Thursday, September 08, 2011

Getting The Schools We Want

Yesterday's post, which was intended as a celebration of progressive, play-based education, irritated a couple of people, not because they disagreed with the premise, but because they saw it as a kind of ivory tower elitism unattainable to many people sending their children off to public schools.

Someone objects in some way to just about everything I write, of course, and as my audience has grown I've come to expect it, even girding myself some days in anticipation. Usually I let those comments stand without response, figuring I've had my say, now it's their turn. Sometimes I push back. This time, however, I was caught completely off guard and, frankly, feel awful.

Perhaps I get carried away in my zeal to defend our kind of curriculum, holding it up as a counterpoint to the drill-and-kill approach of the corporate education reformers, forgetting that our public schools have not yet been entirely taken over and, in fact, contrary to the hype, are actually offering high quality education, if not right across the board, at least in most places. And it's true that most of what I know about public schools comes from what I read and what a certain group of self-selected parents and teachers tell me.

What these teachers tell me is that they are increasingly being compelled to teach in ways that they know are not in the best interests of the children, but that most of the time, most days, most of them say they do their best to correct for that, even subversively if need be. What these parents tell me is that they are increasingly seeing children being compelled to "learn" in ways that they know are not in their best interests, but that most of the time, most days, most of them say their kids are getting a good education, and more importantly, that they are happy.

One of the advantages, perhaps, of being in an ivory tower is the view, and from where I sit I see what are flawed, but objectively solid public schools. There have always been parents and teachers advocating for improvement and that is, indeed, how public schools in a democracy should function, evolving to suit the needs of the communities they serve. What is new, is this well-financed national push by outside interests to demonize public schools and teachers, using extreme examples of failure as anecdotal "evidence" that the whole thing is in shambles (e.g., Waiting For Superman, the recently published Class Warfare). Since the real evidence contradicts their assertions, they are now busy working through faux research outfits like the National Council for Teacher Quality to compile "data" to support their pre-determined "solutions" of high stakes testing, privatization, vocational training, longer school days, larger classes, and the de-professionalization of the teaching profession. They are in the ears of politicians from both political parties and are driving this agenda forward, despite overwhelming evidence that it will make our schools worse, and without input from parents and teachers who I know to have very different ideas about how schools can be improved.

I know that I'm not the only one concerned about how this "reform" campaign has and will continue to negatively impact our public schools. In fact (and I have no evidence of this other than my view from the ivory tower) it seems to me that the good news is that the splash it has made, has created a wave of concerned parents who are seeking to take a more active role in their local public schools; a role of advocacy and support. 

As I stewed over the fair criticism of yesterday's post, I checked in with Melissa over at Imagination Soup to find that she is in the midst of a rather amazing series on her own adventures and research into parent advocacy and activism on behalf of her children in public schools. This is not a view from the ivory tower, but from a woman getting right down in the middle of it. Here are the links so far in order: The Case Against Drill-And-Kill Curriculum (Readicide)I Support My School -- My Way, With Advocacy, Parents Have Power Says Education Advocate. She promises more. I can't wait.

I hope (I expect, actually) that we are entering an era of parent and teacher activism on behalf of our children. This is the only way to fight back against the self-appointed reformers and instead get the schools we want.

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The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

I think that's the way...parents working WITH educators for what's best. When I started teaching, the government in power launched an anti-teacher campaign (we get paid too much, we're not regulated enough, we need DATA that they're actually doing their job)...our reputation has never really recovered, and I've always taught in a climate of having to prove that provincial leader wrong. In came the standardized testing, the pressure on kids, the attention to data, the ridiculous expectations that do not respect each individual's abilities/stage of development. And while most teachers and school board staff agree that this attention to data and test results is not pedagogically sound, and doesn't actually reflect much more than how well-drilled the kids were, no one seems to resist it. Is it because teachers are generally the grown-up "A" students who loved school and always underlined their date and title with red pen? Do we not know how to resist? Teaching kindergarten has given me so much more freedom because the curriculum is makes sense, and for the first time since I started teaching 14 years ago, my intuition/gut is peaceful. I am "allowed" to respect each child's developmental stage without worrying that their "shortcomings" might affect the data. I dream of play-based learning up to at LEAST grade three in Ontario schools. I just need to get "permission" to try my little experiment...there's the rub! Ah, your posts always give me so much to think (and write) about. Visit my space to read about my daughter's kindergarten 'interview'...with me!

