Post 17: The End of Public School

Thursday, March, 28, 13 § 2 Comments

Nearly two hundred years later, it appears the US is letting go of one of its most enduring dreams: the dream that the government should educate our nation’s children. According to this recent article in the New York Times, more and more state governments are admitting they’re unable to provide quality schools for their young citizens, and are passing the responsibility off to…. Well. That part’s not exactly clear.

The new dream of education in America, popular in the 1990’s and making another surge now, is of a system of vouchers. In this new dream, the government bows out of the business of providing education, and instead provides money to parents, and tells them to go out, and–like good Americans–shop around. Find the best school for your kid, and sign him up. And if it doesn’t work, pull him out and shop some more.

This new dream grows directly out of our love of free markets and innovation, of unimpeded efficiency and cutthroat competition. The new dream vanishes the cumbersome teacher unions and the coffee-sipping retirees-to-be in administrative offices, and offers a vision of a nation of sleek, independent schools, hawking the latest and greatest in pedagogy–or getting shut down for lack of clientele. The new dream posits that the more we expand the vouchered demand, the more the education supply will grow and diversify. Imagine a national boom of “start-up” schools, like so many start-up tech businesses in Silicon Valley, from which parents and students can pick and choose.

Maybe this will happen. There’s certainly no shortage of highly-motivated educators, and I imagine many of them would dare to start up small schools if they were assured income. I could imagine home school collectives forming in living rooms, pooling their voucher money to buy a few computers and a little van for field trips. Or a nature preserve deciding to get into the business, and opening an ecological school on their grounds. A local carpenter could start a “school” for three interested high school kids, and use the voucher money to hire a tutor to help out with academic stuff in the afternoon.

Come to think of it, if there was a voucher law in New Mexico, offering say $8000 per kid per year, I’d start a school tomorrow. I’d find twenty kids, and use the 160K to pay myself and my co-blogger Christian Casillas 60K a year, take out a 10K insurance policy and with the remaining 30K run a great school on the organic farm of my brother and sister-in-law. It’d meet four days a week, for maybe 150 days out of the year, and include backpacking trips and food harvesting and sustainability studies, with tons of reading, tons of inventing, and a smattering of academics when it rains.

I wonder how voucher fans would respond to my school. Many of the same people who are so interested in vouchers are also the people who are clamoring about accountability and results, and how our students’ tests scores aren’t as high as Finland’s. My organic farm school wouldn’t show much of a bump in standardized test scores, though. Mostly because after we analyzed the standardized tests for their cultural biases and absurdity, we’d toss them into the compost pile and get back to learning. But if parents were interested, couldn’t I run my school anyway–tests or not?

The answer is no. Voucher laws come with strings attached. Most of them require schools that receive the vouchers to test their students and to hire certified teachers (and of course to comply with civil rights laws–but all citizens and organizations must do that). Which means that the government is not really opening the market to true innovation. It’s saying, Here, Free Market. Take our same old tests, and take teachers who’ve been trained in our same old teacher training programs, and do what what we couldn’t. In other words, take the same inputs and provide different results.

It’s not going to happen. The voucher program is a set up. It will benefit kids like mine, kids with savvy, college-educated parents who know how to “shop around,” and have a few bucks to chip in if the voucher doesn’t cover the tuition at the school they want. And it will do nothing for the poor kids, at least for the great majority of them, whose parents are too busy or uninformed to do the proper school shopping.

What’s even more troubling, however, is the fact that vouchers are a way for the government–and for all of us–to duck our responsibility to sit down and do the unpleasant work of reaching some sort of consensus on how and why we want to educate our children–all our children. Education is not an economic endeavor to provide a product in the most efficient way. It is a political endeavor to define the values of a community. It is a pedagogical endeavor to generate innovative and relevant ways to transmit those values to the next generation. The free market, even if released from all restrictions, simply does not have the tools, or the “ethical compass” (to borrow the term from Aaron Stern), to lead the way.

So as much as I’d love to start up my voucher-funded organic farm school, and as much as I know it would be successful, I don’t think I should be allowed to do it, at least not in this way. My school should not be a maverick success story. It should be part of a larger community commitment to reach children in different, more relevant ways.

This doesn’t mean we have to stick with the status quo. I can imagine a new dream for public education, one in which the government turns over responsibility of schools not to the valueless free market, but to the passionate citizens who have decided to become teachers. Released for academic years at a time, teacher-leaders would be charged with holding forums with parents and business leader and students to better understand what types of schools we need, and to create them. They would be charged with educating the new generation of teachers–not in distant university classrooms, but right there in their classrooms and schools.

Some of you may be rolling your eyes, recalling the disastrous community-run schools in NYC from the 1960’s, which generated more turf wars and law suits than good education. Or the site-based management buzz of the early 1990’s, which was abandoned after teachers and principals realized all the endless planning meetings came with little real power to make changes. But the vision I’m holding is different, and has proven to work in Finland, where teachers truly are running the educational system.

I don’t think vouchers signify the end of the public school dream. The idea will expand for a few years and then fail. Perhaps it may even prove to be the necessary though painful step that ends up leading us, through our government, towards re-assuming responsibility for public education. And this time, let’s hope we let teachers lead the way.


Post 16: The Core Curriculum

Wednesday, March, 13, 13 § 4 Comments

A couple of weeks ago, Santa Fe education guru (and my colleague at the Academy for the Love of Learning), Patty Lee shared this surprising blog post from Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch, in case you don’t know, is a high-profile education historian, one of those national policy figures to whom the New York Times and CNN turn when they want an opinion. When she was Assistant Secretary in the US Department of Education in the 1980’s, she advocated heavily for a standardized national curriculum.

