This short piece attempts to make two points. First, public education must stop trying to ‘get back to normal,’ because “normal” isn’t anywhere near good enough to justify continued large public investments of taxpayer dollars in public education. As widespread school reopenings draw closer, I believe that educators face decisions that will, at the end of the day, determine whether public education survives. And, if they mess it up, Jeff Bezos is lurking in the wings!
A second point: The young people who will be returning to classrooms have endured (and are still living through) an unprecedented time of crises–not just COVID-caused isolation but also economic hardship, political turmoil, and often severe stress in their homes, including (perhaps) abuse. For those reasons, simply trying to “get back to normal” in classrooms is a terrible idea. It’s time to step up for our children, meet them where they are, and do what’s right. Stop blathering about ‘learning loss’ and ‘closing the achievement gap’ and other diversions!
Point One: As schools prepare for reopening, traditional public schools and the men and women running them are facing serious choices. Ironically, this week, January 24-30, happens to be “School Choice Week,” a gimmick created ten years ago by conservatives to advance the charter school and voucher movements. I.E., “School Choice Week” exists to undermine traditional public education.
(SIDEBAR: In case you are curious, the ‘School Choice Week’ website does not list its funders, but, as Valerie Strauss reported in the Washington Post, “According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the National School Choice Week website listed the American Federation for Children, the Walton Family Fund, ALEC, SPN, the Freedom Foundation, FreedomWorks, Cato Institute, Reason Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the James Madison Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as education partners in 2016. Using the Wayback Machine, you will also find so-called progressive organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), KIPP and Education Reform Now on the partners’ list that year.”
For the past four years, the school choice movement was aligned, and sometimes supportive of, the harshly anti-public school policies of Betsy DeVos, but the end of the Trump era has put Choice advocates in a tough spot, as this fascinating article by Avi Wolfman-Arent from WHYY details.)
The hostility of the right is not the greatest threat to a healthy public school system, however. More dangerous is the continued acceptance of test-based accountability, the notion that true learning (and teacher quality) can be measured by standardized, machine-scored bubble tests. The Presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama gave us “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” 16 years of heartless policies that drove out art, music, physical education, recess, and anything else that made schools interesting and vital places for children and adults. Those policies also produced flat-line scores on our national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, by the way.
For public education to survive, Arthur Camins, until recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology, says it’s time for a divorce. He writes:
“It is time for Democrats to file for a divorce from a four-decade bipartisan education policy marriage. The case is clearer now than ever. There are irreconcilable differences. A marriage with one partner committed to competition as an improvement driver and the other to equity and democracy is an inevitable failure. A partnership in which one party prioritizes tax cuts and deregulation for the wealthy and the other quality education for everyone results in abuse of the least powerful partner.”
But divorce alone won’t do it, and neither will abandoning test-based accountability. Public schools must stand for something.
Why? Because Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has his eye on taking over public education! Don’t laugh!
“Jeff Bezos’ $2 billion investment to establish a Montessori-inspired network of preschools may be shrugged off by many as the world’s richest man dabbling in another playground. Instead, we should see it for what it is: the early days of Amazon’s foray into public education.”
And later in the same article, these chilling sentences: “Public education offers Amazon access to a unique resource—the consumers, and employees, of the future, along with their user behavior, preferences and countless other data points. It’s easy to imagine why Amazon, a company famous for its powerful recommendation engines that personalize, and optimize, each user’s experience, would do anything to be able to collect years’ worth of data on a student by the time she graduated from high school and into adulthood. Future profits from owning that data would all but guarantee the return on Amazon’s investment, even if the company were to provide its educational services at a steeply discounted rate that made it hard for anyone else to compete.”
So, what to do? How can public education 1) turn aside the potential threat from Jeff Bezos and the genuine challenge of the right wing charter/voucher movement, 2) strengthen its position with the public, and 3) meet the critical needs of today’s children?
To repeat an important point, it is not sufficient to be AGAINST something. So what must public education be FOR in order to fight off external threats AND help children grow to their fullest potential?
For starters, here’s some thoughtful advice from Teresa Thayer Snyder, former superintendent of the Voorheesville district in upstate New York. She wrote on her Facebook page.
When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history.
Bear in mind that she wrote this before the January 6 insurrection at our Nation’s Capital. (I’m happy to report that her words have gone viral, largely due to praise from Diane Ravitch in her blog.)
But it’s also essential to begin making schools less autocratic and more democratic, because as Deborah Meier and others have noted, democracy requires practice, and, as we all know from experience, schools are intensely autocratic: line up, raise your hand, be quiet, and on and on.
What better place to start practicing democracy than in classrooms? Teachers can make the classrooms more democratic by letting students develop the rules for classroom behavior–I.E. for their own behavior.
As I wrote back in March, 2019: “I am partial to teachers and classrooms where the children spend some time deciding what the rules should be, figuring out what sort of classroom they want to spend their year in. I watched that process more than a few times. First, the teacher asks her students for help.
Children, let’s make some rules for our classroom. What do you think is important?
Or she might lead the conversation in certain directions:
What if someone knows the answer to a question? Should they just yell it out, or should they raise their hand and wait to be called on?
Or: If one of you has to use the bathroom, should you just get up and walk out of class? Or should we have a signal? And what sort of signal should we use?
It should not surprise you to learn that, in the end, the kids come up with reasonable rules: Listen, Be Respectful, Raise Your Hand Be Kind, and so forth. But there’s a difference, because these are their rules.”
Those words–Kind, Safe, Respectful–are found in store-bought laminated posters, but when students create the rules, they own them and are therefore more likely to adhere to them.
That’s just a beginning. And, while making schools behave democratically does not mean that the kids take up, it does mean making certain that education is both child-centric and personalized, because the goal is to move toward a public system that gives young people more agency over their own learning. The adults must ask an essential question about each child “How is she smart?” instead of “How smart is she?” They must listen to the answers and then open doors that allow students to follow their interests and develop their talents.
Eventually, this will mean students of different ages in different states (or even different countries!) working together on projects. In these schools, students are no longer the product; instead, they are workers, producing knowledge.
For education leaders at this critical moment, imagination and courage are essential, along with the willingness to take risks.
Some other suggestions:
1. Give kids time and space to get accustomed to being with peers, even socially distanced, for the first time in many months, while recognizing that social and emotional learning (SEL) may matter more than book-learning for these first weeks and months, because we don’t know the effects of isolation.
2. Make time for lots of free play. Schools need to be happy places
3. Suspend high stakes testing for the foreseeable future–and perhaps permanently–while also calling a halt to hand wringing conversations about ‘remediation’ or ‘learning loss,’ because that’s blaming the victim, big time. Some states, including New York, are calling on the US Department of Education to suspend its requirements, something that then-candidate Biden pledged to do at a Presidential Candidates Forum in Pittsburgh in December, 2019. I was there and heard him with my own ears. Let’s push him and his choice for Secretary of Education to follow through!
While these steps are simple, they won’t be easy. However, our children’s futures are at stake. Not only that, children who practice democracy in school are more likely to be small-d democrats as adults and less likely to fall for the snake oil of demagogues like you-know-who.
And if positive motivation isn’t enough to spur educators to do the right things, remind them that Jeff Bezos is lurking in the wings!!!