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Leadership and Activism

Tear Down That Wall

Walls. We are surrounded by them in our schools. Usually a dull beige or institutional grey; they divide us from our colleagues, administrators, community, and sometimes even our students.

They also serve as a phenomenal metaphor for the state of education in this country.

How many people actually know what goes on in the educational factories that serve their communities? I would bet not many. From the affluent to the broken schools, we build a wall of secrecy in the business of educating children. Maybe because we don’t want community members to see what goes on (or doesn’t) on a daily basis. Heck, maybe we are just embarrassed that we haven’t changed much in the way of how we “do” in over 100 years – just ask your great-great grandmother.

In fact I would argue that we even build walls around the day to day operation in our classrooms. One of the hot topics has been collaboration – yet walk into most schools in the nation and there are so many “walls” that divide. Education is filled with hypocrisy – such as being fed professional development about collaboration and then sitting at the bargaining table and negotiating for merit pay – pitting teacher against teacher.

If it is truly Springtime in Education – then the time has come to tear down that wall.

In the arena of education reform, there is no place for walls. We must take a page from the playbook of history and follow in the footsteps of civil rights activists in the 1960s, apartheid riddled South Africans, and the resilient East and West Germans.

Education reform – I mean true reform is going to begin as a grassroots movement. If we are going to change how we “do” school in this country we must all come together. Educators, district administrators, politicians, community members, and students need to make education a priority.

It’s Springtime – now go tear down those walls.

Image: Sue Ream; Creative Commons License
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Mike Meechin is an educator and proud product of the inner-city public education system. He blogs at Transparent Curriculum, and is the owner of Innovate Education, a grassroots professional development company.

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About Michael Meechin

Michael Meechin is a high school assistant principal, educator, speaker, and writer. Michael speaks and writes on topics that include education reform, high-impact instructional strategies, grading & assessment, and instructional technology. Meechin is a proud product of the inner-city public education system. He has spent his career in at-risk schools with high needs student populations in Central Florida and Metropolitan Atlanta. Serving as a social studies teacher, AVID coordinator, data & assessment coordinator, dean of students, and assistant principal, Mike has a wide varieties of experiences which make him an asset to schools and districts looking for assistance reaching underserved student populations.

Discussion

18 thoughts on “Tear Down That Wall

  1. Nice! Insightful and so true so let us begin… :)

    Posted by Bill | April 19, 2012, 9:34 pm
  2. Total agreement from here! The very first we in the choir need to understand the LOCAL issues and then work together in what I’ve been calling Education Communities to find what Stephen Covey calls the better alternative to implement – an alternative ALL parties believe is better than the one they championed at the beginning.

    Yes, I believe the need to be LOCAL Education Communities; the issues vary enough that broader efforts are too chancy. Of course, reports on efforts should be shared for information but never for adopting or probably even adapting.

    Posted by John Bennett | April 19, 2012, 10:34 pm
    • Hey John,

      Do you want to do a post about the education communities. I am would love to get a deeper understanding of it. Or maybe invite Stephen Covey to write an intro post about the concent or places where it has been used.

      David

      Posted by dloitz | April 19, 2012, 10:46 pm
  3. As a long-time educator, I’m scratching my head over this one. What walls? What secrecy? Schools have always been publicly run and wide-open to their clients: parents, students and communities. And for the past decade, schools have been subject to intense, in-the-spotlight, federally mandated “accountability.” Eminent scholar Lee Shulman has noted that more detailed, research-based scrutiny has been applied to teaching than any other profession. One only needs to pick up a newspaper to see that teachers are being identified as the “best” or “worst” teacher in their city, using “scientific” data, as well as low-information commentary. If schools are trying to hide anything, it’s their focus on test prep and narrowed curriculum–which stem from all the analysis of what schools and teachers really are accomplishing.

