost as to their sense of purpose.

The creative curriculum funding that was cut nationwide in the 1970s occurred at the beginning of a 40-year decline in graduation rates and achievement scores in the U.S. There is compelling, yet not conclusive, data to support the theory that the cutting of arts programming played a factor—the lack of data is because the arts were so disregarded that no one thought to track the metrics from this purview. Yet if we think about the multitude of ways in which individuals learn and then consider the possible impact of extracting a part of a system that nurtures the imagination and cultivates curiosity—not based on getting the ‘right’ answer but focused on personal exploration and creative expression—it is difficult to discount the current decline in global U.S. ranking as a possible consequence.

The second event that shaped the quality of my education—positively this time—was when my parents enrolled me in a Catholic all-girls high school in Providence Rhode Island, a school with a non-traditional approach to education, offering an independent study curriculum designed for one course of study for eight weeks. Students were encouraged to go at their own pace and, in some cases, were able to complete a given course within six or seven weeks.

Classes were small, and because each student was on their own track, were comprised of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Each student would work off of a ‘Learning Activity Packet (LAP),’ one for each week of the course; and they would sign up for one-on-one tutorials with their teacher. Once they had completed the LAP (including group projects in addition to independent study), students were tested. Based on their scores, they would either commence the next lesson or repeat a section of that LAP. At the end of the course, students were given a detailed, written evaluation of their progress (not a letter grade) before moving on to the next course of study. I am extremely fortunate to have been educated within this system as it allowed me to experience how I learned and primed me for a lifetime of curiosity and self-directed education.

My high school was considered to be radical, for the time, in their approach, and ultimately was unable to sustain the costs of doing business given the small student body and the competition from more traditional private schools. It consequently closed a few years after I graduated.

While at Boston University, and as a young adult beginning a career, I came to appreciate the value of my high school education. I was aware that I possessed a sense of purpose, confidence, and self-direction that my peers lacked, qualities that have given me the grit to fail and not give up, and that has made all of the difference.

That’s why, thirty years later, it is fascinating to look at the education system in Finland. In the 1970s Finland ranked poorly in education while the U.S. was the unquestioned world leader. Today, these two countries have changed places. More than 99% of Finnish students complete compulsory basic education: U.S. rankings are at an all-time low.  How did this happen? The processes of change to educational policies in Finland are almost a complete reverse of the policies in the U.S.

Since the 1970s, the U.S. has cut arts programs in schools and has imposed more external testing meanwhile tolerating inequitable conditions in local schools. Students and teachers lack resources, adequate funding, and training, ultimately undermining the desired outcomes sought through testing.

Finland has taken a very different approach. Until the age of 16, students are required to study music, visual arts, and crafts education. Most strikingly, Finnish teachers encourage students to work at their own pace, establish weekly goals for themselves, and seek out the information that they need in an environment that nurtures their imagination cultivates curiosity, and permits evaluation of their own progress and understanding of how it is that they learn.

Earlier on, I explained why the educational demise in the U.S. and low graduation rates among international students at U.S. undergraduate universities could be considered exciting. I find it to be the opportunity to look at what is working and get ready to innovate the changes to come.

What if the elimination of the arts and explosion of testing not only had a detrimental effect  on U.S. education but also on international students, particularly those from educational systems of high testing and little to no arts programming? How interesting it would be to analyze the completion rates of Finnish students at U.S. undergraduate institutions.

I will leave this charge to you, my reader—but I digress.

One of the great features of my high school’s Leaning Activity Packets was that they were designed for educators and students to be able to pinpoint exactly where a connection was lost. Rather than take the whole course over, students could go back to where they last had a solid grasp of the lesson. Perhaps, it would be a good idea for educators in the U.S. and abroad to do likewise—go back to the last time education was functional and identify where the connection was lost; and most importantly, be willing to disrupt the status quo.

Cited in this essay:

Sahlberg, 2007, Education policies for raising student learning: The Finnish approach, Journal of Education Policy