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What if the “cure” is making us sicker?

September 23, 2010

Crisis is the name-of-the-game these days and as Sabrina discussed in a recent post, it is the dominant story favored by the mainstream press when discussing public education.  Yet by embracing that story, we have indeed lost our way from the vital elements of education.  Education can change people’s lives in a positive way and public education has been and should continue to be a key part of that.   The learning process almost necessarily involves relationships.  However, our current mode of storytelling invokes a numbers-based scenario of doom and gloom, speaking only of how schools (the public ones, that is) are failing us, failing our children, failing our society in accordance with what the numbers tell us.  People get riled up with all of these do-or-die stories, and while we demand resolution  it is easy to forget that there are human players involved. We have entered a rhetoric-heavy era  regarding education and the ways we have chosen to respond to the rhetoric are only assisting in ensuring the longevity of the crisis.  For example, the current prescription urges us to spend yet more time testing or preparing for testing, more time examining data, it urges us to spend time analyzing kids’ performance on tasks that we may well have otherwise spent in authentic human engagement to assist our students.  We have inflated many of our ailments through our very perspective regarding the problems at hand, and all of our methods at curing them (over the past decade or so) have seemed to make it worse. When we devalue the human interactive element so crucial to the learning process in favor of unreliable data charts, we are really missing a large part of the point in the existence of schools.

As a nation, we are only listening to part of the story and unfortunately most of the people telling it are not experts in the education field. In fact, many of them represent other interests. Maybe we’re flogging dead horses here at Failing Schools, but I have to ask the questions, yet again:  Why are non-educators so involved in creating education policy?  Also: Why are teachers’ voices so marginalized in these conversations?  (And for good measure: What’s up with all these  people from privileged backgrounds who think they are experts on how easy it is to overcome effects of poverty?) As a society, we are complicit in manufacturing crisis itself if we continue to allow non-experts to determine the future for public education.  There is real sickness here, one that doesn’t strictly involve bad teachers and bad schools.   It involves our persistence in viewing students, teachers and schools as mere statistics that can be manipulated through formulaic processes, as well the corresponding movement to dispose of schools and teachers whose numbers aren’t good enough.

It is shortsighted to base crucial evaluation on the quality of schools using a testing system, or series of testing systems that do not directly help in improving our schools.  The drum-roll accompanied annual summertime release of Colorado districts’ test scores, for example, does not readily assist us in planning instruction for the students who took a given test. We can no longer plan for those particular students’ needs.  However, in the long run, it does assist us in getting rid of schools that fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress, even (especially?) if we should choose to ignore some of the challenges they may be facing.  But, hey, what’s the sacrifice of a few schools in the poorer neighborhoods in the name of educational “progress”?   What’s wrong with looking at the bottom line like the corporations do?  Maybe this: We are not corporations. We are not in the business of merely crunching numbers and generating profits.   Our objectives are loftier and arguably not measurable in discrete bits of information that can be reduced to cute and crunchy sound-bites.

I just came across a post from The Atlantic by Natalie Hopkinson.  In it, she describes herself as a disappointed, and former, parent of D.C. schools who at one time supported the reform proposed by Chancellor Michelle Rhee, in hopes that the promised improvements would give Hopkinson’s family reason to return to the public system. Now, Hopkinson challenges the  business-model perspective touted by Rhee (whose celebrity comes more from her ruthlessness in firing teachers than her actual effectiveness or experience as a teacher) :

But if education reformers think the election is the problem, they are missing some major lessons in an often racially charged battle for urban school reform. A majority of black voters cited Rhee as a reason to fire her boss, while a majority of white voters cited Rhee as a reason to vote for Fenty. But the stink swirling around education reform in D.C. goes beyond race. The hundreds of millions of corporate dollars used to break the D.C. teachers’ union have dangerous strings attached.

There is pushback against the movement to treat public institutions and the precious people in them like factories. And when the impacted public is treated as an obstacle and not a partner to urban reform, it gives the whole effort colonial and paternalistic smell.

I do hope for more pushback against this trend. To me, excluding the community is another big part of the problem. Why don’t we start our efforts at improving school performance through exerted engagement of the community?  Wouldn’t it make sense to try that first? Yes it’s a challenging thought, but it’s probably a worthwhile endeavor to invest in.  I also have my own perspective on  living/working in an environment facing serious penalties. As I have previously mentioned, my school is considered a failing one and is likely to undergo a restructuring that will disrupt the lives of most stake-holders. I am observing first-hand that people do not perform at their best in a crisis mode.  Altruism is not always the driving focus.  It is common to see an upswing of self-preservation tactics from people working under uncertain conditions. There will always be the opportunists who spring forward to vie for position or favors, regardless of the impact it may have on children.  Doctors no longer advocate bleeding and purging a patient whose system is out of balance, in part because these treatments sometimes killed the patient.  I am personally and painfully cognizant of  just how out of balance our educational system is.  That said, I worry about the future in store for public education if we continue with this cycle of bloodletting and purging as our primary response to the ailments we seek to solve in our schools.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. BronxEnglish permalink
    September 24, 2010 1:41 am

    Very commonsensical, genuine post. Thank you. Sooooo “on point,” as the kids say.

  2. mariasallee permalink*
    September 24, 2010 5:27 pm

    Thank you for your comment, I hope you’ll keep reading our posts. Coincidentally, I had a brief conversation about high-stakes testing with some other teachers today and heard someone else criticize the current corporate lens for viewing students, schools, bottom lines, etc. We have got to turn this thing around.

  3. Stefanie Paul permalink
    September 24, 2010 7:57 pm

    Public school teachers, UNITE! (and anyone else who supports Public education).


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