Michael Josefowicz (@ToughLoveforX) frequently helps me sharpen my thinking via Twitter, especially in regards to marketing #edreform and making it easy for the public to say yes to big change. Consequently, I’ve been thinking about “yes” questions for students, teachers, parents, and administrators – questions like
- Do you want students to do more than test prep?
- Do you want students engaged in learning?
- Do you want students making new discoveries?
- Do you want students to contribute to their communities?
- Do you want students to graduate from high school?
- Do you want graduates to participate in democracy?
- Do you want to recruit and retain the best new teachers for your students?
- Do you want students and communities to respect teachers?
- Do you want teachers to learn and improve throughout their careers?
- Do you want schools that capture your imagination?
While it’s easy for stake-holders to answer “yes” to these questions, it’s really daunting to think about taking on the systems and habits of American education to achieve any of their aims. I’m reading Creating a New Teaching Profession, edited by Dan Goldhaber and Jane Hannaway, wherein educators like Frederick Hess propose radical reversals in current practices that make a whole lot of sense, but face a whole lot of resistance from the status quo in both policy and stake-holder expectation.
Our American public education system is built on coercing school systems, administrators, teachers, students, and parents to accept standardized testing as the sole measure of their worth. Even our reform efforts are geared toward finding the next big thing in raising standardized test scores and scaling-up test-prep programs. Our national dialogue about education has been shackled by politicians, the media, and the coerced and compliant school system we live with every day. We’re not really looking for innovation; we’re looking for replication of specifically successful programs on a standardized scale, and we’re looking to label and punish stake-holders of different circumstances who can’t be the second-coming of Rafe Esquith or his students.
We’re either effective or ineffective by test scores. We’re either safe or in improvement by test scores. We’re either accountable by test scores or irresponsible. We’re either/or.
Humanity isn’t going to survive by either/or. People are complex; they have complex needs and wants. People are not either/or. Nevertheless, we’re schooling children to be either winners or losers as measured by arbitrary, external, and damaging means and rhetoric. The kicker is that such reductionist labels and their K12 subsets carry complex consequences for kids that schools obfuscate by dint of their attempts to exert external control over students, their narrow, rear-view mirror focus on last year’s test scores, and their numbing, lockstep recreation of the same structures and practices every year at every grade level.
School should acknowledge the complexity of children (and their teachers), assess and respond to their growth, take into account their passions for learning, and celebrate their successes, even when faced with children’s differences in readiness and disposition. How many more kids who might have learned this or that in a year or two need to be hurt and tracked for a lifetime because they don’t read or compute at a certain level by a certain age decided on by adults outside of their lives? If we had a number, would that make it OK?
So, why have public education? Why attempt more than baby-sitting? Why isn’t standardized testing good enough?
Because we need a country of graduates and a world of citizens who can speak “and” instead of “either/or.” We need communities that embrace and lift their schools and teachers instead of – sometimes justifiably – tearing them down because of past hurts. We need schools that offer their communities solutions to local problems led by local leaders. We need schools that show students the impact of their interests on their learning, the impact of their learning on their communities, and the impact of serving their communities on their lives. We need democratic schools that show kids that what matters most is what they choose do with their learning. School should be about discovering who we are – as individuals and peoples- through the challenges we face and successes we build together. School should not be about recounting for our gatekeepers what they had to learn in order to get the approval of their gatekeepers.
So what needs to happen? How do the levels of public education need to change in order to transform public schools into places of joyful learning and real democracy?
- The federal government should fund schools that have and solve larger problems than raising test scores. Certainly there are more authentic ways to close the achievement gap, increase attendance and graduation, and prepare students for colleges and careers.
- Local school systems should develop administrators and teachers who can adapt to students’ needs and structure their schools according to the principles of authentic, democratic, and project-based learning. School systems should develop educators who can look for local and niche solutions at the student level, rather than for mechanistic, division-wide programs that standardize learning and don’t require teachers.
- Administrators should ask themselves the questions I posited at the top of this post and compare their answers to their practices in staffing, scheduling, and teacher evaluation and development.
- Teachers should work to become co-learners and let go of authority and powers not shared with students. Teachers should push for waivers and greater freedom in curriculum, assessment, and instruction, and work to unteach students’ school habits and unlearn their own. Teachers should design opportunities for synthesis and application of big ideas in individualized learning and to community-based problem-solving. I wonder how many teachers who teach canned programs think that they can beat the programs’ results through authentic learning. I wonder how many of them have told their administrators this and asked for the freedom to teach with accountability. I wonder what their administrators have said. My one-two interview combo for prospective administrators has become, “If you find a program, will I have to teach it? If so, why do you want or need me?” Teachers might also consider circumventing many systematic restraints by forming teams to charter truly innovative schools.
- Students should unlearn habits of complicity and habitual resistance to authority (not their fault). Students should question their teachers about work they has no relevance for them and learn to suggest to their teachers ways they might learn better or engage more with school. Students should plug learning that is relevant and promote it to their friends, parents, and school boards. They should get out the message: “This is how we learn; this is what we like; but this is how we feel at school and on day one of colleges and careers having been taught to tests.”
- Parents should question administrators and teachers about the nature of work asked of their children and about how it prepares them for colleges and careers. Parents should request teachers who spark their kids’ learning and exert pressure on schools to make that kind of learning the norm. Parents should promote what excites their children about learning at school and question whatever saps their children’s passions. It’s not that teachers can’t reach kids; it’s that systems get in the way. We can support teachers in reaching our kids in more nuanced ways than insisting that they’re right or wrong. We can give feedback to schools to point out where authentic learning is alive and well. We can point out to schools their own local solutions to the problems of engagement and relevance.
This is a hard time during which to stand up for something in American public education. The economy begs us to be risk-averse in providing for our families and serving our students. Someday, though, something’s gotta give. This is the one either/or scenario in which I believe.
Either we change what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, or we maintain the status quo. Either way we face the world and its problems. I’d rather have a network of “and” on everyone’s side than a single switch of “either/or” separating us.