    I have seen this ploy work, over and over again: let’s use “innovation” and “transparency” and “revolution” as a way to build new revenue streams from a massive, untapped, largely public market: education. Somebody’s selling something–“digital learning” or “exciting new curriculum” or “the latest wave in teacher evaluation.” And to create a market, they take aim at the current situation. It’s exactly what Horn & Christiansen did with “Disrupting Education”–critiqued classroom practice as “batch learning” and teaching as “crowd control.” To sell their idea of improving the “efficiency” in education: more sitting in front of a computer, fewer teachers.

    Posted by nflanagan | April 20, 2012, 11:23 am
    • Ms. Flanagan:

      I am not sure that you and I differ much in our opinions. But, for the sake of clarity – let me be clear.

      Schools today do have “walls” all around them. Most cry for parental involvement, but yet how do they welcome parents into the learning process? Our most broken schools are “walled” off – partly because they have been abandoned by society. All of the programs that you mention – I agree, will not tear down any wall that will lead us to true education reform.

      While some of the scholars that you mention discuss the intense scrutiny that education has undergone, I would agrue that scrutiny (for the lack of a better word)… sucks. How else do you explain (other than unions, tenure, etc…) that terrible educators that I had in high school are still standing at the front of a classroom?

      The secrecy that I speak of – is the narrowed curriculum that you mentioned in your comments. We should be embarressed by the curriculum, or lack there of, that we find in many of the nation’s schools today. How many parents and communities know about the schools in their neighborhoods? Yet, you say they are wide-open – and have been for years. There is a disconnect there – and I am not willing to pin blame solely to one side or the other.

      I challenge you to walk in to any community in the United States, and let them know you are there to take part in the process – let me know what they say. I bet you run into a wall.

      Posted by Michael Meechin | April 20, 2012, 12:15 pm
  4. “How many people actually know what goes on in the educational factories that serve their communities?”

    First–do we have to start by characterizing schools as factories? Is your primary point that you didn’t like the teachers you had in HS and think they should be fired? I am proud of curriculum in the school where I taught–created and continuously fine-tuned by the teachers there. Unfortunately, the advent of the Common Core means that all the that good work just got flushed.

    I lived and worked, as an educator, in one community for 30 years. We were about as wide-open and transparent as you could imagine. Then we moved, to another community where we knew nobody. In the first 3 months we moved here, I was *invited* to the local school and asked to join a team working on teacher evaluations. I also served on a county-wide panel (again, by invitation) discussing charter schools. And met a couple dozen education activists–parents, grandparents, volunteers who run a city-wide literacy program. I’ve been in and out of schools in my state for four decades. I have never met a teacher or administrator who didn’t welcome serious input into academic and managerial issues.

    You say we should be embarressed (sic) by curriculum in many schools today. Want to expand on that? You do understand that curriculum is now driven by state standards (and now Common Core–de facto federal–standards)?

    I guess I am looking for some meat to your argument. Something beyond blanket condemnations, some examples.

    Posted by nflanagan | April 21, 2012, 8:27 pm
    • Nancy,

      I understand that you do not like the terms that many of us are using to describe some of the schools in this country, but I would challenge you not to disregard the message many are speaking about. I also want to challenge you to think about the privilege you might have within these “education” worlds.

      I honor your experience, but my own experience and many of the those of my cohort have had trouble even being able to volunteer at schools. Only after I had IDEA attached to me was I even give the time of day.

      I was just at an education conference today and both keynote speakers repeated much of what was said in this post.

      One of the comments that struck me today was… One of the major walls that restricts many members from the community from ever being able to interact with the schools in their community is that many of the parents are not allowed on campuses because of their criminal record. Often these criminal records are products of other social issues we don’t want to talk about.

      Also while I agree that standards have made it harder to innovate and even to teach, I don’t think it is the root of the problem in schools. We often want to believe that if we just removed this test or the standards that we could all go back to the good old days.

      I am not sure school has ever worked for the majority of students in this country. And even if it did, we are have evolved past the original purpose of schooling.

