Education’s Love of the Instant Fix

The education system’s quest for quick solutions, while noble, often creates more problems than it solves

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

These days, burnout is an accepted outcome of being a teacher. The spark that motivates us to go into that classroom every day starts to fizzle, ground down by a host of pressures. There’s the ever-increasing amount of rigid rules and regulations. There’s the ongoing emotional fallout of trying to help young people and solve their problems (and not always succeeding). And there’s the burden of seemingly endless—and sometimes seemingly pointless—change.

That last one stems from an understandable impulse. We look at our struggling students and underperforming schools, and think: “Something must be done. Here is something. Therefore, it must be done.” Certainly, teaching and learning require adaptation and innovation, but in the educational world, the shuffle seems neverending on every level: Apply new standards, institute a revised lesson-plan format, reschedule the reading block, purchase a new computer program, demand specialized training, maintain additional records …

It sometimes feels like we’re substituting activity for achievement. A school may not be able to brag about test scores in the parent newsletter, but they can list a half-dozen things they’ve instituted that are gonna change all that. And so it goes, from the decisions of a single grade level in a single school to nationwide initiatives that affect tens of millions of students.

The rollout of Common Core remains a towering example of the “Now!” principle in action. In June 2009, a group was convened to create a set of national standards. Those standards were completed in June 2010 and to be implemented in the 2010-11 school year. Virtually every state signed on as soon as the ink was dry: Heck, Kentucky officially adopted the standards in February 2010, before they were even completed.

I recall sitting in a classroom somewhere across town after 6 p.m. in early spring 2010, after having been chosen as one of our school’s four teachers who would attend a district meeting to advance scout the Common Core. I inhaled the last of the can of Starbucks Mocha Doubleshot Energy and tiny bag of Cheez-Its that passed for my dinner and wondered how in the hell we were supposed to pull this off. It wasn’t just about learning the new framework of, well, everything, but all the other moving parts.

Would this align with all of the standardized tests we were giving at the time? (Not really.) Would this year’s new third-grade standards mesh with last year’s second-grade standards? (Not really.) How would all of our existing materials align with the standards and their sequence? (They wouldn’t.) Where would we get the time and money to try to adapt everything we had into everything we’d need? (Who knows?) At some point, we gave up on asking too many questions—Let’s not be negative!—and prepared to buckle down as our usual tropical storm-level of change reached hurricane force.

I saw dozens of smaller-scale examples of the quick fix during my time as a Clark County School District teacher. One of the most potent happened before I met my students. As I cleaned and painted my first classroom to prep for my first year, I found two of my cabinets were crammed with unsteady stacks of brightly colored plastic laptops, overflowing boxes of booklets and discs, fearsome tangles of power cords and headphones. They were called LeapTracks, and they were the boldest, brightest innovation 2002 had to offer. Of course, it was now 2006 …

A few teachers still used them, but most of us were too swamped trying to keep up with the modern and mandated to dig into how to use the already existing and non-required. But even as I left that school eight years later, I was still opening drawers to find dusty old LeapTracks, expensive relics reminding me of the dozens—nay, hundreds—of initiatives eagerly embraced and then nonchalantly cast off when the next sure thing came along.

This impulse of the “Now!” also powers the engines of our vast education-industrial complex. Test scores low? Try our new textbooks—and better buy the online version, too. Still not seeing progress? Purchase the intervention kits and the test prep materials—or, better yet, call in our consultants. Do something! With more than $600 billion spent on public education each year, there’s plenty of market to share.

While throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks may not be the best idea, it should be noted that the goal behind it is genuine. We don’t have time to waste: These kids will never get to be in first, second, fifth, eighth, 11th grade again, so we have to give them every opportunity for success we can. But in the rush forward, we need to make sure that we don’t trip ourselves—and the students—up.

Senior writer Lissa Townsend Rodgers was an elementary school teacher in the Clark County School District from 2006-14.