But in this blog post, she shoots the idea down.

She writes passionately against the adoption of the national “Common Core Curriculum,” a list of the skills and facts, in reading and math, that US kids should master during each grade, from Kindergarten to 12th. So we know what we’re talking about, here’s a few of the items from this list, pertinent to the 10th grade English classes I used to teach. As you read, I encourage you to “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in the text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; and recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced.” (According the Core Curriculum, you’ve known how to do that since 8th grade):

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7 Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).

They’re not that bad, actually, if you can make it through the jargon. I can even see how I’d teach translate these two standards into classroom action: one day I’d show Picasso’s Guernica and a Rodin sculpture, and lead a lively class discussion on what’s there and what’s missing. Then we could read The Sound and the Fury, and I’d show them the line from MacBeth that gave Faulkner his title. Have the kids write a little essay showing what they learned and ELA 9-10.7 and ELA 9-10.9 are done. So what’s the problem?

According to Ravitch, the problem is that the standards are untested, were not developed by teachers (but by “experts” funded by corporations), have been unfairly foisted on states, and expect such a sudden leap in what kids do and know, they’ll generate unfairly high rates of failure. Her arguments are consistent with those of her 2012 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which she blasts what she calls the “corporate reform agenda,” and its heavy focus on test results to assess how well kids learn and how well teachers teach. (See my review, on our Literature and Film page of this blog.)

Though Ravitch’s arguments are sound, and I believe true, she stops short of pointing out the real problem with this type of standardized curriculum. No, it’s not that the experts are fascist adults, deciding what kids should learn. Contrary to what they think over at the “do-what-you-like” Sudbury school in Massachusetts, I believe adults have an obligation to give children guidance, to expose them to skills and knowledge and perspectives that will let them discover their talents and participate in a larger culture. The problem with the national curriculum is that it’s completely absurd.

To think that every child in the US will learn the same things at the same age is a fantasy, a theory that could only be hatched by people who’ve no experience with real teaching, no idea how complex and unpredictable and wonderful a process learning really can be.

Here’s what it’ll look like, when I deliver my Core Curriculum class: I come in with my lesson plans, my Guernica Powerpoint and my interactive group-based activity, my brilliant ten minute lecture. The kids come in with their curiosity, their hunger (for learning and for food), their family problems, their beliefs about Picasso, their beliefs about war and horses and Spain, their hatred or love or disinterest toward school, toward me, toward the desk in which they must sit. The bell rings. I begin teaching. Maybe 80% of them listen, on a good day. And of that 80%, maybe I happen to explain the idea and structure the activity in a way that appropriately challenges all those currently held beliefs–on a good day, again, maybe I hit 80% of them. Under the best of conditions, then, I’ve got 60% of them learning ELA 9-10.7–the same percent, by the way, that graduates from high school in Santa Fe.

Proponents of the Common Core will say that’s an instructional problem, not a content problem. Which is how you end up with districts adopting scripted curricula–actual words and sentences–that teachers must deliver to their students, to ensure that the standards are being taught. Another terrible idea: if 80% of my students pay attention to a brilliant lecture on Guernica, I’ll be lucky to get 20% to listen to a scripted speech from some textbook. I doubt I’d be able to pay much attention myself. (See here for one Washington DC teacher’s critique of the way the Core Curriculum would have him teach the Gettysburg address.)

The bottom line is the Core Curriculum is a bad idea because it’s a pipe dream. You can’t standardize what kids learn and what teachers teach because real teaching and learning–the stuff that happens in real classrooms, with real people, is by its nature unpredictable. It takes both teacher and learner in directions they did not foresee when the learning began. It begins with the teacher’s individual passion and experience and knowledge, and then sparks something different in each student. Real teaching and learning is a hodge-podge endeavor, more like a summer swimming pool than an assembly line. Often the most teachable moments happen sheerly by luck, and often the students don’t realize what they’ve learned until long after the tests have been taken, the last bells rung.

This isn’t to say parents and policymakers shouldn’t have any say what gets taught. But at the end of the day, it’s the teachers who decide what gets taught, and it’s the students who decide what gets learned, and often, both happen on a subconscious level. Yes, teachers should have curricula for their classes, schools and districts should invite public opinion on what is taught, should bring teachers together so they know what’s going on in the classrooms around them. They can even talk about the Core Curriculum, as a guide.

But the federal government, and the state governments who are chasing its grant money, are going to be disappointed–again–by the results of the Core Curriculum because it fails to recognize–again–that the only path to more effective schools lies through the teachers. If you want good, dynamic classrooms where kids will be turned on as learners and develop a set of ethics towards others and the world (the only core curriculum we really need, in the end), you’ve got to foster good, dynamic teachers with a set of ethics toward others and the world. Which is not that complicated, really. Slow, yes. Costly, maybe. But Finland pulled it off, and great schools in the US are pulling it off. They’re empowering and supporting their teachers, giving them time to meet and plan and reflect. They’re not giving them lists and scripts.

Those government experts can still help out. We need people to take notes when our teachers meet, present them research on child development and brain science, help mark papers, maybe sub now and then, so teachers can observe each other’s classes. The government experts can be trained to help ensure that our children and teachers are being treated with respect, that our schools are free of racism, sexism, homophobia and other expressions of violence that make learning impossible and life miserable for young citizens.

But we don’t need experts writing up dream lists of what kids should learn, when. Maybe in a few generations, when our schools are a bit more on track, when students and teachers aren’t dropping out by the minute, we can start thinking about comparing what they’re teaching over in Vermont to what we’re teaching in New Mexico. For now, let’s stay focused on something we might be able to achieve: inspiring and supporting real teaching and learning in our schools.

-Seth Biderman | March 13, 2013

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