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SHIFT PARADIGM | by Mark E. Weston

Occupy a classroom, change education

Occupy Wall Street’s non-violent attempts to change the private sector suggest that similar tactics can be applied to America’s public K-12 education system.

This is an intriguing possibility given that nationwide just two of three students graduate school on time. Further, of those who do graduate on time, approximately one in 10 needs pullout remedial help, another one in 10 requires special accommodations, and yet another one in 10 is under-challenged. These numbers reveal an educational system that works poorly for half the school-age population. For urban areas, the numbers are worse.

Since the 1950s, getting from a system that educates some students well (let’s call it “A”) to one that educates all students well (“B”) has been the preferred outcome of countless reform efforts. During this time, while attempt after attempt worked in an occasional classroom or school, wide-scale achievement of B was elusive. Now, however, B is achievable.

Two sets of circumstances show this to be the case. The first involves tight school budgets and teachers perpetually overloaded by bureaucratic policies, inadequate resources, public derision, and jam-packed classrooms. The second includes how schools are organized and education delivered, not teachers per se, not supporting the work necessary to get to B. Certainly, such circumstances are dire. They also generate hope.

An educational system that doesn’t work for most children and youth when budgets are maxed out and teachers are overloaded is a perfect target for the non-violent approaches Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King used to break the chains of colonialism and bigotry in their respective times and countries. Gandhi led millions of Indians to self-rule by showcasing the precarious situation of their British overlords. His simple non-violent actions made the precariousness clear. When Gandhi’s compatriots followed suit, Indian self-rule occurred soon after. Similarly, King realized that civil-rights advocates, by occupying, sitting-in, and striking could callout discrimination and bigotry thus advancing the dream of equality.

Our educational state is analogous to colonial India and pre-civil rights America in that those most disaffected by the current system are now a majority. Imagine how quickly a shift from A to B would be made if, the millions of children and youth nationwide who are eligible to attend school, but currently do not, systematically and intentionally occupied the very classrooms to which they are legally entitled. Moreover, imagine if they joined forces with their remediated, accommodated, and under-challenged peers and overloaded and underappreciated teachers. The neat-rowed classrooms they’d occupy would be shown to have neither sufficient space nor teaching capacity for educating them all.

Further, the sudden influx of students would skew the attendance-based formulas that allocate taxpayer dollars for schools, putting cities and states at financial risk. The non-violent occupiers, all possessing a legal right to an education, would leave the educational system no choice but to reconfigure itself to better serve all students. Such a paradigm shift would be comparable to those brought about by Gandhi and King.

The numbers of lives being wasted should be reason enough to set course immediately for B. Concerns about classrooms being occupied and cities and states going bankrupt should spawn urgency for getting there. The underserved majority will lead the way.


Mark E. Weston Ph.D. is co-author of The Learning Edge: What Technology Can Do to Educate All Children. He resides in Dunwoody, Georgia. Contact him at and @shiftparadigm on Twitter. 

  • sandymanflynn


    An interesting idea to take the occupy movement approach to initiate change in our educational systems in this country. One of my concerns with the occupy Wallstreet protests was a viable plan to replace the existing system. In this case Dr. Weston seems to present just that in his latest book. Bravo for having the plan.

  • Teachdonotselect


    Weston’s approach: Bravo! He cares for the future of education; and, has the ideas to reinvent a floundering system.

  • TJ & M (@mkmtjm)


    Once again Dr. Weston takes current facts and figures and puts them in perspective. His historical account of past social success paints a possible picture picture for forward progress in our educational system. In doing so he highlights the positive side of the axiom, he who learns the lessons of history has the benefit of repeating them.

  • Gayle Razzaboni, Ph.D.


    I’m afraid for kids and the future that lays ahead. As we cannot afford to allow our educational system to stay as is, a plan that has the potential for widespread impact is significant.
    The non-violent approach might just foster the needed advocacy to get started. I’m ready!!!

