The Brown Cars of Education

My wife and I were being old and reminiscing while driving to the airport last weekend. Since we were surrounded by cars, we stumbled on the topic of Cars We Used to Own. I’ve owned a blue Pontiac Sunfire, a white Pontiac Grand Prix, and a black Chevy Impala. Jeanie has owned a white Chevy Cavalier that she bought with her own $3,000. She drove her parents’ Buick Regal for awhile. Dubbed “The Mom Buick,” it was originally white, but half the paint had peeled so that it resembled a molting deer. But as bad as that car was, the worst was a brown 1980 Mustang she drove as a teenager. If you’re a Millennial, you might be picturing the kind of brown occasionally seen on the road today. Something like this:

Or this:

Or even this:

Looks orange to me.


Back in 1980, brown meant brown. 1980 Brown was the color of tree bark, of Count Chocula, of turds. It was a hue that inspired nicknames like “The Crapmobile” and “The Rustang.” When new, the car looked something like this.

My wife’s car was not new. It was a butt-ugly vehicle that cost $800 and was held together with twist ties and duct tape. And as we talked about that car, we couldn’t help but notice the paucity of similarly colored automobiles on the highway. Brown cars, true brown cars, have gone the way of the dodo.

Here’s a graph that proves it:

No true brown. Sad!

Car manufacturers just don’t make many brown cars anymore for an obvious reason: Brown cars are disgusting and nobody wants to own one.

But the fact that they used to exist is interesting and provides a couple of useful lessons for those of us in education.

Education has had its fair share of brown cars over the years. There have been many ideas and practices that were once fashionable and are now passe. Learning styles used to be a big deal; now we snicker at teachers who still reference them as if they’re a real thing. When I was in school, no one thought anything of a year’s worth of instruction that consisted of having students open their textbooks, read some pages, and write answers to those questions on lined paper. Today, that’s bad teaching and we should “ditch the textbook.” Homework used to be a given; not it’s contentiously debated. Principals used to literally spank kids with paddles. Now, teachers are scolded for using clip charts. Naughty children who fought on the playground used to be suspended for a few days. Today, we “clear the room” and let students destroy property that should have been purchased by a school district but was just as likely bought by an underpaid teacher.

What’s important to remember is that a lot of the people who drove those brown cars in the 1970s thought they were pretty damn fancy. They looked down on those pedestrian souls who selected white or gray for their vehicles and saw themselves as just a little bit better. A little hipper. A little more with it. At a time when society first began to pay attention to the damage humans were causing to Mother Earth, you could signal how socially conscious and in harmony with nature you were by driving around in earth tones. Greens, browns, and even yellows were far more popular back then than they are today.

Those drivers of yesteryear were no different than teachers who once used methods we think of today as outdated and wrong.

And it’s even more important to remember that some of what we’re doing in our schools and classrooms today are the brown cars of tomorrow. Someday, we will all come to our senses, shake our heads, and wonder what the hell we were thinking. Just as our forefathers believed they were pretty groovy for cruising around in cars the color of trees, grass, and fall foliage, we believe the same today when we take to Twitter and brag about how cutting edge our instructional practices are.

I’m integrating technology into my lessons, while old Denise is still using a textbook.

Our school is using restorative justice with our students while the school across town is still suspending kids.

I’m teaching my students about the marshmallow test, growth mindset, and grit, but Mr. Davis is still teaching the same way he did ten years ago.

History suggests that some humility might be prudent. Like motoring around in a brown car in 1976, you’re doing things today that will be seen as old-fashioned and embarrassing tomorrow. Things you won’t admit to in 20 years. And your leaders are asking (and in some cases telling) you to do things that you (and they) will someday look back on in shame. Some day, we may ask:

How could anyone have thought that taking away art classes for test prep was a good idea?

How could anyone have ever believed that testing kindergarteners was going to help anything?

Why in the world did we take away recess in the name of getting higher test scores?

Why did we give so many benchmark assessments, especially when the evidence showed they did no good?

Why were we so worried about integrating technology?

Why did we squander billions of dollars on secure school entrances?

The next time someone attempts to sell you on the next wonderful thing in education, whether that person is an administrator, a vendor, a colleague, a think tank writer, or an educelebrity on Twitter, remember that once upon a time, car salesmen were able to convince a bunch of adults to buy cars the color of poop. Maybe show a little less enthusiasm and allow for the possibility that the thing you’re being sold isn’t as great as the person selling it to you says it is.

And if you’re being forced to teach in ways you disagree with, take solace in the fact that you recognize what everyone else eventually will: Brown cars are ugly, even if people are choosing to drive them, and even if they tell you you should be driving one too.


I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort starts in July, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to join!

2 Replies to “The Brown Cars of Education”

  1. I just want to say I appreciate how you can eloquently bring to light so many of the issues in education. I wish there was a way for us teachers to be heard more often. Sometimes I wish I could broadcast your blog posts on loud speaker across the country. Thank you for being a voice.

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