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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

The big us

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has published its findings after a years-long investigation of “suspicious scores” in Atlanta schools. The Journal-Constitution found that over 170 educators – including over three dozen principals – had falsified student answers in 44 of the 56 schools scrutinized in the probe. In a PBS News Hour interview, Heather Vogell, a reporter for The Journal-Constitution, ascribed the cheating to these root causes:

  • The district set higher benchmarks than either the state or federal government did.
  • The district created a culture that punished the adults who did not cheat.
  • The superintendent and her staff encouraged adults to put the division ahead of test integrity.

I nodded my head a lot while reading this take on the investigation from The Stir by CafeMom Of course, I have a few thoughts of my own.

First, the educators who did this chose to break the rules. Maybe they wanted to protect their jobs and themselves from bad scores or systemic retaliation. Maybe they wanted to protect their students’ chances of academic and social promotion. Maybe they wanted both. I wish they had chosen otherwise in breaking the rules. I wish they had decided to run democratic, inquiry-driven classrooms instead of cheating on tests. I wish they had rejected out-of-hand their school system’s assumptions about teaching, learning, and children. I wish the system they found themselves in had been a healthier one – one that put people before scores.

Second, I was struck and saddened by this quote from the News Hour interview about the cheating:

…there was a culture of retaliation and intimidation that really flourished within the hallways of the schools. Anybody who questioned the means or methods that schools were using to achieve certain gains was shunned if they were lucky, fired if they weren’t lucky.

I can visualize scenes of such retaliation from the student culture in which I participated throughout my own education. What would have happened to the kid who blew the whistle on our cheating? On teen drinking in our town? In our school? What price did the counter-culture kids pay? The bullies’ victims?

Why cheating is a “Schoolhouse Shock” (as PBS puts it), or why a culture of intimidation is so unexpected in an American public school system is, sadly, beyond me.

I am a big fan of schools and systems working to unlock public education for students and their learning. However, it’s also evident that as a nation we use our schools to protect an obsolete, industrial model of control and cultural assimilation that privileges cheating to make the norm over “playing fair” and falling out of it.

Our school system, our media, and our government can’t quite escape the Hollywood luster of a Manichaean cosmology. They can’t even identify which side is good or bad. They certainly can’t yet inhabit the middle space of struggling to do what is right, rather than what is expedient – of struggling to rescue kids rather than repair the adult system.

And that sucks.

Which brings me to us – the big us – the We, the People, us.

There is more than cheating, not cheating.

There is more than good teacher, bad teacher.

There is more than pass, fail.

There are people and they are learning. You don’t have to pick a side and deny yourself, your students, or your children a deeper experience of learning and being at school.

It’s not fuzzy math or faulty logic or mumbo-jumbo to imagine and enact a school system in which teachers and students learn about the world be interacting with it, by making art, by improving their communities, by creating joyful learning spaces, and by escaping their desks and classrooms more often than not.

It is not hard to falsify test scores. It is hard to be punished.

It’s also hard to transform public education.

If we’re going to get caught, let’s get caught doing something so unabashedly right that the system has to confront us over the obvious joy and learning of our students, our schools, and their grateful families and communities.

Our school system sanctions and countenances cultural and disciplinary practices that are much more harmful than falsified test scores are. Let’s confront those damaging demands school places on us and our students. Why it’s acceptable to defund the arts and keep “struggling” students from ever exploring ways to learn apart from reading and writing as prescribed by vendors is beyond me. Why it’s acceptable to exclude the kids who vex us the most from our schools while we blame them and their families for their lack of progress is beyond me.

Are we instruments, or are we agents? Or do we insist that we are blameless?

Are we inside a system, or do we embody it?

Let’s march our marches. Let’s talk our talks. Let’s really share and push out our classrooms and learning with our students. Let’s get out of the bubbles and stop pulling our kids into them.

Let learning be community, democracy, freedom, and inquiry. Let kids and learning be.

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About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.

Discussion

9 thoughts on “The big us

  1. Bravo Chad,
    I love your passion, your idealism, and your sense of integrity. It IS hard to change education; it’s hard to change most anything that has years of tradition in its roots. There are positive components that make up our education system, and there’s much that needs reform. I saw a recent CNN or NBC report noted 29 out of 30 states reported similar findings.

    How do we take in the masses (individual students with individual readiness factors) and effectivel­y cause learning that leads to success in school/work/life, by exposing them to a critical common core experts agree on, and do this in the context of fair/effective evaluations that support the learning process, and holds ALL stakeholders accountable? A few ideas of what I believe is needed for discussion.

    1) Effective staff who mastered their subject area content/delivery; make learning relevant, challenging, engaging, successful; who have a grounded understanding about how students learn, think, believe and feel, and how to raise their efficacy beliefs and motivate students to be their best potential in the classroom and beyond, including the scrutiny/evaluation of ALL teacher preparatio­n programs to ensure effective content and process of instruction.

    2) Effective, assertive, courageous administrators who are committed to student learning/success, doing WHATEVER it takes to facilitate student learning/more parent involvement.

    3) Union policies supporting most effective teaching practices, retention of best teachers, mentoring for those needing assistance, and releasing those not measuring up.

    4) More accurate assessment of the value of teachers by all stakeholders, and a willingnes­s to make education a national priority, so all educators are paid to do the EDUCATION JOB that needs to be done, to produce a citizenry that accomplishes the REST of what needs to be done.

    5) More parent participation and dialogue with teachers, counselors, and principals, even school boards and legislators, to share their individual and collective voices about BETTER preparing the youth of today for the LIFE they will all enter after school.

    This will take another two decades. NOW is the time for a non-defensive dialogue about the role of education in our society and those with whom we entrust this sacred vocation.

