Post 11: The Third Way

Thursday, November, 22, 12 § 2 Comments

Educational historian Diane Ravitch has described how the history of public school reform in the US can be divided into two basic approaches: the accountability approach, and the professionalism approach.

The accountability approach is all about outputs. Results. It’s hot right now, and has been for some time, among policy-makers like Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and philanthropic leaders from the corporate world, like Eli Broad and Bill Gates. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that the best way to improve schools is by setting clear and measurable expectations for student performance, testing whether or not those expectations have been met, and then rewarding, re-training or sacking the adults who are responsible for the successes or failures.

Accountability folks talk a good game. Children’s interests, they say, must come before adults’. They lament the achievement gap between rich and poor, see teacher’s unions as an obstacle to change, and champion non-unionized charter schools as the way of the future. Many dream of the day when the public school system is completely privatized, and the government merely hands out a voucher check to each family so that, in accordance with free market principles, those schools that produce results will attract “customers,” and those that don’t will shut down.

Former Washington DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee, who appeared on this cover of Time Magazine in 2008, is the poster-child of this type of reform. The broom is supposed to indicate how she’s “cleaning out” the bureaucratic cobwebs of an underperforming school system, but her hard-hitting measures (she fired hundreds of teachers and principals, shut down dozens of schools) lead many of her critics to interpret the broom, and the black outfit, as proof she was, in fact, a wicked witch.

The professionalism camp focuses on inputs. The best way to improve schools is to improve the resources we provide for our schools and teachers. This approach stems from the progressive education movement of the early 1900’s and is defended tooth and nail by teachers’ unions and progressive publications like ReThinking Schools. Professionalism folks point to models like Finland’s school system, where teaching has become highly professionalized and autonomous, and schools are thriving by many measures–including test results.

The guiding principle of the professionalism approach is that a society must trust its teachers, as it should trusts its doctors and engineers. Educate teachers and principals as well as possible, support them with good salaries and facilities and staff, and then get out of the way. Teachers need not be monitored or sanctioned by some non-educator bureaucrat from Central Office; neither do they want to be rewarded based on some arbitrary measure of student perfomance. Let them decide how to best educate, and assess, the children. Results may not show up on test scores, but learning is a long, complex process, and improvement is incremental.

As someone who’s taught for ten years, and will likely be back in the classroom, I’m drawn to the professionalism camp, and have defended some of its tenets on this blog, and in my columns for the Santa Fe Reporter. My direct experience with kids, and the research of people like Stephen Jay Gould, Howard Gardner, and Noam Chomsky, have convinced me that “intelligence” is too broad and too diverse to be captured on a pen and paper test, no matter how culturally unbiased or well-written it claims to be.

But I’ve never felt quite comfortable joining the rank-and-file of the professionalism approach. Its defense of the local neighborhood school and the teacher as artist strikes me as overly-sentimental. When I was growing up, high-stakes testing did not exist, and yet school was boring for many of my friends and classmates. In some cases, it was traumatic. Even if teachers are better prepared and better supported, it will continue to be a pedagogical mistake, if not a violation of human rights, to oblige children to spend the bulk of their days sitting in classrooms with people their same age, looking at fragmented subjects that may or may not interest them.

The solution is not a middle ground, in which we somehow respect the professionalism of teachers and demand that students perform well on tests. The key to reforming schools lies in a third approach, one that shifts focus away from how we deliver the curriculum, to what the curriculum is–and if we need a curriculum at all.

I’m not advocating a free-for-all approach, like Sudbury. Stick with me for a moment. If we believe (as I know many readers of this blog do) that true education only happens in meaningful relationships, then doesn’t it follow that everything that happens in a child’s day should be geared towards putting that child in meaningful relationships? Relationships with adults, with children of all ages, with the natural world, and with the knowledge and skill sets developed by people?

These relationships cannot be measured well, if at all, on yearly standardized tests. Nor can these relationships be created solely by a corps of highly-trained professionals. To create a relationship-based school system, we must stop bickering about how to test students, or how to professionalize teachers. We need to start from scratch. We need to take a step back and reconsider some of our most deep-seated assumptions about what school should be.

Must children learn in grade levels?

Does every teacher have to have a license, and years of training on brain research?

Is it okay for a child to graduate from high school having never studied Algebra?

Dennis Littky of the Big Picture schools, where 96% of high school students graduate, changed the education game by asking  the question, What kind of human being do we want students to become? Littky’s answer was he wanted schools to help people become curious, kind, creative people. He wanted high school graduates to be people who knew how to learn, and were motivated to do so. They didn’t need to know algebra, but they did need to have the skills, confidence and motivation to learn algebra, should the need arise.

People can become educated without being tested yearly, and without the intervention of highly professionalized pedagogues. If school is about helping human beings grow–not helping them “perform” well on tests, not helping them master a pre-set curriculum–then it needs to be deregulated, and de-professionalized. If our culture is to thrive, public education must evolve into an institutionalized vehicle for creating positive learning relationships between the citizens of a society.

Those of us who love teaching can help, but even if we’re given higher salaries and better support, we must realize that we will never be able to do it alone. Our role, the role of a public school system, should be to help children build positive relationships, in and out of the school building, and then celebrate with them as they learn.

-Seth Biderman | November 22, 2012

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§ 2 Responses to Post 11: The Third Way

  • Anne Salzmann says:

    I could not agree more – it starts with the relationships, particularly for the younger kids and the teens. Beyond that, hopefully they have the confidence and centeredness to search out what they need to know on their own.

    I see the truth of this every day in my school – what it means to be known, how it feels that people really do care, how far kids will stretch emotionally and academically to respond on their side of the relationship. That’s what we want…one can see the safety in only doing what one likes and is familiar with in those kids who drop out to wander stoned around the plaza. They could not or did not connect.

    Grateful for your post, Seth. Makes me feel clearer about what I always feel but can’t aways put into words.

  • Greg Goles says:

    Seth, As the math teacher I am in complete agreement that not everyone needs to know algebra but instead should have a certain level of numeracy or quantitive reasoning as the Big Picture calls it. I believe that schools should place an emphasis on making sure students know what numbers mean and can use them to make decisions in their everyday life. One example of this is that graduates of our public school system should be able to understand the meaning of numbers well enough to ask questions and to gather data that will inform their votes during our recent election. I feel strongly that this should be the emphasis more than factoring trinomials.
    However, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience at least a few times over the years a student like Bethany who didn’t like math, didn’t want to take algebra or geometry. But, once in the class she discovered she had a great deal of ability with math, she began to love it, and soon talked passionately about the subject. Bethany is a senior in high school now. I don’t know exactly what her future holds, but I’m certain that she discovered a great deal about herself because she was forced to take that algebra class three years ago and that her interests and passions changed a great deal as a result.
    The problem is that for every one student like Bethany who the math class ignited a passion for, there are 20 more Justin’s who put in their time and their real world application of math at the moment is to calculate the lowest possible grade they can get to still get their credit.
    Though I pride myself on knowing my students well, I still haven’t been able to figure out if a new student in my class will be more like Justin or Bethany or somewhere in the middle.

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