      This is not about blaming people, it is about acknowledging that it is time for something different.

      What the reformers or deformers you mention promote is not something different. It is a privatize, mechanized, efficient version of Factory schooling. The metaphor of factory school is not new, it is truth from an historical perspective. Does it represent all schools, NO! But than again most schools have not out grown much from the original factory drive system. We have bells, we have grade levels that move co-horts all together, we have subjects that silo learning, grades are given… etc etc.

      Most of these practices still occur in school, not because teachers believe they are useful organizers of learning, but because that is the model that we inherited from the turn of the 20th century, when school was propose was to create workers for the factory and consumers for the products. Many great teachers have work tirelessly to help push education and schooling to evolve. Not all though. I have had many teachers tell me that they are the one person in their school fighting for something different…

      I am more than willing to be challenged on this, but I am not sure school has ever been about the students. I know there are pockets of hope, and your school and experience sounds like one of them.

      I think no matter the type of school or community we can benefit from tearing down real or imaginary walls, and reaching out to work together not against. I feel that is what Mike is talking about and I feel like that is what you are saying also.

      There is a lot of hurt on all sides and it is going to take a lot of time to heal, but hopefully we can honor all experiences, and also be willing to bring our questions and challenges to each other.

      with much respect,

      David

      Posted by dloitz | April 22, 2012, 3:53 am
      • @David: This is not a matter of terminology. And I am not disregarding the fact that some schools are dysfunctional. Of course they are. What I am challenging is blanket condemnation of public education as de rigeur prelude and foundation for the selling of other programs and ideas.

        Over the last decade this practice– blasting away at public education, suggesting we “tear down the walls”–has become depressingly familiar. Lots of people have made lots of money speaking at conferences and starting Gates-funded non-profits and creating commercial programs, then beginning their entrepreneurial pitch by asserting that “schools” are ___________ (fill in the blank) and must change. Michael Meechin says schools are: dull, institutional, divided, factories, secretive, embarrassed about what they do, unchanged for 100 years, and hypocritical.

        And who are we going after, here? “Schools.” Since Horace Mann, Americans have expected their schools to work miracles–to blend immigrants from 100 different cultures into a cohesive unit, to train compliant workers, to inculcate democratic values and citizenship, to be the best educational system in the world, and to serve as credentialing and gate-keeping mechanisms for the privileged.

        In the process, they have also become stages where we play out our public values and open targets for anyone who has a beef. Criticizing schools–saying things like “school has never been about students” or “schools haven’t changed in 100 years” is lazy thinking.

        Here’s an example, from your comment–
        “Schools” do not choose to keep parents with a criminal record off their campuses. Laws do that. “Schools” are caught between their legal responsibility to act in loco parentis to protect children and what they may believe is the more important issue of building school-parent relationships. To blame “schools” for “building walls” against parents with a criminal record is flat-out ridiculous.

        Here’s another example: “schools” must be extremely cautious about whom they allow to volunteer, to interact with the children in their legally defined care. A single man who shows up wanting to volunteer would be a red flag in any school district, unless he was vetted and affiliated with a national organization–and even then, would bear close watching. Because if that single man turned out to be a predator, who would be held responsible? The school.

        And please don’t use bells and grade levels and disciplinary silos as examples of how “schools” balk at innovation. In my 30 years in the classroom, I have seen dozens of school-proposed, teacher-led reforms and innovations shot down by parents and communities as silly and faddish. Here are a just few: no bells, floating grade placement, getting rid of letter grades in favor of conferences and narrative assessment, interdisciplinary courses, outcomes-based learning rather than competitive, sliding-scale comparative evaluation, thematic education, classrooms without walls, team teaching, cooperative learning, hands-on science, integrated math, themed magnet schools, project-based learning. In fact, the only innovations I have ever seen stick are led by…schools and educators, often in the face of still more criticism.

