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So how can we do right?

November 22, 2010

So, if we recognize that our approach to schooling is fundamentally flawed, how can we fix that? Obviously, I don’t have all the answers, but here is where I would start.

1. Drop the Crisis rhetoric, already! We clearly face a very serious long-term problem. But the manner in which the American public has been bombarded with an ahistorical, doom-and-gloom presentation of (cherry-picked) statistics about schools–while simultaneously being deprived of a counter-narrative– is simply not conducive to solving a long-term problem. Rather than always thinking in crisis/emergency language, we might be better served by switching to evolutionary language: “The system no longer serves a purpose we find moral or useful; let’s find ways to update and evolve it.”

2. Stop blaming schools, teachers, and unions for all of society’s ills. (I’d say stop the blame game in general, but given the institutional power behind the people bashing these three groups/institutions, this line, as written, takes precedence). Schools will never be anything but “failures” if we continue to hold them responsible for things they cannot do. The same goes for teachers–one person can only do so much, especially if he or she has not been given the resources, support, or professional development required to do such a difficult job.

As for unions, is there anyone out there who is gullible enough to believe that all school districts, and all the managers within them, are so virtuous that we no longer need unions? (If you are, I have a product I’d like to sell you…) Powerful people and organizations require checks and balances, and unions–when functioning as originally intended, and not as a co-opted arm of the same corrupt organizations– are one such check.

3. Reorganize the discussion. If we want to improve schools, we cannot do that by devaluing the experiences, knowledge, and perspectives of those who know the most about them. Instead of blaming teachers for low achievement, we need to be listened to. Instead of assuming that the communities surrounding so-called “failing” schools are misguided, or framing them as impediments to “progress”, try assuming that they may know something that hasn’t been considered, and that it’s important to take their ideas and concerns seriously.

To do this, we need to cast the people serving and served by public schools in the leading roles of the discussion, rather than allowing “outsiders” to continue talking about and around us. Such people should absolutely play a role, but they should not be the stars…nor should they be in charge of casting. It takes all of our varied perspectives in order to construct a reasonably complete version of the truth. Therefore, it takes all of us, thinking together, to arrive at the best ideas. (In the meantime, if we’ve calmed down the rhetoric and enabled teachers to focus on teaching instead of school politics and job insecurity, we can continue moving kids forward while we continuously find ways to improve the system. News flash, would-be haters: Education doesn’t just stop just because people are engaging in a process to identify problems and solutions! Calm down, and let them work!)

4. Stop looking for shortcuts. Evolving public schools will take time, energy, and investment. Trying to avoid that is only going to create more problems– as we see when we witness the stress, confusion, and pain that characterize so many teachers’ and students’ lives these days. If all of the money that flows to rampant testing, edu-political advocacy organizations, think tanks, consulting firms, EMOs, overpaid and/or unnecessary administrative positions, etc. were actually invested in the common-sense solutions teachers and communities regularly promote (smaller class sizes, resource equity, technology, etc.), our efforts to improve schools could be made a lot easier.

5. Fit the system to the people, instead of trying to fit the people to the system. Our current educational system was largely designed by “efficiency experts” from the business world, not professional educators (Another reason to be careful about letting their institutional descendants be in charge of reform this time around, no?). Age-graded classrooms and other ways of sorting and ranking students make it easier for the system to process them, but they don’t make it easier for students to reach their full potential. Likewise, standardizing curriculum and assessment makes it easier to manage and control teaching and learning, but it doesn’t promote excellence in either activity. This is why we have so many students and teachers who appear to be “failures” while so many others are bored out of their minds, and why we spend so much money and effort medicating, rewarding, punishing, eliminating and otherwise altering children and teachers as we try to improve achievement.

Instead of trying to make all kids learn the same things, the same way, on the same timeline, train and empower teachers to recognize each learner’s strengths and build on them. Practices like portfolio-based assessment, project-based learning, true formative assessment, etc. support a learner-centered orientation toward schooling because they allow teachers to look at what students can do, and enable them to offer real-time ways to support and expand their abilities. They also tend to emphasize higher-order cognitive skills, whose development and assessment require human interaction and judgment.

By contrast, rigid pacing and planning guides, scripted curricula-in-a-box (as though meaningful learning experiences can be mass-produced and shipped!), rankings, and especially standardized assessment support system-centered ways of schooling. (In my view, if you need a number in order to “understand” what’s going on with a student, classroom, or school, you either lack the knowledge necessary to make a sound judgment and need to gain it, or you are too far removed from the educational process to be a useful judge of its success or failure. As author and businessman Jamie Vollmer says, “…the farther the decision-maker is from the child, the dumber the decision gets.”)

I could go on forever, and there’s so much more to be said. But what do you think we need to do, in order to stop racing to nowhere?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Demian permalink
    November 22, 2010 9:07 pm

    Excellent suggestions! Sabrina – you should be superintendent of your district.

    • November 23, 2010 1:28 am

      Haha! Thanks. I don’t think I’m yet qualified– though, then again, neither is the guy they’ve got in there now!

      • November 23, 2010 3:21 am

        love reading these posts…..You are more qualified than Cathy Black (NYC ‘smaybe-new chancellor)…

        thanks for the directness and boldness.

  2. markfriedman1 permalink
    November 23, 2010 7:11 am

    Fantastic post. I think, undoubtably, a large part of the answer to the last question you put out there is organizing and strategizing with parents/teachers/community activists. Without a critical mass demanding these elements in schools and holding every major stakeholders’ feet to the flame, it’s much more difficult to bring about lasting, meaningful change. I feel strongly that this is crucial, and I’m confident many here feel the same. Let the struggle continue…..

  3. Brett permalink
    November 23, 2010 10:13 am

    I think you should write a book based on these core principles.

  4. November 24, 2010 6:45 am

    Excellent post.
    It’s too bad that teachers have been so discredited; the very people who have an inside understanding of why reforms fail are the last people who are consulted when the next flavor of reform is introduced. There isn’t any magical solution; those who are promoting solutions are mostly promoting themselves — selling programs, books, t-shirts, tote bags… I’ve got file drawers full of solutions that were dumped when the district bought a new one.

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