There are four identifiable groups in the sphere of public education: 1) The “Devosians,” 2) the ‘School Reformers,’ 3) those who aren’t involved at all, and 4) the progressives.
1) In power now are ‘The DeVosians,” supporters of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her campaign to redefine ‘public education’ to include every type of school known to man–plus home schooling. Her unstated but obvious goal is to undercut the institution of public education and the 100,000 schools that educate over 90% of our children. The Secretary is in favor of vouchers and ‘choice,’ but, even though she has all sorts of power, the data consistently undercut her belief system. Unfortunately, facts don’t matter to true believers like Secretary DeVos.
2) The ‘School Reform’ crowd ruled the roost during both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations, and their legacy is nothing to be proud of: declining test scores, widespread rigging of both achievement and graduation data, an exodus of teachers from the field, and a dramatic reduction among young people in interest in becoming teachers. Despite all this, the School Reform crowd continues to offer itself as the best alternative to Betsy DeVos. These are the folks who have reduced our children to data points. Keep that in mind when they ask for another opportunity!
Careful readers of my 2017 book, ‘Addicted to Reform,’ may recall footnote 26, which reads in part, “…even when the reform crowd acknowledges past missteps, it asks for just one more chance to get it right. For example, the American Enterprise Institute talks the talk but then proceeds to put forth the same old stuff: more choice, less regulation and so on.”)
3) Those who are not focused on these struggles are easily the largest group of all. At most, only 25% of households have school-age children, and most of the 75% pay little attention to education issues. They are the key to real change, in my opinion.
4) And finally, the progressives, a group I belong to. Like Betsy DeVos, we want real change. Unlike the Secretary, however, we believe in public schools.
How about you? Deep down, are you a progressive? Ask yourself these simple questions.
1) Do you want your child or grandchild to be in schools where the adults look at each kid and wonder “How Smart Is This Child?”—and then sort them accordingly?
2) Or would you choose a school where the adults ask a different question, “How Is This Child Smart?”
3) Do you want your children or grandchildren to repeat what they have been told, or would you like them to discover things on their own, guided by the teacher?
If you opted for discovery over sorting, then you are an education progressive. Welcome! Now let’s get to work on creating a genuine paradigm shift. For that to occur, at least three things have to happen. One, we need to reject the language of ‘school reformers’ in favor of a more precise vocabulary. Two, we need to change the conversation from hackneyed terms like “learning for all” to more dynamic language like “discovery” or “knowledge production.” And, three, we must get outside our own echo chamber and engage with the 75% of the population that does not have a direct stake in schooling.
Right now, the group I and others refer to as “School Reformers” are controlling the dialogue, with most of the education press following along. When they talk about ‘Closing the Achievement Gap,’ the value of ‘standardized tests,’ and the importance of a ‘rigorous curriculum,’ the misleading and dangerous assumptions behind their assertions are rarely scrutinized.
Time for scrutiny: Let’s start with ‘rigorous’ and ‘rigor,’ favorite words used by ‘reformers’ and their ilk. Progressives must never use those two words. And I mean never! Here’s a quick word association test. Please complete this phrase: ‘Rigor…..’ The word you came up with was ‘mortis,’ right?
Rigorous means strict, severe, stern, stringent, tough, harsh, rigid, relentless, unsparing, inflexible, draconian, intransigent, uncompromising, exacting, and stiff. Why would anyone who cares about children want that for them? Progressives want a curriculum that is challenging, not ‘rigorous.’ End of story.
Now consider standardized tests, which ‘reformers’ insist are essential. That term is shorthand for machine-scored, multiple-choice tests, the ones whose results arrive at schools in the summer, many months after the kids have taken them and far too late for teachers to be able to use the results to help their students.
These tests are fundamentally useless! We want children to develop skills and abilities like speaking persuasively and working with others, and these cannot be measured by a multiple-choice test. In most schools today, students spend lots of time on test prep–time they could spend working together, debating issues, researching and rewriting papers, et cetera.
Most teachers know how destructive these tests and all that surrounds them can be. Teachers across New York state are cited at length in a new report, The Tyranny of Testing. Here’s what one elementary grade teacher wrote: “After working for a month with the students to practice test-taking skills, they had to put into action everything they have learned. Well, it was a flop. The passages were very difficult and the questions were difficult for many to understand. I had to dry tears, and honestly lie to them that everything would be ok. It wasn’t ok. They all worked from 9 am until 2:15. Some were not even done then. Talk about making a struggling reader feel worthless. Students were upset and angry — angry to think that they might get in trouble for not doing well. Day two was much too long at each grade level. My third graders who struggle typing just quit working.”
Note that she had spent one month–about 15% of the school year–practicing ‘test-taking skills,’ no doubt mandated by her system.
By the way, these machine-scored, multiple choice tests are actually NOT standardized, a term which means that all students take them under the same (I.E., standardized) conditions. Children with special needs get extra time, as they should, but so do many thousands of other children because their parents have used their influence and money to buy extra time for their children. All they need is a doctor’s written recommendation and, presto, an extra hour or two.
I say that we should support standardized tests only when all children take them under these two standardized conditions: with a full stomach and in a comfortable, well-lighted room.
