Reinvigorating Education

Looking for ways to attract businesses? Improve education. Want to reduce crime? Improve education. Open opportunities? Education.

The key to improving our state is reinvigorating our public schools—especially schools that serve urban or lower-income communities.

Businesses say they want educated workers. Executives and employees want to send their children to good schools.

According to the Rhode Island State Constitution,

The diffusion of knowledge, as well as of virtue among the people, being essential to the preservation of their rights and liberties, it shall be the duty of the general assembly to promote public schools and public libraries, and to adopt all means which it may deem necessary and proper to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education and public library services.
—RI Constitution, Article XII

The Possibility of the Public School

A dozen years ago, during the brief time I was a stay-at-home dad, all the conversation on the playground was about schools. What are you going to do? Keep them in Preschool another year? Send them to private school? Everybody thought I was crazy for enrolling my kids in the Providence public school system. Back then, so many young families were moving to the suburbs to find better schools for their kids.

I love the possibility and promise of public education. We, the people, will provide knowledge and wisdom to our children. Public education is both a civic duty and a civic adventure.

Public schools can be a powerful tool for long-term social and economic change. Public schools can give individuals the tools and skills to survive and grow and learn.

I believe that the goal of any education is to teach people how to learn, and encourage them to go beyond where they are likely to stop.

And my children have, for the most part, thrived. My kids have worked hard, and they’ve been lucky.

Orwellian Laws and Other Breakdowns

Despite Ted Kennedy’s best intentions, the No Child Left Behind law was a disaster. It effectively broke the schools, funneling money from teaching into the private sector in the form of testing, books, and tutoring. The bill required “progress” and defunding schools that were failing. Everybody’s job was on the line always. Suddenly everything that wasn’t academic was cut. No sports. Less  music. Less art. Less recess.

Just more and more testing. Test test test test test.

The “Race to the Top” has somewhat mitigated the problem, but especially here in Rhode Island, we seem to be continuing with the test-test-test mentality.

Over the years that my children have been in the Providence public schools, I’ve seen the debilitating and endeadening results of the test-test-test method of evaluation. High stakes testing is still being used to evaluate the funding of schools and the performance of teachers.

My take on the results is biased and anecdotal, but very real for me.

  • The goal of schools is to aim for “meeting grade level expectations”, which is equivalent to schools shooting to make a C.
  • The higher performing kids are not ignored, but not pushed, because they don’t cause statistical problems.
  • Lower performing kids lose privileges and electives
  • Academically Advanced programs are cut (or worse, hidden and winked at)
  • Sports, art and music and even recesses are cut or cut back. There are closets in Providence filled with unused musical instruments.
  • Teachers, who are economically dependent on these scores, must teach to the test and train to the test.
  • Teachers are worn down by the amount of oversight and micromanagement in the classroom. I’ve been in schools where it was required that the lesson plans be written on the board in 15 minute increments.
  • There is the expectation that all students will learn the same material at the same rate. This is flat out impossible.
  • The test-test-test model leaves little incentive for actual learning.

One conclusion…

I am a still “believer” in the possibilities of public schools, but all the (again anecdotal) evidence I’ve gathered points to the elimination of high stakes testing as the focus for funding and teacher evaluation.

  • Do use tests as tools to evaluate and teach students.
  • Don’t make testing  the be-all and end all tool.
  • Stop using testing as the primary tool for the allocation of funds and evaluation of teachers.

Why do so many non-educators think that they know how to teach?

As someone who spends a lot of time in schools, I have nothing but admiration for the women and men who spend their days educating our children. They spend long days being up in front of a room with two dozen or more rowdy youngsters.

Why can’t we just give teachers a curriculum (or even more powerfully, allow teachers themselves to develop a curriculum) and tell them, “Spend the rest of your career getting better at teaching these things?” Instead, the Federal laws change, the State laws change, the superintendents change, the curriculum changes, the testing changes, and the rules change.

One thing I do know, no matter what rubric or standards or measurements we use, all children will not learn at the same rate. Schools are not and can not be factories or assembly lines for knowledge.

The best experience my daughter had last year was when a graduate student from Brown University came into her classroom and led a poetry class. My daughter writes some of the most beautiful poetry with some of the worst spelling mistakes I’ve ever seen. I am truly thankful that this teacher didn’t correct her spelling—it would have crushed her creativity. Instead, she can fix the spelling herself, as she needs to. Or just enjoy the process of creating.

Yes, I believe that spelling is an important skill. But you also need to have something to say and be able to say it well.

The best a teacher can do is to help each individual student learn as much as they can learn, and encourage them to learn more.

More Things That Don’t Help

  • Tell teachers to write their lesson plans on the board in 15 minute increments and force them to teach to the schedule.
  • Pass a bill in the middle of the night  combining the Board of Higher Education with the Board of Regents to produce an unclear benefit for anyone.

What Else Will Help?

  • Support sports
  • Allow the study and practice of arts, music and literature for their own sakes
  • Ensure all children have recess
  • Decrease class sizes whenever possible and practical
  • Encourage advanced students to go beyond
  • Create programs and systems to deal with students who switch from school to school
  • Give teachers freedom to teach to the student not to the plan

Be open to new ideas and possibilities

This is a work in progress. I want to hear from you.


I just received a second copy of a questionnaire from RI-CAN. In the email, they wrote:

The attached survey is due back tomorrow, August 3rd.  Note that unreturned surveys will be marked “refused.”

This was in my reply to them:

I found the either-or choices that you offered in this survey to be both limiting and manipulative. These are complex issues, and are you in/out votes reduce the process. Additionally, the threat that if this questionnaire was not returned it would be marked as “refused” is unworthy of the political process. The NRA also promised that if I didn’t return their survey they would mark me as “possibly hostile to Second Ammendment rights.”
I realize that you support charter schools. I support children.
—Mark Binder

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Mark Binder is an author, storyteller, nice guy, and occasional tilter at windmills.
If you enjoy his writing here, please support his work by purchasing some of his other work. Mark's latest is an awesome audio storybook for families called Transmit Joy.
Mark's books include the autobiography, It Ate My Sister, Every Hero Has a Story , Cinderella Spinderella, and Every Hero Has a Story. Please visit his storytelling website: and find his books and audio recordings at or on Amazon, iBooks and Google Play.

Mark has been an occasional candidate for public office. In his last election, he won 43% of the vote against the sitting Speaker of the RI House of Representatives, despite being outspent 10 to 1.

In 2012, he ran as the independent candidate for House District 4 against the Speaker of the House, receiving more than 40% of the vote while outspent by his opponent 20 to 1. He ran for Congress in 2004.

He is also Editor in Chief at Light Publications, a fiercely independent publishing house specializing in fiction and adventurous political thought.

Other books include: "The Brothers Schlemiel," "It Ate My Sister," "Genies, Giants and a Walrus," "Kings, Wolves, Princesses and Lions," and "The Bed Time Story Book." His favorite audio recording is called, "It was a dark and stormy night..." and is available on iTunes.

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