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Learning at its Best

The Problem With Humanizing Wal-Mart

I stepped into Wal-Mart recently and noticed a few changes: soft hues of yellows, brighter, cleaner floors and a more human, lower-case logo.  No more dominating us with a screaming, all-caps, Helvetica WAL-MART. Inside, though, it’s still stocked with cheap crap from developing nations.  Still crafted by the hands of little children.  No amount of happy faces can change that. The store still employs workers at two hours below full-time, so the transnational corporation doesn’t have to worry so much about pesky things like health care and benefits.  Call them associates and team members, but I’ll continue to call them under-employed.

Language is powerful.  Visuals reshape perception.  However, if the structures themselves don’t change, it becomes a cruel, ironic source of double-speak.

You can call it an incentive and merit pay, but if it’s tied to a teacher’s livelihood it’s extortion or a bribe at best.  You can feign shock when the teachers cheat the system, but as long as the system devalues teacher autonomy, the results will be unethical.

You can continue to use the term “public schools,” but if it doesn’t belong to the local community, it isn’t public.  If you are willing to sell the instruction, assessment and organization to the highest bidder, it’s proof that you don’t believe in shared ownership.

You can call it common and wax eloquent about the need to be on the same page (which, in itself is a fitting idiom to take literally.  Why do we even need to be in the same book?)  However, if it’s not really grassroots and it’s imposed rather than shared, it’s standardized rather than common.  It’s uniformity rather than unity.

You can switch the name from NCLB to Race to the Top and give speeches about why Congress must change the law.  You can pose before the unions and talk to Oprah and toss around words like “hope” and “change.” However, when you still require 100% of all students to pass an arbitrary test, I can’t find any hope or change to the system.

You can name your “reform” non-profit Student Choice or Student First or any other student-centered name, but if what you are advocating is harmful to children, then it’s not reform at all.

I want structural change.

I want changes to the physical structures in public schools.  How about murals instead of white walls?  How about rooms with room to move?  How about windows, the real kind, that actually open up?  How about common areas and half-walls and gardens? (Special thanks to Mrs. Ripp for the comment on windows.  Totally jacked that one from her.)

I want changes to the organizational structures in public schools. What if shared leadership was really that?  What if teachers had a voice?  What if students had a voice, too?  What if we resolved conflict with conversation?  And what if schools were managed based upon shared values rather than rigid rules and coercion?

I want changes to the instructional structures in public schools. What if assessment was not synonymous with grades and standardized tests?  What if the teacher wasn’t the center of every lesson?  What if we had project-based learning, portfolios, independent work and assignments that valued a balance of student and teacher choice?  What if “independent practice” was truly independent and “cooperative learning” was truly cooperative?

I don’t want a new name and a more humane logo and slicker facade.

I want change.

Real change.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


8 thoughts on “The Problem With Humanizing Wal-Mart

  1. Thanks John! Great way to wake up in the morning! What keeps you from opening up your own school? What keeps you part of the system? how can we turns these words from a blog post to action?

    off to make homemade pasta with some preschoolers, but this is great food for thought today!

    Thank you


    Posted by dloitz | July 15, 2011, 10:34 am
    • I want to be the guy who paints the murals inside the walls and who redefines the space inside of a classroom. I want to film documentaries and have students blog without fear of sounding stupid. I see a need to start a new school and who knows, perhaps I will someday. But I also see the need for grassroots change within the public schools at a very site-based or district-based level.

      Another factor: fear. I’m afraid of tackling the challenges of starting a school. I’m scared of the paperwork and admin side.

      Posted by johntspencer | July 15, 2011, 10:49 am
      • Build a team, John, of complementary people who can use different skill sets to work together toward a common goal. This is something else we don’t do in education. We team adults by certification areas and degrees with little regard for their strengths. Would we want to be the kid who has to deal with four Type-A teachers a day?

        In starting a new school you need several people who can support one another, bounce back after the inevitable setbacks, argue passionately without hurting one another, and cover the bases for one another. Maybe start there – don’t worry about the school in its entirety; find the people who can help you do this first?

        I can see a Coöp school working like a coöp, too. Wouldn’t that be something?

        All the best,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | July 15, 2011, 1:26 pm
  2. I’m starting to wonder too if the change you speak of and I crave also is only possible outside the system. When will we have superintendents and directors writing these calls to action?

    Posted by Royan Lee | July 15, 2011, 2:53 pm
    • I think we need superintendents within the system, people creating others systems, teachers working within the systems, etc. to make it work. This also means teachers can’t have the view that a person “sold out” for moving into leadership in order to make these changes. We need to remember that power structures are complex.

      Posted by johntspencer | July 16, 2011, 8:26 am
  3. We sometimes think of little changes as “scratching the surface.” The reality is that it’s more like “painting the surface.” Another coat we hope covers up the reality of what’s really there. I’m with you, brother. Let’s strip it and sand it. Shed some light on it. Heck, let’s bust it apart. Then we can work on reconstructing it. Now that’s change. How many parts of our world could use that? I know I could.

    Posted by Tom Altepeter | July 15, 2011, 5:54 pm
  4. The idea of little changes ‘painting the surface’ reminds me of a story of a good friend. She used to volunteer three times a week in a hospital to translate Spanish. She figured it was an evening complement to a full-time translator during the day, but she was the only person there who was doing it – and, basing it on four or five years of Spanish classes in high school and college, she wasn’t that good at getting the specific symptoms and how it was affecting them. She expressed her concerns several times, and the hospital staff responded with encouragement and praise that her her was really appreciated and making a positive difference.

    After a short period of time, she quit, and expressed again that the hospital needed full time staff that were fluent in Spanish. She would no longer be an excuse for the hospital to continue a broken system.

    She and I still refer to that from time to time – that a little bit of help (or a little bit of change) can be more destructive than nothing because it holds off reenvisioning and revolution.

    Posted by Kevin Crouse | July 16, 2011, 10:19 am
  5. Love this. I’m there.

    Posted by Kirsten | July 17, 2011, 8:21 am

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