How schools fail kids by not failing them

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Before he begins, Michael Zwaagstra wants everyone to know that he is not an advocate of private school over public school. He teaches history at a public high school in Steinbach, Manitoba, and grew up learning in the public system. Above everything else, he is a supporter of children receiving correct, thorough, and effective education.

With that made clear, he goes on.

"But there are problems that exist within the public school system..."

On December 4, 2010 he delivered his key points as to why public schools are failing to properly prepare today's students for the real world to the attendees of the Society for Quality Education's (SQE) annual general meeting in downtown Toronto, mostly because, he argues, that schools refuse to fail students.

According to Zwaagstra, in many provinces it is incredibly difficult, if not downright impossible, to assign students a mark of zero for incomplete work, or dock marks for late assignments or academic dishonesty. He notes complaints from university professors that their students are unable to meet deadlines, form proper essays, or think critically about their subjects. He also points to the success of extracurricular tutoring programs like Kumon as testament to schools' failure to give enough instruction to students.

In his book What's Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them (excerpted here), co-authored by Rodney Clifton and John Long, Zwaagstra makes the argument that the new "romantic progressivism" philosophical approach adopted by many schools are leaving today's students coddled and ill-prepared to handle the demands of university and work. Whereas traditional methods emphasized wisdom from practical knowledge, discernment from critical reflection, and insight from specialized knowledge, this new romantic progressivism encourages a de-emphasis on knowledge by focusing more on the learning process than on core materials, using the lack of specific content included in many course outlines in public school as a clear example. A lack of teacher leadership and expertise, principals with little power to change their school's curriculum, inadequate standardized testing, and the absence of school choice are also responsible for students' poor performance in university, according to Zwaagstra.

While his views are controversial, many in attendance were in agreement.

"The autonomy of principals is the main thing, without that you can't manage schools," said Richard Burghardt. "He puts it all together in a way, I think, many people think. And I certainly also agree."

"The aspect that we're most interested in is school choice...most of the other solutions he was talking about are not going to happen really until you have the school choice and the competition," said SQE's president Malkin Dare.

However, these opinions are in stark contrast to the lessons of many university Departments of Education which promote child-centred instruction and dissuade direct instruction and lectures (of which Zwaagstra is a fan), and countless alternative independent and private schools, which are still consistently producing able and successful graduates. Opposers, like Annie Kidder, argue that standardized testing unfairly judges students with different learning styles and speeds and schools are places to educate all aspects of a child, not only to teach facts.

Watch the full video below:

Michael Zwaagstra: What's Wrong With Our Schools (And How We Can Fix Them) from Atlantic Institute for Market St on Vimeo.

—Carly Maga
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