        I am not hurt. I am angry. I am sick of “schools” and teachers being blamed for the very things they have been forced to do. If someone has a good idea, I am happy to hear it. But only if they don’t feel compelled to preface it with meaningless rhetoric like “tear down these walls!”

        Posted by nflanagan | April 22, 2012, 6:05 am
        • Ms. Flanagan:

          While I respect your credentials, experience, and opinions, I would also like to share mine.

          You see, when I wrote this post, my intent was never to blame schools or teachers. In my original post I am not sure where I discussed blaming either entity.

          While you describe my blog post as “meaningless rhetoric”, I still must disagree. While it appears you seem upset about those who may have capitalized on throwing around this type of rhetoric – that does not mean that some of these issues may be real.

          Let me provide you with some specific examples of “walls”. Let me also preface this by saying that these issues may not exist in all districts – like the one you spent 30 years in. You state, “I am proud of curriculum in the school where I taught–created and continuously fine-tuned by the teachers there.” I wish that process could be replicated in districts nationwide.

          I doubt that the graduation rates in the district you worked in were as low as those in Detroit, where the graduation rates hover just below 60%. You may disagree, but there exists a “wall” that prevents the graduation rate of that district to be as high as the district you spent so much time in.

          You also speak of some amazing educators in your district. I wonder if those teachers would go to work in Detroit or Flint, or any of the most broken systems in this country. Or rather is there a “wall” that exists that would prevent them from making that jump. Better yet, if they did make that change – would they be able to create the great curriculum that your district enjoyed? Or would they run into yet another “wall”?

          You will spin my statements as laying blame on these educators – or on the schools and/or districts – and I am not. I am simply stating that my “meaningless rhetoric” does exist.

          I am the data and assessment coordinator in one of the largest districts in the State of Florida. We have challenges that it appears that you did not face in your experiences. But, that does not mean that those challenges that I blog about do not exist.

          My district has a low graduation rate. I work at a high school with almost 70% of students on free and reduced lunch. We are slowly tearing down “walls” that exist in creating a better educational experience for our students. My post was what David, spoke of in his comments, “I am not sure school has ever worked for the majority of students in this country.” While you may not like it, my post was meant to bring attention to the conversation about school reform – not place blame on the system that I believe in so strongly.

          I am not trying to turn a buck here – I am attempting to bring attention to the issues in education – something that I believe that all the catalysts on this blog are attempting to do.

          I also believe that I have given examples for how “schools are: dull, institutional, divided, factories, secretive, embarrassed about what they do, unchanged for 100 years, and hypocritical.”

          Lastly, I have to respectfully disagree with your anger towards Common Core and state standards. I am not sure that is the issue. I believe that a great curriculum can still be built around standards, I have posted the curriculum that I used while in the classroom on my blog – feel free to check it out.

          I do agree with you that many have made ridiculous amounts of money off of the system – in Florida, Pearson brings in more money than we can imagine through state testing. It’s wrong in so many ways – but I view that as a “wall” that needs to be tore down – something I think you would agree with me on.

          I am on your side, I just believe that there are many vantage points to look at this issue from. I am a reformer through and through. Please do not lump me in with others that are building “walls” with their “meaningless rhetoric” – I am in the business of tearing them down.

          Respectfully,

          Mike

          Posted by Michael Meechin | April 22, 2012, 12:17 pm
        • so if i change School to Society does that help or to institution.

          I went to over 13 public schools in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Connecticut growing up, and I love school and still do. 75% of my teachers were great. a handful of them are still mentors and friends. I have worked at a private school, a preschool funding by head-start, a reggio preschool and volunteered at a few public schools in the last five years. This my experinece, it is limited, but also provided me with a good cross section. Your right Schools are not failing our children. People are. People that work in schools, people that fund schools, people who have children, people who don’t have children, People that are fearful, who resist change, people who build walls to protect their work, both positive and negative, people who are scared to evolve, people are driven by greed, who want to control. But we are society all of us, and I think we can both defend school and ask it to be better to be more open, to be more about students and learning and less about politics and power.

