Service is never one dimensional. It can be offered and delivered for different reasons, some of which are opposites based on practical, political, or religious convictions. Or what one considers correct or incorrect thinking. We serve what we believe at the moment. No matter where or how that belief originated.

My professional service as an educator is rooted in opening intellectual doors to promote critical and creative thinking, which are the foundation for richer and more productive lives. I do not believe in indoctrination. Especially the kind based on promoting skills or actions designed to fulfill intentions of leaders with questionable ambitions or nefarious goals. Or objectives that are either operationally neutral or just mechanistically useful.

Scientists who invented the atom bomb found the project to be an interesting challenge and service to their country. They only later thought about the social implications of their work.

Engineers who designed and built the RMS Titanic and other ships of its class accepted poorly thought-out principles and techniques. To achieve the look of British magnificence and performance. Accepting shortcuts necessary to impress and compete. Which resulted in an unmitigated disaster.

This article is about such ways of thinking and action in our schools for over two decades.

The impact of COVID-19 on schools seems multidimensional. Student enrollment is down. Learning quality has suffered. Teachers and principals are demoralized. Thousands of educators have left or plan to leave.

Multiple solutions are being considered: salary improvements, reductions in certification requirements, and upgrades in working conditions. All quick fixes to address big challenges.

But quick fixes are merely patch jobs. Repairs to keep the schools from sinking until more substantial improvements are made. If ever.

Lessons from the Titanic Disaster

We know the story about the RMS Titanic and its 1912 sinking after striking an iceberg. The iceberg collision revealed fundamental flaws in the ship’s construction and operation.

An iceberg in the ocean was like the COVID-19 pandemic. A phenomenon of nature that proved our human vulnerability and hubris.

For the Titanic it is was bad metallurgy. The use of rivets to assemble the hull’s plates. Poorly designed “waterproof” compartments. Excessive nighttime speed through a field of icebergs. Above all, the advertised claim the ship was unsinkable gave both passengers and the ship’s officers a sense of invulnerability and haughtiness.   

And they paid a horrible price. Similar to what is happening to American young people today.

The pandemic exposed existing issues begun 22 years ago with the creation of No Child Left Behind. NCLB’s inspiring name, just like Titanic, masked serious design flaws. Reducing teachers to the level of civil servants made to comply with bureaucratically created academic standards. Held accountable for student success on high stakes pencil and paper tests. Narrowing curriculum to basic skills, which had the effect of minimizing critical thinking and creative behaviors.

During the worst of the pandemic, teachers were forced to conduct virtual instruction from home. They did not have deep enough knowledge of curricular intentions or modified instructional techniques to maintain momentum. That was the beginning of student learning decline and intense teacher anxiety and depression.

There is no chance of preserving much of anything from the wreck of the Titanic, over two miles under the surface. Only a few artifacts have been lifted from the debris field. Scientists believe the entire ship will disappear by the middle part of the 21st Century.

Is that also the destiny of American education?

What Is Learned from Disasters

Since the loss of the Titanic, much has been learned about the building of large metal ships. And how to save passengers when they founder. Can the same be said for the era begun by NCLB?

Titanic foundered primarily because of inadequate rivets and metallurgical issues with its hull in extremely cold conditions. NCLB foundered because it discounted the value of creative and relational teaching/learning processes. It also placed far too much initial importance on basic skill development in reading and mathematics.

The Titanic’s engineers and builders knew about oceanic conditions and weather-related threats. But, like the inventers of NCLB, discounted the underlying importance of variables. Variables like unusually large icebergs with huge subsurface masses. Or human learning needs that are multitudinous and eclectic.

Titanic’s captain and crew understood the threat of icebergs. They accelerated anyway, because they were told their ship was unsinkable. NCLB theorists believed that high stakes tests designed to assess teacher accountability and promote a competitive spirit between and among schools would improve the quality of student learning.

Both assumptions have been proven wrong.

Titanic sideswiped an iceberg and sank. Schools lost whatever effectiveness they had when teachers were micromanaged. Reduced to the level of civil servants. Required to excessively narrow the curriculum. 

Before running into a pandemic.

Restructuring our schools based on what we have learned will take more time and effort than learning how to build better ships. Good ships need a better understanding of their component parts and how they are assembled. Plus crews that know how to effectively pilot them.

Schools need autonomously professional teachers well prepared in both curriculum and instructional design. Teachers given the authority to stimulate and regularly assess the quality of creative learning.

Preparing teachers in such a comprehensive manner and giving them a work environment that allows them to perform in ways that produce quality 21st Century citizens, is no small task.

Nor can it be based on old mindsets as to what teachers are and do.

The professional status of teachers must far exceed what it is now. Not simply in monetary compensation. But also in terms of how well they inspire students as purposeful future citizens who have the potential to live meaningful lives.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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