Our Choices During “School Choice Week”

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.”

I urge you to read Dominik Dresel’s full piece in EdSurge. It’s alarming, as Diane Ravitch pointed out in her blog, dianeravitch.net.

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!!!

11 thoughts on “Our Choices During “School Choice Week”

  1. John, I’m wondering if we could have a conversation sometime. I am passionate about this subject. Our 13-year old grandchild just committed suicide after return one single morning to virtual schooling. It was Monday, Jan. 4, first day back, after the holidays. They broke for lunch, Donovan wrote a note…. went outside, and shot himself.

    If that shocks you…. it is because it is shocking.

    I have a lot on my mind. I taught this age for nearly 3 years in Quincy, MA…. and retired to go on and teach piano to 40 kids (average)/year, many of whom grew up in my studio…. from 1974 to 2012.

    Any day in early afternoon… (508) 627-9654.

    thank you.

    On Wed, Jan 27, 2021 at 11:43 AM The Merrow Report wrote:

    > John Merrow posted: ” 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 wid” >

    Like

    • First, Adele, very, very sorry for what happened with your grand-child. A very good friend of mine took her life when we were both teenagers. Though this happened more than 50 years ago, I still think often about her, and what i might have done differently.

      Second, as I hope John remembers, some of us have been working for decades to promote use of a much broader array of measures of student growth than standardized tests. An example is graduation based on applied performance and portfolios, rather than graduation based on accumulation of credits. This approach, , as John has urged, helps youngsters understand how they are smart, rather than how smart they are (on a single measure of limited use – standardized tests.

      But here’s a question for Dr. Camins – What chance do youngsters have to get into Stevens Institute (where he taught) without doing really well on the ACT or SAT? Here’s a relevant link

      https://www.stevens.edu/admissions/undergraduate-admissions/how-apply/first-year-students:
      “Stevens has no minimum GPA or test score requirement. Successful applicants in recent incoming classes had an average GPA of 3.8 (out of 4.0) and SAT scores in the range of 1330 to 1480. GPAs and test scores are only two indicators of your potential success at Stevens. We consider all of your application materials in making our admissions decisions.”
      Stevens is suspending its requirement that student submit test scores for this coming fall admission – but as I wrote many years ago-selective college & universities have a huge (negative) impact on high schools via their admissions practices. This is something else some of us have battled.

      It is way past time for college and university faculty to join with others to change admissions policies.
      John – do you agree it’s time to challenge selective colleges and universities admission practices?

      I’ll write later about other aspects of John’s – but this response is long enough.

      Thanks

      Joe Nathan, former inner city public school teacher, administrator, newspaper columnist, co-creator of a portfolio approach to high school graduation that was used for more than a decade by an innovative district public school in St Paul , parent of 3 urban district public school gradutes, and director, Center for School Change http://www.centerforschoolchange,org

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  2. John,
    I thought of you and your readers and the topic of education this afternoon when I was reading from the Course Guidebook for a Great Courses course that I love and have listened to often- “The Italian Renaissance” by U. of Toronto professor Kenneth Bartlett. The following quote does not answer any of the hard questions about “back to normal” during a pandemic, but I think it transcends such questions, especially following four years of pretty high approval ratings for Trump. Here’s the quote-

    “Not only schools, but also university curricula in Italy were influenced by classical learning… These humane or liberal studies (that is, studies worthy of free men) included poetry, rhetoric, ethics (moral philosophy), and history.” I’d update it like this- although learning requisite skills for a job are very important, liberal arts (liberal studies) of history, literature, and science are requisite skills for free men in a democracy. To keep close to one of your topics- it’s usually fairly easy to test requisite job skills. It’s not so easy to test for the understandings of of the liberal arts which, I think, are requisites for free men and women in a democracy.
    Doug Allen

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for all your thoughtful work in editorial writing in education. I read it all.

    And would like to comment on your idea that letting students make classroom rules will make that classroom more democratic. This is something I have thirty years’ worth of first-hand experience with, and can testify that it’s a great idea, in theory, but seldom plays out the way one might hope.

    What usually happens is kids just repeat all the rules they’ve been subjected to, over the years. Which does nothing to build genuine community–caring for each other, preferring order over chaos. We let Congress tweak the rules of civility and business and where has that gotten us? Why would we expect first-graders to do a better job?

    More thinking on rule-creation and rule-following: https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-eight-things-to-consider-when-creating-classroom-rules/2015/08

    Thanks. Keep up the good work.

    Like

    • Nancy, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I guess that, if kids started parroting, my response would be to dig deeper. “What makes you say that?” Why do you think we should require XX?” And so forth. Follow the Deb Meier line of thinking: What do you know? How do you know you know that? and deeper, to take the kids out of their comfort zones, not in a nasty way…..

      Like

      • I have the greatest respect for Deb Meier, and for her methods of challenging and deepening kids’ thinking.

        But many kids come into a learning situation not knowing what will be expected of them. In my classroom, for example, anything held in the mouth (cough drops, gum) was expressly forbidden, because I witnessed, while student teaching, what happens when you try to play the saxophone and suck on a caramel at the same time, and take a deep breath. This was before the Heimlich maneuver was a thing. Fortunately, my supervising teacher picked the kid up by the ankles and I beat on his back and the caramel popped out.

        I could wait 10 years for kids to come up with ‘nothing in your mouth while singing or playing’–and dozens more rules that were essential in building a high-quality music program. And some rules can only be learned and absorbed by modeling them. When you leave kids alone to discuss rules, what they all come up with is a version of KIPP’s ‘work hard/be nice,’ and it’s easier to dig into the substance of that while you’re working on actual content–literature, science, ethics, government.

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      • My experience was dramatically different. I worked with inner city kids, ages 5-18 who had lots of thoughts about rules – which in previous schools they thought were often unfair and inhumane. They deeply appreciated being treated as people who were respected.
        Did I suggest some rules? Yes. DId they discuss some rules? Yes We discussed them together. I was the ultimate decision maker but virtually always we included rules suggested by the young people.

        And the thinking effort – and the show of respect – were intensely valuable.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Press ever on, all tutors, teachers and students. Learning and sharing what we learn are what we are here for…forget the dang dangling preposition!

    The nub lies with being able to read. It’s positioned with 3rd grade for many of us, though some have been able to read for several years….and others largely unable lifelong. Drop the dumbing down grades. Make certain ALL can read. Then put them in charge of their own learning. Now, stand back!

    Like

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