Can Schooling Be Reinvented?

What a privilege to work with my first year writers and graduate pre-service teachers this semester. Both groups embraced the course content and my discussion-based approach.

Some of my grad students were especially appreciative of the opportunity to think about competing purposes of schooling, educational inequities, and the challenges of education reform.

Consider an email message from one such student, S:

I got to thinking about your response during our discussion about alternatives to the current education system. You mentioned alternatives for individuals (un-schooling, for example), but what about for the entire public education system? How unrealistic is it to envision a transformation in the public education system itself? Do you think that it will ever be possible to overhaul the system and completely refashion some of what is most central to it? Things like students progressing through school year by year with their grade level, dividing education into various subject matters, having education happen primarily in designated schools? I love public education. I LOVE that it is accessible to everyone in our country. I do not want to work at a private school or home school my own children. But I’m a dreamer and an idealist and I am wondering if it is reasonable to dream of a new ideal for public education. In your professional opinion, is it worth it to dream the big dreams? I know I’m asking that question in a way that begs a “yes” response, but I’m actually hoping you’ll say “no” so I can focus on what’s in front of me now instead of spacing out whenever education reform is mentioned and getting lost in imaginary ideas.

S’s reference to age-based grade levels, traditional academic subjects, and existing school buildings are “regularities of schooling”, educational practices so engrained in our thinking that we no longer question their value or consider alternatives. We could add the nine-month school calendar, letter grades, and teachers working independently in separate classrooms.

Sometimes teachers-to-be say, “I’ll be content if I can’t just touch one student’s life.” Really? If you’re the least bit caring and conscientious you should be able to check that box off a month into your career. A second level of impact is becoming a teacher that improves some students’ life prospects every school year. S may be after even more than that though, a third level of impact, providing enlightened school or district leadership. Is a fourth level, contributing to a complete reinvention of K-12 public schooling as we know it, possible?

I would love S and some of her fellow graduate students to prove me wrong, but even if I live another forty years, I do not expect my great grandchildren’s schools to look significantly different than those of today. My descendants and their teachers will use new and improved technologies, but teachers will still do most of the talking and students will often wonder, “Why do we need to know this?” I base this prediction on the incredible stability of schooling over the last one hundred years; the fact that each generation of parents feels their school experience was perfectly adequate; and the fact that teachers are kept far too busy to seriously reconsider the regularities of schooling on a local, let alone, grand scale.

So what’s S to do? There are lots of possibilities for intelligent, inquisitive, progressive teachers like her. Being a teacher that improves students’ life prospects will prove immensely challenging and rewarding. Another option is to become a caring and conscientious school or district administrator that improves teachers’ work lives, and by extension, helps large numbers of students. A related option is to take the baton from me in five or ten years and become a teacher educator who helps beginning teachers flourish, and by extension, large numbers of students.

Another option is to team together with like-minded teachers to create innovative, alternative public schools. There have always been innovative, alternative public school schools that challenge the educational status quo. The problem has been replicating their practices on a large scale. “Scaling up” proven reforms is the illusive holy grail. Maybe S’s generation will be the first to solve that puzzle. If not, accomplished classroom teaching, enlightened administrative leadership, and/or excellent teacher education service are all socially redeeming, career worthy pursuits.

Postscript—daring to disagree, a preeminent ed reformer predicts the end of schooling

Stop Linking School Improvement, Economic Competitiveness, and National Greatness

This commentary of mine is currently appearing here.

Most efforts to improve schooling in the United States have limited impact because opinion leaders’ repeated appeals to global economic competitiveness and national greatness don’t inspire teachers or students.

Following World War II, the United States enjoyed steady economic growth, which led to unprecedented prosperity. People’s standard of living steadily improved, the U.S. economy became the world’s largest, and successive generations of parents assumed that their children would enjoy even more secure and comfortable lives.

More recently, the fastest growing countries, particularly China, India, and Brazil, have grown more quickly and made long-term investments in infrastructure to further reduce the economic gap with the world’s largest economies. Also, many Chinese and other Asian young people are attending U.S. and European universities while their governments invest in higher education at home at record levels. Meanwhile, the United States has been challenged by higher than normal unemployment, declining real wages, the bursting of the housing bubble, and runaway health care and higher education inflation. Now parents increasingly fear their children will not enjoy as secure or comfortable lives as they have. It’s impossible to overstate how much economic anxiety informs proposals to improve schools from opinion leaders such as Bill Gates, Thomas Friedman, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and President Barack Obama.

Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and Obama sing from one choir book with this chorus: “Our economic dominance is ebbing, our standard of living is threatened, and righting the ship depends upon improving our schools.” They’re also of one mind on what’s necessary to improve schools—a distinct emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and making teachers more accountable for student learning by tying together their students’ test scores, their evaluations, and their compensation.