    Two decades seems like a long time, but as someone wise once said, “The best two times to plant a tree are 50 years ago….and today!”

    ** #schools2life Tweet Chat (2nd/4th Thursdays 8-9pmEDT Plus LinkedIn Support Site for Group Discussions at

    http://t.co/RdwEITP

    If you and any of your readers/colleagues are interested, we have initiated a NEW Tweet Chat #schools2life to discuss many of these issues, and mostly to empower parents to be strong advocates with educators, AND to empower educators to join with parents and other stakeholders, to collaborate, and initiate the reforms needed to ensure a much more successful transition for all students to life after school.

    Thank you Chad for your passion and willingness to stand up and use your voice to make a difference.

    Posted by Edward Colozzi | July 7, 2011, 5:12 pm
    • Edward, what a great comment. Thank you for articulating those needs. It is time for a non-defensive conversation – absolutely – for an honest conversation that takes into account philosophy and purpose as much as measurement and methods.

      I think 20 years is a good estimate, as well. I’d expect R&D to take at least 15 if we could agree on what kinds of schools to build, study, and compare.

      I am going to push back on the common core and teachers-as-content-expert pieces of your argument. If we want kids to be ready for careers and lives that fulfill them we can’t create or maintain a school system that teaches them that their bosses control knowledge, purpose, and approval. If we are to be at our best and help students become their best selves, then we have to value their questions and help them find their answers even when we don’t know those answers already. If we are to have a democracy of citizens, we have to help students become adept at identifying problems and solving them using their own initiative, not ours. We must be master connectors, guides, questioners, and suggesters, rather than masters of content or classrooms.

      What do you think?

      With thanks,
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | July 7, 2011, 5:56 pm
      • You put this together well- thank you for writing. Why we have to say enough is enough – when you reach a point that scores drive disintegrity, then it’s so far over the boundaries that it’s hard to get integrity back. It’s represented in a lack of civil discourse, respect, and regard for people. We must restore humanity.

        Posted by Pam | July 7, 2011, 11:58 pm
        • The whole thing reminds me of Patrick’s guest post and the recent NWP Hack Jam: sometimes rules need to be broken – or, ideally, changed – because the rules do not serve students or learning. How would we look at the situation differently if the scores in ATL never rose, but the Journal-Constitution found that 178 educators – including 38 principals – abandoned the testing curricula and engaged kids in art, community service projects, and internships at the direction of top-level leaders who created a culture of inquiry?

          Until the rules change, when we break them, let’s be more like Gatto and less like “cheaters.” Falsifying test scores is the wrong hack.

          Thank you for the kind words and strong reasoning in your comment, Pam – your comment is a heartening response.

          All the best,
          C

          Posted by Chad Sansing | July 8, 2011, 6:06 am
      • I agree Chad with what you shared here. I believe Common Core is still a viable option to ensure some sense of a benchmark nationally that we establish for teachers and students, IN THE CONTEXT of encouraging students to work collaboratively with teachers, as BOTH groups become their best selves. One exciting option is encouraging schools to provide ILP’s (Individual learning Plans) for ALL students so students create a Tentative LIfe Plan for their best next steps after school; a plan that allows for lots of modification as students continue their life journey and discover the many uncertainties that are reality, a plan that heads them in a direction that is based on their increasing sense of personal agency and their dreams and goals for what gives them meaning and purpose in life. More discussion about ILP’s is available at the LinkedIn schools2life site http://t.co/RdwEITP Thanks Chad, EdC

        Posted by Edward Colozzi | July 11, 2011, 10:01 am
  2. Chad, agree. Some years ago I worked for Beverley Hall when she was superintendent in Newark. I was the director of literacy for the city. So I am a bit surprised at what I am reading as I did not experience intimidation, cheating, etc. In fact, I can recall her asking me how we were going to ensure that our HS students learned deeply. We had just obsered a HS teacher, ill prepared, try to teach a section of The Odyssey. Again, this was pre-NCLB.

    I think you’re right when you write: “It’s not fuzzy math or faulty logic or mumbo-jumbo to imagine and enact a school system in which teachers and students learn about the world be interacting with it, by making art, by improving their communities, by creating joyful learning spaces, and by escaping their desks and classrooms more often than not.”

    Perhaps as more stories come to the surface about people instead of the stories that are too good to be true (Think Houston, Chicago, & NYC), we can redirect education to embrace what you suggest.

    Posted by Mary Ann Reilly | July 7, 2011, 6:11 pm
    • I know we will hear more cheating stories; I hope we on the Coöp – and we as a people – start voicing even more stories about amazing learning, as well, in public schools, but apart from test results.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Mary Ann – I appreciate your perspective on Beverly Hall.

      From somewhere in the wine-dark sea of education,
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | July 7, 2011, 7:03 pm
  3. Hey Chad, I think my last comment was lost. Sorry.

    This is one of our most powerful posts ever. Bravo and thank you, and thank you for the folks you’ve brought here from this.

    In respect and appreciation,

    Kirsten

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | July 9, 2011, 2:41 pm
    • Thanks, Kirsten – sorry to take so long to respond!

      Maybe the most difficult part is up and leaving the two-sided debates in which we continue to situate public education. How can teachers, riding the crests and troughs of their work, rise above the salty medium of “school” or at least find some calm waters from which to look out more broadly?

      I’m not sure any leader or union can get a teacher there, but a personal decision can – hopefully, the kinds of decisions we make and write about here will inspire others to join the revolutions and guilds I’ve loved reading about this week on the blog.

      We have to be willing to do something else, and to remember that “do something else” doesn’t have to mean leaving teaching or public education.

      All the best,
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | July 11, 2011, 10:17 am

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