          I am frustrated, I am angry also. Yet I am not going to sit here and defend schooling or many of the practices in school because they have and continue to wound 1000s of student everyday, be it the products of the people in them or the society they represent. The current institution of school is not what I wish to save. I wish to save learning together as a public and democratic act together with young people and their community with Adults who give their lives to understanding and supporting learning and life. I do and think most here believe this is of the highest public importance and that the art of teaching is one of the most important roles in society.

          I will have to disagree with you on Horace Mann and factory schools, and what you call lazy thinking. While laws might be the one building the walls, they still are there. If it is society building the walls they are still there. If is the years and years of teacher bashing building the walls, they are still there. There are walls built by society and politicians and by our values and our economy, by our understanding of teaching and learning, by our history, by fragmentation, by reductionism, by tests, by mandates, by standards, and tends, fads, by heroes, by false leadership, and all these effect teachers and students trying to break walls, to reach out to showcase their work and learning.

          I want to thank you for making this conversation richer and deeper, and hope we both continue to challenge and bring our questions here. This is a learning community and we are not after finite truths, but discourse, a community of practice, a conversation as Chad put it. I for one never wish to hold a truth or an option too tightly.

          I also invite you to write a post at the Cooperative Catalyst reflecting on your anger and frustration, sharing with us more of your own personal story and context.

          with respect,

          David

          Posted by dloitz | April 22, 2012, 12:35 pm
  5. Nancy & All –

    When I agreed with this posting, I was not ignoring the phenomenal efforts many, even most maybe, teachers are doing; nor was I overlooking the many parents that are engaged. The “walls” I think about are the mandates that are real, the negative parents that are real, the few teachers that can’t or won’t facilitate learning that are real (I had a few when I was in school and then in college 50 years ago, our kids did, AND our grandkids do), etc. Maybe worst to me is the closing of schools because of poor scores that is real! AT THE SAME TIME, there are the counter examples you note and have experienced. I took the original posting as arguing that the “walls” are keeping real reform (expanding on the counter examples) from occurring. I don’t think I’ve read any report on a study that says what is happening now (I’d argue anywhere) cannot be improved. I presume the efforts you champion and facilitate today are ones YOU believe are better than the good ones you championed / facilitated five years ago, one year ago. That’s what lifelong learners do, they self-assess, learn, and revise!

    The typical college student I worked with at the university level was far from an effective learner. In many, maybe most, cases, the attention to skills of effective learning, effective problem solving, critical thinking, etc., in my classes was NOT for refinement / continuous improvement; it was too often dealing with first-time efforts. No matter what I think of the testing and ranking of education today (and for obvious starters, they are over- and mis-used), they are most basically indicative of education that needs AND CAN UNDERGO improvement.

    My two cents …

    Posted by John Bennett | April 22, 2012, 9:17 am
  6. So, this reminds me a bit of #DML2012. Groups and individuals promoting new learning spaces and experiences are supremely needed, but I wish they would look at teachers as allies inside schools. Where are the teacher-whistle-blower protection programs? The new learning spaces promising to interview teachers fired for refusing to test kids? The broad coalition of tax-payers pushing for conscientious-objector clauses in teacher contracts and school policies regarding enforced test-taking?

    I believe all teachers should make the individual choice to resist harmful practice; I realize that in matters of family and livelihood, not everyone can do this at once; I realize that some folks believe they can change things from within or help the kids in the system until the system changes.

    Here’s how I see it: as people and caretakers of kids, we teachers have the moral obligation to do what we believe is right as best we can wherever we are. However, that doesn’t abrogate the systems’ influence on us or the broader, civic, democratic and moral responsibilities all adults in our society are under to make things better for all kids. So the problem becomes why aren’t we as a country doing more to challenge the status quo?