Amy said...

I clicked over to that "I Support my School--My Way, with Advocacy" post excited to read about successful advocacy within public schools but found a really depressing story that ended with the author leaving her public school, or at least that is implied. I look forward to reading more from her, but geez, if you were trying to console us parents who can't find or afford a Woodland Park-type experience . . .
That said, I love love love your writing and I am enjoying spreading the word.

Floor Pie said...

Tom, thank you for this. Sorry if my dissent took you off guard yesterday, but I hope you understand that it comes from a place of respect and admiration (and disobedience! ha.)

My big issue with the whole "ed reform" debate is that special ed is pretty much invisible on either side. And the vilification of standardized testing feels downright anti-Aspergers sometimes. Aspergians are *good* at those tests (probably because they're written by other Aspergians). Sometimes those tests are the only thing in school they succeed at.

Last year, for example, The Boy's 1st grade teacher spent a long time detailing all her complaints about him, then showed me his stellar MAP test scores and dismissed them by saying "Well, this just means he's good at taking a test on a computer." You know what? Kiss my ass, lady! Get over the politics and SEE the CHILD in FRONT OF YOU. Grr.

The test scores are what ended up saving him, too. Whether I agree with the politics of standardized testing or not, administrators take the scores pretty seriously and I was able to use them as a tool to his advantage in lots of ways. In an ideal world, I wouldn't have to do that. But here we are.

All this to say: It’s not as simple as Standardized Tests = Bad. Nothing is ever that simple.

Here’s the best quote on school advocacy I’ve read all summer, from Maria June’s essay “Authentic Activism” in My Baby Rides the Short Bus:

"Approach all systems as structures made up of human beings. When we attack systems, there is always a personal investment behind that system. It helps to know in advance who is made vulnerable by attacks, and sometimes the best thing to do is to invite their leadership in problem-solving."

Public school in the U.S. has always been an imperfect institution. Every few years, somebody comes along with a trendy “fix,” followed by immediate backlash. (Remember outcomes-based education?) Like you said, good teachers just keep working through all the noise. The best ones transcend the context and connect with the students, same as always. And parents have gradually felt more and more empowered to come forward and, as June says, “invite leadership in problem-solving.” Like you, I hope that trend continues.

Pam said...

Educators, unfortunately can push only so far before their voices will be quieted in some way (ie: fired :) parents CAN'T be fired and children have no voice in this fight unfortunately (I'm not saying it's right...just reality). The comment above about testing though shows just how challenging this is! EVERY child is unique- and every parent should be fighting for their one is on the same page! How do people come together in one cohesive voice? ( idea here- just thought I'd throw it out there!)

Floor Pie said...

"How do people come together in one cohesive voice?"

It seems to work when people come together over one particular behavioral objective for the school. Something small and manageable, that they can actually do and have no reason *not* to do if enough people want it.

So, for example, parents can advocate for testing to be optional. We can advocate for testing to *not* be used as a tool to evaluate teachers. We can advocate to save art classes or libraries or school counselors. Baby steps.

And we can vote! Seattle readers, there's a big school board election coming up soon. Read PubliCola and/or the Save Seattle Schools blogs to learn more about the candidates.

Akemanartist said...

Public school problems is one of the reasons why there is a growing number of homeschoolers though not every one can homeschool. I used to live in Seattle and for a year worked at a elementary school as an Americorps paid volunteer, I was a reading tutor and met a wide range of kids. Personally I think children benefit more from one on one attention but when I was a kid and 'pulled out' for the 'resource room' it was a point of shame, troubled or slow learners get pulled out. With the exception of two children with attitude problems the kids enjoyed being with me doing reading games and extra reading help. Each child learns at a different pace and the way the schools are set up everyone is forced to be on the same page but some of us can't be on the same page. My youngest is bright but has social and speech problems, my oldest who is nine is slower on learning to read and has difficulties on spelling but is great with math and loves to be social. I suck at math but excel at art and had constant social problems at school. I can't emphaize how important it is to have ART, Libraries and BOOKS, Drama (tie that in with reading it works with the kinetic learners) School should not be about fact cramming, it's discovering what's outside of yourself, and your place in the world.

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