They implore students to work harder for the sake of the country. For example, consider Secretary Duncan’s October 2011 speech in Portland, Oregon, to the Oregon Business Association. Early on, he said, “I absolutely believe education is now the engine for long-term economic growth. But that is not a Democratic theory. In fact, the vast majority of governors from both parties subscribe to that view. And it’s a view shared by many business leaders as well.” “This summer,” he added, “I was at a White House meeting with President Obama and a number of leading CEOs. And the consensus about the link between education and economic growth was striking, even among corporate leaders who might disagree with the president on other issues.”

Or consider President Obama’s “Back to School” pep talk to Wakefield High School students in Arlington, Virginia, in September 2009:

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that—if you quit on school—you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?

A year later, in September 2010, the president gave another “Back to School” speech at a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania school. The speech was also streamed to students nationwide:

The farther you go in school, the farther you’re going to go in life.  And at a time when other countries are competing with us like never before, when students around the world in Beijing, China, or Bangalore, India, are working harder than ever, and doing better than ever, your success in school is not just going to determine your success, it’s going to determine America’s success in the 21st century.

Taken together, Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and the president articulated what Maxine Greene has referred to as a utilitarian purpose of schooling. In this view, business principles are applied to schools, and economics trumps everything. Students are thought of much more as future workers and consumers than citizens. Schools primarily exist to prepare students for the workforce. Greene labels this a “self-regarding, education for having” orientation that emphasizes math and science coursework, competition, and job skills. In this now dominant paradigm, concepts like “self-actualization,” “service,” “citizenship,” and “democracy” are slighted, along with the arts, the humanities, social studies education, and foreign languages.

Teachers and students are told to work harder for the sake of our economic competitiveness and national greatness. Again, the president asks students, “What will a president who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?” Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and Obama don’t understand what motivates public school teachers given that none of them has ever been one.

Teachers don’t commit to the profession the way some enlist in the military. Few educators are motivated by nationalism. Most elementary teachers love working with children and get great satisfaction from helping their students become literate. Most secondary teachers love some particular content and get great satisfaction from introducing their students to that content. The best ones also enjoy working with adolescents and helping them mature into competent and caring young men and women. Teachers don’t lack patriotism; their patriotism just doesn’t inform their day-do-day work with students.

If teachers find appeals to economic competitiveness and national greatness uninspiring, it’s doubly true for students. Academic achievement isn’t a question of how much young people love their country; it is whether they have inspiring teachers, positive peer pressure, and, most important, caring adults in their lives who combine high expectations with tireless support and encouragement.

The debilitating disconnect between opinion leaders’ rhetoric and what motivates teachers and students has at least two costs. First, when science, technology, engineering, and math are all that’s important, and qualitative aspects of learning and living are ignored, teachers, students, and families grow disenchanted with reform proposals. Teachers, students, and families want schools that acknowledge and honor the whole child and develop skills and personal attributes that may not have immediate and obvious economic benefits. They resent the opinion leaders’ myopic materialism and assumption that our nation’s gross national product is more important than children’s well-being.

Teachers and parents want schools to help students develop skills and sensibilities that will enable them to not just earn a living, but also live well. Teachers and parents instinctively know that if schools succeed in creating curious, caring, well-rounded, and resilient young people in the short term, the economy will be fine in the long term. Economic growth should be a positive by-product of a humane, child-centered school system, not the all-pervasive starting and ending point that Bill Gates, Tom Friedman, Arne Duncan, and Barack Obama want us to believe.

Second, appeals to national economic competiveness and greatness will do little to inspire a new generation of culturally diverse, high-achieving undergraduates to enter the teaching profession. Half of the United States’ 3.2 million teachers are expected to retire in the next decade. Our greatest and most important educational challenge is to recruit and retain over one million culturally diverse, academically accomplished candidates. Because teacher compensation is unlikely to improve much, the way the profession is presented to potential candidates is especially important. If people are encouraged to teach primarily for the sake of our nation’s economy, we will fail to inspire the number of new culturally diverse, academically accomplished candidates we need to reinvent schooling in the 21st century.

Ultimately, as educators and citizens, we have a choice. We can passively defer to the combined voices of the opinion leaders who dominate the nation’s newspapers and airwaves, or we can resolve to challenge their narrow utilitarian assumptions about the purpose of schooling and instead frame teaching as a profoundly challenging, rewarding, and important form of community service.

We Need Smaller and Larger Classes

I’m never quite sure how the head high school swim coach will use me, his ace volunteer assistant, until I show up on the deck each afternoon. Lately, he’s been giving me the burners probably because I’m less skilled teaching new swimmers.

Yesterday though, while the rest of the team rotated through four different stroke clinics he gave me two neophytes. Yikes, over an hour, what am I going to do after suggesting one or two things? I surprised myself. The girls and I connected, they made huge strides in what they were struggling with, and the time flew. I listened to them talk about what they were finding most difficult—always being really tired even in the middle of short sets. Then I watched them swim and diagnosed the problem—short, choppy, way too fast arm and leg action coupled with three and four stroke breathing. One asked, “How do I keep from hyperventilating?”