As for machine-scored, multiple-choice tests, let’s support only those whose results are available within a week or two! That would eliminate most of these tests–and save school districts millions of dollars.
Next, the Achievement Gap. Those who are obsessed with ‘school reform’ go on and on about the “achievement gap” and are ignoring (perhaps deliberately) the real truth: Most schools have four education gaps: opportunity, expectations, leadership, and outcomes.
- Ours is a land of unequal educational opportunity. The opportunity gap in education is a sad fact.
- Too many adults have low expectations for some students, particularly students of color or those from low-income families.
- We also have a leadership gap, born of trivial quarrels among leaders who should be encouraging public dialogue about the purposes of schooling: what we want our children to be able to do, how they can learn those skills, and how those skills can be measured fairly and accurately.
- The widely publicized outcomes gap—that is, the notorious achievement gap—is the inevitable consequence of the first three gaps in opportunity, expectations, and leadership. Focusing almost exclusively on outcomes is counterproductive and is largely responsible for the intimidating task now before us.
Suppose we discussed the achievement gap this way: “In math, Asian Americans outperform whites by more than 15 points. We have to something about that to close the Asian-white achievement gap. So let’s eliminate recess, physical education, art, and music for middle- and upper-middle-class white kids and substitute drilling and more drilling until they catch up.”
Just imagine the reaction in suburban white America! But replacing recess with drill, eliminating “frills” such as the arts, and turning kindergarten into teaching and testing time is what ‘school reformers’ have been and are doing to poor kids.
There’s also an “affection gap,” which you can read about in “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education (The New Press, 2017.
Changing the language is the first step. Next, we must adopt and project a dynamic vision of schooling. The language of ‘school reform’ generally suggests that knowledge is poured into the heads of students by their teachers. That passive model simply does not describe the ways in which humans acquire knowledge. Instead of talking about ‘a year of learning,’ let’s talk about “A Year of Producing Knowledge” or “A Year of Discovery.” When the focus is on a child’s interests and abilities, the teacher is no longer the dispenser of knowledge and fount of wisdom but an enabler, a coach, and a guide. Now the student becomes the worker, and the product is knowledge. That overturns the current paradigm, in which teachers are the workers, and students their product.
And the all-important third step: The problem with the truism “It takes a village to raise a child” is that most villagers have no direct connection to children or to the schools they go to. However, these villagers–people in households without a strong connection to public education–hold the future of public schools in their hands. They vote on school budgets, and so their opinions of schools, teachers, and students matter. Not only do older folks vote in greater numbers than younger people, but the gap is increasing. According to the Census Bureau, “the turnout rate among 18- to 24-year olds fell to 41.2 percent in 2012 from 48.5 percent in 2008. The turnout rates of adults ages 65 and older rose—to 71.9 percent in 2012 from 70.3 percent in 2008.”
For these reasons, progressives must develop and adopt strategies to win the support of those without a direct connection to schools. It’s not enough for good things to be happening in schools; the “outsiders” need to be supportive. And the best way to make that happen is to get them involved.
It will be difficult for many educators to take this step because they have grown accustomed to a system that says, in effect, “Drop the children and the money at the schoolhouse door, and leave the rest to us.” That approach won’t work anymore, if it ever did.
(I’ll wager many readers can remember when a firefighter came to class and talked about the job, or maybe it was a police officer. In younger grades, teachers often ask parents to come and talk about their jobs. That’s a common way of “connecting with the community,” in edu-speak. In many school districts, businesses are invited to “adopt” a school and donate stuff they don’t need. My children’s elementary school had lots of pretty useless crap lying around, the largess of some neighborhood businesses. Do those strategies work? In a word, no!
The outside world, meaning ordinary taxpayers and the business community, may have grown comfortable with being kept at arm’s length. But that’s what has to change . . . and determined educators can do this by meeting the outsiders where they are. Here are a few ways:
** Students can create a photo gallery of local residents and then post portraits on the Web for all to see and talk about.
**Art students can sketch portraits of business storefronts, workers, and bosses, also to be posted on the Web.
**The school’s jazz quintet can perform at community centers and then post the video on the Web.
**A video team can interview adults in senior citizen centers and workplaces, focusing on common themes: First movie they remember seeing, best job, favorite foods, most memorable trip, et cetera). These can be edited into short videos and posted on the web. Just one criterion for interviews: the subjects must not be connected to schools.
Producing these works will teach students all sorts of valuable skills, including clear writing, teamwork, and meeting deadlines. For students, school will be more valuable and interesting, and their enthusiasm will rub off and carry over into other aspects of their school experience. They will be become better and more discerning consumers of education precisely because they are now producers.
The fun—and the rewards—begin when these productions are posted on the school’s YouTube channel (and perhaps broadcast on local news). That’s when all of these adults—chosen because they do not have kids in school—start talking about the film, sharing the link, and pulling out their smartphones and showing it to friends and customers. They’ll be saying, “Did you know what they’re doing in school these days? Sure makes me wish I could go to school all over again.”
That’s how to turn outsiders into eager insiders.
It’s a safe bet that neither ‘The DeVosians’ nor the ‘School Reformers’ are going to embrace what I am suggesting, but progressives should.