One day in 11th grade my English teacher asked us to share some sentences we had written as part of a mini-lesson on composition. Since 10th grade, I had loved Faulkner, Capote, and the Southern Gothic genre. I also loved cutting up in class. I wrote some two-page-long sentence about mashed potatoes that the teacher eviscerated on grammatical grounds. I defended myself by saying that Faulkner would have gotten away with it, to which my teacher replied, “Yes, but you will never be Faulkner.” Ba dum bum.
In reading the give and take on this week’s press about the educational philanthropists’ efforts to influence educational policy by paying big money to big names in ed media and research, I feel like I’m back in 11th grade, reddening and readying to let loose on the teacher.
Take this Rick Hess, piece, for example, in which he defends his acceptance of Gates money by arguing “we’re all implicated.” Of course, by “all” he means “academics, activists, and the policy community,” for whom “philanthropic support is often the ticket to tackling big projects, making a difference, and maintaining one’s livelihood.”
Someone else can debate with Hess whether or not anyone who achieves the status of educational pundit needs $500,000 of Gates money to get by. I wouldn’t know in that I don’t do the work Hess does – nor would I deny him any of that work.
I do, however, teach, so I’ll debate with Hess on this point: academics, activists, and the policy community, whether they like it or not, are not the only people invested in American public education. Pieces like Hess’s defense are res ipsa loquitur of the arrogance and disconnect from the realities of students’ lives and schools to which such “stakeholders” are susceptible. I can hear my teacher say, “Yes, but you are no Hess.” That’s exactly right. No one is paying any teacher – or student – $500,000 to advocate the humane, sane educational practices necessary to reach our most imperiled youth – or to truly inspire our most privileged to lives of altruism – because few people at Gates or Hess’s levels seem able to bring themselves to acknowledge the singularly hard and hard-to-sell truth that no system, new or old, can account for the needs of all of our kids. To reach every single kid will take every single strategy we can try; no single strategy will do.
Just, at some point, acknowledge that our educational system won’t ever lift up every student until we allow ourselves the chance to make a mess of things – until we allow ourselves an educational framework that lets kids do work that holds personal meaning for them – until we allow ourselves professional standards that put kids before adults, relationships before test scores, and communities before polling points.
Acknowledge that the teachers, students, and parents – especially those who are not backed shell companies – have important things to say about their shared work. Even if you won’t listen, make sure your audiences know that it’s okay if they do.
I get it – everyone is very careful about language. No one wants to come out and say, “There can be only one!” However, the net effects of all this philanthropical, corporate, consortial, and government spending are the exclusion of educators, students, and parents from policy conversations about changing schools and the chilling of teachers’ willingness and capacities to innovate for their kids.
- Standardization alone under any system doesn’t change students’ lives for the better. It just lowers the costs and raises the profits of doing business to them. No set of limited standards and assessments will change pedagogy as beneficially to information age learning as a democratic, inquiry- and project-based school “system” would.
- Innovation asks us to learn by making new mistakes; it is not the same thing as punishing people for making the same mistake you ask them to make repeatedly over time. We have to have assessment options – diagnostic tools for school health – that sample student work, not just test scores.
- Common sense suggests that we hold on to what works for most – like the National Writing Project – while we experiment with what might work for some – like Teach for America.
- The federal government is strong-arming state and local policy with faux competitive grants that are won through compliance, rather than through innovation. This is clear and it will come back to hurt the United States Department of Education and our schools.
Emperors, clothe yourselves with some modest scrap of democracy. It’s painful to look at you. It’s painful to hear you. It’s painful to think of the lost opportunities you cost us in changing public education and lives for the better.
You’re welcome at my table when you dress for dinner with the unbought.
Just join us and listen.
That would be payment enough for me.
I may not be Faulkner, but I’m cheap.