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.