Hero Culture in Education

Beki McElvain, BA Public Policy, 2014
Source: National Education Society (www.nes.org)

Source: National Education Society (www.nes.org)

In his January 2014 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama talked about wages, healthcare, inequality in the workplace, and foreign policy. He also talked a bit about education, but here – while I found myself clapping along with the others on the previous topics – I wasn’t so enthralled. To some, he may have been inspiring, but to me, I couldn’t help but feel there was some tacit sanctioning of a fractured administration in his words.

Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades.” – President Barack Obama, SOTU, January 2014

Extra time. Doing one’s part. Heroes. Today, there are undeniable heroes in education who can be counted on to recognize students who need things like extra time, or more attention, to pass through a standardized system of learning. While this is irrefutably noble, these special teachers and administrators provide essential support for students who might otherwise fail out of an assembly line system of education. The prevalence of do-gooders in the dialogue about education – especially public education – exposes huge organizational issues in the system, and this is true for both public and private schools at every level of learning.

Let’s think about that for a moment. Why are heroes so important? Do we just love do-gooders? Or does the phenomenon of hero teachers call to attention the increasing number of students whose learning styles and abilities lie outside the traditional model of teaching?

Taking into consideration that students are so variable in their abilities that the traditional method of teaching is no longer sufficient and cannot guarantee an enriching educational experience for everyone who attends, some schools are looking for a model of teaching that can be customized to each student’s interests and skills. That is to say, students and their abilities vary so widely that a standardized learning environment is insufficient for producing well-rounded, well-educated graduates fairly. Often, students who possess great cognitive ability and intellectual promise are set up by the existing system to fail outright when subjected to administrations intended to normalize and produce educated people as if they were widgets coming out of a factory. When those outliers do succeed under the traditional educational model, it is because a hero stepped in when she recognized some capability or spark, which, while magnanimous, is in no way sustainable. The hero process isn’t replicable in a systematic sense because hero teachers aren’t available to every student in every school.

Today, there is talk among administrations about whether it is wise or even feasible to attempt to customize the education experience. The current academic environment operates in much the same way an assembly line does, processing people like factories process cars. Like its industrial counterpart, the traditional method of “people-processing” in academia is favored for being both efficient and cost-effective. But unlike industrial assembly lines, the inputs – components that make up the larger whole – are not parts but people. Students vary in their hopes, dreams, and abilities, so the status quo method of stamping out certified scholars can not consistently produce the functional results an automotive factory so easily expects.

Because the traditional model leaves so many students out of the larger educational experience that makes college beneficial, some institutions recommend a shift from “people-processing” organizations to “people-changing” organizations, in which the measure of success is adapted to the student rather than the student adapting to the formalized certification process.  This recommendation is, of course, constrained by outside forces. In the case of many schools, simply recognizing the importance of this fundamental shift is not enough, as cost is always a real deterrent to customization and the rules of regulatory bodies may restrict any real change.

According to accrediting agencies such as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), one important measure of educational achievement is credits earned for completed work. For this credit system to function fairly, all accredited schools under WASC must operate using the same model, which requires procedures for operation and benchmarks for hours spent attending lectures, or  “seat time.” Little allowance is made for other endeavors as potential criteria for graduation.  This places a lot of students in a lot of classrooms, while other interactions and learning experiences aren’t measured at all. How, then, are tutorials and learning moments with mentors measured? How is beneficial growth among peers in a liberal arts environment measured? How can we account for non-traditional learning experiences that might be far more valuable for some students than the traditional allotment of “seat time?” Without heroes, students who thrive and grow in ways that cannot be measured within an organization can be set up to fail. A sustainable model of measurement that captures all forms of enrichment can only be good for an organization, and would do away with the unsustainable hero culture that some students depend on. Regulatory powers would do well to recognize this and allow more freedom to organizations to measure the success subjectively through customization.

The whole concept of  “people-processing” and higher education deserves more thought. While those who step up to mitigate a process of failure in a deficient culture of administration with their own time and effort should be praised, I think the President was off the mark in his State of the Union Address. There is nothing good about failing students out of a standardized system of tests and seat-filling by default, and until that organizational failure is addressed at every institution, and at the very core of academic culture, heroism in schools is just a fortunate circumstance for some, and completely out of reach for others.

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