I told them there were four speeds—easy, steady, mod-hard, and hard, and they were spending all their time swimming mod-hard and hard. I got them to slow everything down, stretch things out, and breath more often. Slowing their arms and legs down and breathing more often felt odd to them, but they were thrilled to swim 50 yards without being winded. We also did flip turns and fine tuned race starts which included a lesson on how to wear goggles and tuck their chins so that their goggles don’t come off. They were very appreciative of my help and left practice more excited about the remainder of the season.

Crazily, we have forty-six swimmers, and most days, just four lanes. Those swimmers would have never got the individual attention they needed if I wasn’t volunteering. Working with them so closely reminded me how little imagination secondary school administrators and teachers have when it comes to class size. Irrespective of teachers’ methods and assessment practices, it’s as if 30ish students per class is mandated somewhere in the Old Testament. Thirty students is probably the optimal size for not really getting to know students individually and not using teaching resources as efficiently as possible.

The best elementary teachers solve the class size conundrum on their own. They brilliantly use learning centers to create more personalized learning environments. Their students are constantly moving from working independently, to working at small group learning centers, to whole class instruction.

In secondary schools, 30 students is sometimes too many. Like at swim practice yesterday, sometimes a teacher needs to listen to individual students, carefully assess what they already know and are able to do, thoughtfully diagnosis what they need to truly learn the necessary content and skills, observe, provide feedback, and repeat.

Ours is an outstanding public high school, yet after four years, Nineteen said she didn’t do much writing, and when she did, only one teacher ever provided specific feedback. Writing intensive classes, whether in English or Advanced Placement History, should be capped somewhere south of 30 so that teachers are able to assign papers, read them closely, and provide specific feedback on strengths and next steps.

And sometimes 30 is too few. Obviously, in order to have some classes with 16 or 18 students, there have to be others with 45 or 50. In ninth grade, Sixteen had math sixth period. She’d literally take a test, come home fifteen minutes later, log onto the school website, and announce her grade. Why should a teacher who slides bubbled-up Scantron sheets through a machine on the way to bball practice in less than 60 seconds be assigned the same number of students as the writing teacher who should be carefully marking three and four page essays on a regular basis?

If one’s lecturing, teaching discrete factual information, showing a PowerPoint about the digestive system for instance, and then using multiple choice exams, does it really matter if there are 30 or 60 or 75 students in the “audience”?

Granted, it’s tough to differentiate for 2,000 adolescents at a time in buildings that typically assume standard class sizes. But that doesn’t mean we’re destined to always have 30 students per class, or that each class has to be 55 minutes in length, or that all fifteen year olds are in the same classes does it?

Failing at Education Reform

There are three keys.

1st) Spend lots of money and time coming up with goals so lofty that they aren’t really achievable and so vague that they can’t be meaningfully assessed. As a safety measure, make sure the goals are irrelevant to the teacher-student relationship so that if they’re accidentally accomplished, they won’t have much of an impact on student learning.

2nd) Prepare lots of PowerPoint presentations and write reports filled with JAA (jargon and acronyms) to mask nebulous thinking and create an insider “we’re in the know and you’re not” feel to things. If successful, few people will understand well enough to ask questions so no real rationale for proposed changes will be necessary.

3rd) Most importantly of all, exclude teachers as much as humanly possible. Always think top-down. Teachers aren’t that smart and they just get in the way with their insights into classroom life and such. This is easy to do, just don’t communicate much about scheduled meetings, and as a back up, schedule them during the school day. Be consistent in sending the message, “This work is too important to include you.” Remember, you attended school for 12-13 years, you’re an expert. Teachers need you to tell them what to do. They’re depending upon you.

That’s all there really is to it.

Washington State’s 2010 Education Reform Plan provides an especially fine example of these principles at work.

1st) Four goals:

1) Enter kindergarten prepared for success in school and life.

2) Compete in mathematics and science nationally and internationally.

3) Attain high academic standards regardless of race, ethnicity, income, or gender.

4) Graduate able to succeed in college, training, and careers.

All in all, lofty, vague, dancing around the teacher-student relationship. Exemplary application of the goal-setting principles.

2nd) See the PowerPoint and report links above. If you’re not a teacher, read them. If you’re a teacher, you should be grading or preparing for tomorrow.

3rd) Note in the report the PowerPoint slide titled “Process for Soliciting Feedback”, bullet point two, “Engage stakeholder groups”. This is the reformers finest moment. This slide is worth a thousand words.

Granted, there’s never a perfect example. Turns out there are a couple of classroom teachers on the Professional Educator Standards Board, and I’m not sure, but there may be a few more lurking within other groups. But Washington State deserves major credit for articulating goals and planning how to meet them with teachers almost entirely excluded.