  • Winslow


    Isn’t this like asking all the world’s criminals to flood into the jails so as to help improve conditions there? Let’s get real: Who are these “millions of children and youth nationwide who are eligible to attend school, but currently do not”? Did the truant officers really miss millions of such people? Are there really so many people out there who would like to attend school but are not, who are staying home for some reason? I very much doubt it.
    Even if they do exist, these and millions of others would do much better if they put their energy into not occupying but toppling the school system, into demolishing its current organization and position in society and occupying the hallways and executive suites of Corporate America, which has a great interest in maintaining the status quo. The fact is, this nation, this society, cannot afford to fulfill its promises of educating everyone equally. There just is not enough money. If society could accomplish this goal, it would have done it long ago, when there was more money to be had. School reform has been in the air since the 1960s, no?, yet over and over, we hear the same promises, the same enthusiasm for this teaching machine or that schooling model, and yet, no matter what, things just get worser and worser. More hand-wring, higher college student debt, more schools declared to be “failing,” more schemes foisted on public schools by politicians and billionaires, more talk.
    Clearly, it’s better to keep selling parents the same lottery tickets, talking up the few actual winners, and encouraging everyone to buy into the schooling system and the commodity-intensive consumer society it supports. As Mr. Weston must know, the main purpose of the school system as it currently exists is to educate everyone into believing that their failure in this society, that their failure to do better in this economy, is their own fault, that they have failed, somehow, to “get” enough of that expensive stuff called education, and they have only themselves to blame. What they learn in school is that what they learn outside of school is pretty much worthless, even if it is abundant.
    Once employers are no longer permitted, by law, to ask how much education you have, or where you acquired it, the system will be a heck of a lot fairer and more sane and humane. They are not permitted to ask if you go to church, or which church you go to, so why should they ask about your schooling?

  • Michael Taylor Ed.S.


    As always, Dr. Weston presents a thoughtful proposal. There is no doubt that our educational system’s current state presents a clear danger to our future as a nation. We simply cannot afford to stifle teacher creativity and innovation on the alter of standardized testing. Assessments which provide an autopsy and seldom bring about the needed change. Dr. Weston’s book The Learning Edge provides some excellent examples for how we can serve all students.

    To Winslow: Attendance and truancy are significant issues in most urban public schools. The facilities are built for the number of students that come to the building and not for the number of school age students in the attendance area. If our education system truly served students in a manner that encouraged them to attend, the following story would become commonplace. h

    • Winslow

      If millions of school-age children are staying home, put off by over-crowded classrooms and facilities, then more power to them. They are not stupid. They understand, better than most, perhaps, that society actually doesn’t much care at all about enabling them to learn or participate as full-fledged citizens, and they are doing the right thing, staying away and voting with their feet. Why bother, if that’s the way one is treated? And why should test scores go up, as so many experts and business executives say they want, when students see with their own eyes how poorly society thinks of the whole teaching enterprise. Again, they are not stupid. They can see the leaking roofs, the crowded classrooms, the lousy lunches, the teachers forced to pay for chalk and paper, etc., and they get the message: America really doesn’t care, despite all the rhetoric and all the politicians (on left and right) thumping the desk and calling for level playing fields and no child left behind and making the nation “more competitive in the global marketplace.”

      There is a terrible disconnect here, and no amount of technology, sorry to say, is going to fix things. We, Americans, really must start talking about what “education” and schooling are, on a symbolic as well as economic and materialist level. They are certainly not, as so many technologists and journalists (me) tend to think, merely a matter of “knowledge transfer.”

  • C. S. Smith


    “An educational system that doesn’t work for most children and youth, when budgets are maxed out and teachers are overloaded, is a perfect target for the non-violent approaches Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King used to break the chains of colonialism and bigotry in their respective times and countries.”

    The educational system that Dr. Weston describes, one that that is spot-on in its understanding of the teaching profession as it exists today, is a perfect example of a “paradigm in crisis.” So far, most of the advances in the profession (i.e. technology) don’t reduce teacher overload, they add to it. Something has to give. A classroom occupation as described here could go a long way towards initiating a proper Kuhn-type revolution.

  • Dr. Smith-Collins


    Dr. Weston presented an interesting analogy. Realistically, knowing and understanding how to educate all children with their various needs and abilities will require preparing and supporting all schools and teachers and all parents for their responsibilities in the effort. It will also take halting all the various unproven experiments and fads that have led to nowhere over the last decade. What if parents of the undeveloped, un-accommodated, under-performing, and under-challenged, including the gifted and talented students, applied the same non-violent approach, sitting in, occupying, and calling out the discriminatory, non-democratic colonial, inequitable and uneven educational opportunities in many current American school polices and practices?

    Perhaps they could reject the promotion of a two-tiered system (one for the wealthy and another for poor and students of color) by not allowing their children to participate in the current system of countless, untested, elusive school reform trials and efforts. An example of the two-tiered system in schools populated by poor and students of color is the elimination of art, music, libraries, school nurses, nutritious hot meal feeding programs, Physical Education (PE), even recess. Why would any child want to come to school? These are children we are talking about for goodness sake! The greatest example is the excessive emphasis and time spent on test preparation and testing that interferes with offering a comprehensive educational curriculum and experience in many of the “new school reform” strategies.