    And that fact is that we all see what happens in schools through our children, but we discount what is happening to them as part of school or part of growing up – it’s not that we can’t see what goes on in schools, it’s that as a society we can’t see what’s wrong with them. Teachers – and perhaps many of them, if protected – could help make things clearer to their communities – what’s wrong, what’s right, what could be done best next. I think here of Walk Out, Walk On and “The Art of Hosting” conversations like those in the book and those run by Coöp pals like Monika.

    If we are willing to blame, are we also willing to start such conversations here and locally?

    Best regards,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 22, 2012, 9:56 am
    • I agree with you Chad! Yes we need more people willing to hire and support those teachers or schools that are pushing out to the edge, that are working within the system to support the change within. I think that is what we are doing at the Coop, in what every degree we can. We provide the community of practice that always us the strength to have those conversations with our local communities.

      That being said, I personally know I have build walls for myself around teaching and where I probably can or can’t teach in the future. I am a newbie and so I only can share my vision from my experience.

      I think conversations like this are needed and glad Mike’s post has sparked such rich debate.

      David

      Posted by dloitz | April 22, 2012, 12:45 pm
  7. Chad has put his finger on my refuse-to-be-pigeonholed angst over this– it’s NOT helpful to begin every post on needed change in schools with a challenge to the “terrible” status quo or insults to the people currently working in them. David–who actually knows me–can testify that I’m actually a pretty mild-mannered person. But I don’t like to be patted on the head and told that my limited experience in a “successful” school means that I don’t understand the Big Outside World, where schools are failing left and right. I do.

    For the record: During and after my 30-year tenure in a rural/suburban school I served as consultant to Detroit Public Schools (and several other struggling and turnaround schools). I am not naive. And I am thoroughly familiar with the Common Core, having written “model units” for the MI Dept of Ed around them. I’m also familiar with the National Standards, written largely in the 1990s–the voluntary, educator-led effort to synthesize and sequence best practice in curriculum development–and how they were crushed by a highly politicized movement using language like “schools don’t want community members to see what goes on on a daily basis.”

    That’s my bottom line on this: We don’t have to cast public schools in a negative light to create a space for change. In fact, building on strengths (and all public schools have strengths–the best, most skilled and dedicated teachers I know are in Detroit) is how we will create lasting, positive change.

    Posted by nflanagan | April 23, 2012, 12:18 pm
    • I agree we don’t have to cast public schools in a negative light, and as you know my work and my writing, I often call for all of us to shine a light on the positives in schools and to promote our own positive visions in education.

      I do think this post is not just pointing out the negiative of school, but highlighing some of the policies and barriers for those positives you talk about to increase. I read this piece again trying to see it from your propective and still read it as a call for us to work together …. not pitting us against each othewre.

      The comment section will never succeed in taking the place of real conversation in person, but I glad we have been able to talk about this and hope we continue to challenge each other and push each other to ask more questions and go deeper into what it means to live, work, learn and play together….

      David

      Posted by dloitz | April 23, 2012, 12:57 pm
      • I was not quick to jump into this conversation or otherwise “moderate” it – but I think we should all pause to review our norms. When we wind up playing a lot of defense, we’re probably not approaching our relationships or communities as we should.

        I would recommend that in going forward, we do what we do best – bring together disparate, passionate voices united by the prompt to make all education more democratic, joyful, and meaningful for all kids.

        Anyone want to propose a broader dialogue or campaign out of all this? A million teachers, a million changes? The Round Table Around Schooling? Teachers on Teaching, Learners on Learning? The Civic Teacher? The Civic School? Hidden Curricula in Public Schools? Solutions to the Problems of Schooling? What are the real questions here about the ways in which people interact with the system?

        In many ways, we engage with all of those questions all the time, but paying extra attention to the questions we ask from time to time lets us pay extra attention to whom we presume can give us answers.

        All the best,
        C

        Posted by Chad Sansing | April 23, 2012, 4:46 pm

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