Stories, Learning & Place

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Now what? School reform after NCLB
   Keeping faith with community-centered teaching

One of the more comical aspects of NCLB is
the Hickory Farms facade on the US Depart-
ment of Education building in Washington,
D.C. The homey little red school house
acknowledges what we all know: kids do best
in human-scale places. We are apparently not
supposed to really notice that vast bureau-
cratic structure looming behind, that repre-
sents the reality of school reform via federal

Why are the politicians in charge of education?

Diane Ravitch asks Deborah Meier a critical question on the Bridging Differences blog:

. . .how did American education fall so effortlessly into the control of Know Nothings from the world of business, law, and politics?

How indeed?

Since schools are politically-governed institutions, why would you expect them not to be controlled by politicians? And as you increasingly centralize their governance, how would you not expect lawyers and businessmen to increase their control, as they have of most other centralized bureaucracies where there’s huge opportunity for gain?

It’s not quite true that these politicians, lawyers and businessmen truly know nothing. It’s just that in a democracy where vast numbers of voters are ignorant or inattentive or both, politics will often be dominated by opportunists who pander for gain. It would take a Know Nothing—or at least someone uninformed by much history— to expect otherwise.

Schools depend on the surrounding community for both their clientle and their staff. Public schools also depend on that community for their governance. Ever since I was a young, reform-minded principal, I’ve been quite sure that the community needs to be the unit of educational change, if we are talking about a public school. As long as decisions are made by elections, it’s nearly inconceivable that a school will operate for long at a higher intellectual or ethical level than the community in which it is embedded. To get the community to do something difficult, such as succeeding at teaching children difficult things, at least a majority of the community will need to see and understand the need for doing hard things.

Lost in a national “community”

That seemed hard enough in the town where I worked. When the size of the decision-making community has been expanded to include the entire nation, as it has been under No Child Left Behind, the difficulty is beyond daunting. No individual is likely to be heard above the roar of institutional voices, speaking through costly lawyers in forums created and controlled by big money. Of course we lose our voices.

At this juncture, those of us who would like schools to be thoughtful places where difficult and meaningful work is the daily task, our choices for getting there seem to be either to educate a majority of the national citizenry to share our vision, so we can get past gridlock or ugly compromises and can get on with the work, or to escape national decision-making (though we may want to keep national information gathering and dissemination) and let folks at the site make most of the decisions, through some system of decentralization.

The most hopeful may be vouchers which could allow a network of private schools where decisions about professional practice could be made by professional educators without undue interference from local politicians. Disgruntled parents would not need to campaign for politicians who promise some axe grinding. Instead, their freedom would be preserved through choice. If they disliked what was happening at school, instead of getting involved in politics they could just change schools.

One danger, of course, is that many private schools would just be local franchise outlets of large corporations offering the educational equivalent of happy meals: cheap, standardized, and gratifying but not very good for you. To be honest, I’m not at all sure this would be worse than what many kids are now getting, and I’m also sure that educational fast food would not be the only offerings on the market. McDonalds has not driven good restaurants out of business.

Be that as it may, we are nowhere near the first choice袀reaching a shared vision of what quality public schools would look likeԢindeed, we may be moving farther from it, judging by the partisan tone of our national political conversation. So the first choice seems, well, impossible.

And if the second choice—a robust national system of private schools—doesn’t quite seem impossible, it does seem unsatisfying, ineffective and unrealistic, at least in the short term.

One initial problem with it is that new schools would be staffed by people from the existing education industry and so would tend to re-create the system we would hope to reform. A lot of ideas about teaching that have been demonstrated not to work (whole language, learning styles, multiple intelligences, portfolio assessments and most thing deemed “authentic” or “student-centered") are, nevertheless, ubiquitous and seemingly as ineradicable as false ideas about medicine that seem so ingrained that even many doctors believe them: we only use 10 percent of our brains or we should drink at least eight glasses of water a day.

Speaking about the difficulty of making progress by increasing parental choice, Ravitch somewhat irreverently points out that

most schools will reflect the dominant ideas of the schools of education, where most teachers get their training, so most schools will adopt programs of whole language and fuzzy math. . . . Most students under a pure choice regime will know very little about history or literature or science.

City Journal

This is what I’ve thought for a long time. Parental choice may be better for reasons having to do with freedom, but I wouldn’t expect it to lead to mass improvement on standardized tests. In the short run, a new charter school or voucher school is unlikely to be fundamentally different than a typical public school. Where would it find people who think and act in ways fundamentally different than their colleagues up the street?

Where are our teaching orders?

So things at the moment look a little bleak. At such times, when there seems no clear way forward, I sometimes finding myself thinking about an odd comment Philip Rief once threw out: “Where are our teaching orders?”

An order is as different from an organization as a team is from a committee. In an order, each member has internalized the principles that the larger order is dedicated to so that, in a sense, each member contains the whole. People are bound together by their shared vision and shared commitment rather than by the formal rules, though formal rules will certainly exist as expressions of the vision and commitment and as a way to remember complex learnings.

A good teaching order would both train teachers and operate schools. The animating vision of the order would provide guidance not only for the curriculum, but also for system-wide discipline involving the conduct of teachers and administrators as well as students. Most schools today have adopted the vision of school as a due-process bureaucracy, which often creates organizations that exist in a high state of disorder because the wills of the individuals are not aligned. Students are taught they have rights but less often are they taught they have duties to any particular communal order. Orders must be entered by choice.

At present, leaders who would create different schools usually need to use teachers trained by the universities into the standard progressive ed vision. Though we do have hundreds or thousands of programs that do some teacher training, the training is usually inservice and narrowly focused, and after a summer institute the teachers return to their various schools, where they are likely to be quite lonely.

Focusing on the work at hand

Even so, I feel oddly optimistic. Maybe because at the moment I have lots of work to do and the school I’m at is at least in comparative terms a sane place. It would be a breach of faith to feel pessimistic when every twenty-four hours a brand new morning arrives, and I have energy.

I also know that the rules that govern our reality respond to us. Many of those laws are, as Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman put it, “socially constructed,” and some realities we can change by changing such simple things as the way we walk, our posture and the expression on our face.

At times when we can’t do all we would like to do, it may be enough to be honest with ourselves, to listen carefully, to think clearly and to speak candidly. Sometimes we don’t need to solve problems so much as we need to lose our fear of them and turn away from them to the other things that matter to us more.

We only need to change our minds and all sorts of unsolvable problems vanish. Something is going to change. Keep busy and look forward to what’s going to happen next.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/05 at 05:39 AM
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©2008 Michael L. Umphrey
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