    There are many examples of great and good public school systems and schools across America. Also, there are great examples of floundering public schools that have reinvented themselves. Why are these schools not the models that we seek to identify proven policies and outcomes for a productive educational path? All students have a legal right to a democratic educational opportunity, and a place called school where they can learn, be safe, enjoy, and find their way to a productive future. This is not a new plight. America has struggled with educating all of its citizens for decades. The difference today is that almost everyone and anyone has decided that they have a solution or prescription for public education.

    As suggested by Dr. Weston, a paradigm shift is certainly needed. Many of the public education systems that are described as floundering today, are the same public and urban systems that just a two or three decades ago, were large, thriving, centers of learning. Enrollment was extensive, school buildings were bulging, teachers were generally productive, and attendance and student outcomes were more favorable for most. In fact, many of us are the products of those public education systems. Through neglect, family and educator apathy, toying with politics, school polices and practices, and lack of continued emphasis on organizing and supporting the work of developing and educating youth, we find ourselves at this juncture.

    There is space and room at the table, but because some view public school children as equal to dollars per head, there are games played with the lives and education of some people’s children. As suggested, if we can educate some, we can educate all if we put the same motivation, effort, financial, family and human support base, and common sense “know-how” behind our efforts. We have the motivation to create a comprehensive prison system, why can we not do the same for an equitable system of public schools? As pointed out by Dr. Weston, this is certainly one of the precarious situations that Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might have highlighted today as requiring civil rights action to advance the dream of equality.

  • drdtking


    Powerful ideas, Mark! I’d recommend starting with parents and, especially, kids going to School Board meetings and make their concerns known during the Delegations and Petitions agenda. Follow it up repeatedly. Ask for plans to make it happen. Give input to those plans. Ask for updates to those plans. The most powerful voices are those of our children.

  • Ann Ware


    I’ve often heard that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. It has been touted by many national, state and local educators that our educational system is broken and noted in Dr. Weston’s post. Parents who can, are looking for alternate methods of educating their children. But often where they take them today’s knowledge based learners are taught by the same “teacher led” methods that lacks active engagement of the learner to include their ability to regularly celebrate the academic successes and be aware of their weaknesses. Sadly, if the children Dr. Weston describes came back often they would be less likely to stay using today’s out-dated paradigm for today’s learners.

  • Glenna Musante


    Dr. Weston’s perspective on the failing US educational system offers an unvarnished look at the extent to which the US school system is failing our children, and in turn, our country. If all of the students who have been failed by this system showed up one day to take their rightful place in public school rooms, the schools would collapse under the weight of their demand for an education.
    He also sheds light on a path out of this morass. I’m grateful to Dr. Weston for being a provocative thought leader in his area, and through his work and books, shedding light on a path that can take us from A (where the vast majority of students are not served) to B (where the majority succeed). This is, after all, about much more than children’s grades. The future of our country depends on having successful schools in every state, in every city, in every suburb, in every rural area.

  • Joao Giampietro


    Dr. Mark, we need another Gandi or King in the education arena. We need to start thinking out of the box regarding education.

    Educational system, can not raise qualified teachers and build schools in the velocity of the students growth in all grades.

    How technology could make the difference to close the continuous increasing gap, between schools offers (good teachers, good instalation, good methods, etc) and the fast growing demands of students?


  • LWilliams


    Education of the Industrial Age that sought to fill every empty vessel in shifts with “the wisdom of the ages” in the most efficient manor, modeled after the best factories is nearing an end. (I am hearing a familiar song from the Wizard of Oz. A revolution for change is already in progress. Montessori must be cheering. What possibilities lay ahead when we trust ourselves to light a fire to learn and provide the tools from which children can choose to set their own course, that is based on their own vision and undoubtably more worthy than simply joining the ranks to compete in the global marketplace. In this inevitable revolution of education how will we be certain to empower and protect the most vulnerable in the process of this change? How will we be sure to find a true and accessible learning community that is rich and sustainable due to its diversity and deep respect for each other at every level of learning, and in each expression of it. The “Big-Box” Model may be great for selling products but it’s a poor model for aiding human beings to become cooperative, creative innovators, problem solvers, and peacebuilders.

  • Alex Le Long (@ariaporo22)


    Great post!! Definitely time for a sit in. As Tracy Chapman said, Revolutions begin with a whisper. Let’s hope our whispers are making an impact 🙂

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