Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Not Anytime Soon

I expect to still be teaching and writing when today's kindergarteners become fully enfranchised, their very first votes counting as much as my own, their voices deserving to be heard equally with mine. I already consider even the youngest babies to be my fellow citizens, and strive to place my own needs and wants no higher nor lower than theirs. I'm no one's boss, but strive to be everyone's partner; I will not obey, but I'm always ready to agree.

But in a legal sense, we've arbitrarily chosen 18 as the number of years one must live before we grant children an equal say in how things are run in this country. I suppose every old man is concerned about the whippersnappers who will be claiming their stake in society, worried that they weren't raised to self-govern in the way I've grown up doing it. On the other hand, when I look around, the people my age and older have made as much of a muck of it as any other generation, taking the usual two steps forward in some areas and two steps back in others. So I worry sometimes, but more often than not, look forward to sharing the job of citizenship with the children I've known: maybe they'll show us how to do it better.

Yesterday, a reader's comment got me thinking about why I write posts like the one I did yesterday, in which I criticized public schools, and indeed most schools, for hobbling young children's ability to learn the most important things in life by filling their time with rote learning, tests, and homework. It's become a swinging pendulum around the Teacher Tom blog, one that praises public schools on one end, then criticizes on the other. You see, I am a strong supporter of public schools, both philosophically and concretely, in the sense that I support the B.F. Day Elementary school just up the hill from Woodland Park. I'm also a strong supporter of education that is based upon science and logic, not mere historical precedent and ideological guesswork, which is, sadly and increasingly, the state of affairs in our public schools, even the one just up the hill, which explains my to-and-fro.

When I write posts like the one I did yesterday, I see a surge in readership and comments both here and on Facebook that end with exclamation points: "Preach it!" and "Amen!" Even without the obvious references to church, I recognize these comments as coming from the choir, people who before reading the posts, already understand and agree that our schools can and should be doing a better job of educating its youngest citizens. To paraphrase the television program The West Wing, the reason you preach to the choir is to get them to sing, and sing you do, sharing my posts and the posts of others across the internet.

When this mini-virility happens, it typically occurs over the course of 2-5 days, as readership for the post grows into a crescendo before finally echoing off walls of cynicism and defeat. It's usually at least a couple days later that the comments from non-choir members start arriving in my inbox, people who have come to their own version of my premise on their own, and have, or are contemplating, a retreat from the whole mess, throwing up their hands: "That's why I'll never trust government schools!" or "I'm so happy I homeschool!"

I understand the sentiment, but it makes me a little sad as well. My purpose is not to discourage people from engaging with their public schools. Public education is the lifeblood of democracy: without an educated populace we might as well pack-up the whole idea of self-governance. Public education based upon science and logic is essential to ensuring a future with citizens up to the task. Frustratingly, it's the "based upon science and logic" part that is the real challenge.

When I write these posts, part of it is venting, of course, and part is the hope that it will inspire the choir to sing, but the audience I hope most to reach are parents and teachers who are already invested in public schools. Our schools work best, I think, when they are neighborhood schools, democratically responsive to their communities. The good news is that here in the north end of educated, liberal Seattle at least, the schools are listening to parents. The bad news is that the parents speaking the loudest, the ones making the most noise, are too often the ones who are the least well-informed, or rather the ones who have only heard the side of the story being offered by the fear-mongers. I shouldn't have been, but I was shocked last week when a parent involved with both public schools and Woodland Park  complained that not only were the kids being subjected to high stakes standardized tests, but that these tests were being sold to parents with the message of "Oh no, the Chinese are beating us!" an irrational appeal to economic competition.

There is currently a vocal minority who have fallen hook-line-and-sinker for the corporate sponsored message that our schools are failing, that teachers are lazy, and that the only way out is more standardized testing, longer school days, less freedom for children, and more homework. This is a point-of-view not based upon science and logic, but rather fear. In this example, misguided parents are lobbying to change school boundaries that will put their kids in schools that are already bursting at the seams, resorting to portable classrooms, simply because they have in recent years achieved marginally higher test scores. At the same time, the outstanding and improving B.F. Day school, the one that has the capacity to enroll some 500 more students, the one that enrolls a large population of children with special needs (explaining the lower test scores), will see its boundaries shrunk. Fear is driving this, not science or logic. In the irrational quest for test scores so we can something something the Chinese (Remember when we were expected to clean our plates because of starving Chinese children? That's the level of reason being applied here.), these parents are abandoning a school that embraces diversity, a fact that does far more to enhance a curriculum for everyone than any number of tests.

It's the corporate education "reformers" who put these fears into parents. It's been a conscious fear-based marketing effort designed to convince us that schools are failing, that teachers are lazy, and that the Chinese are beating us, all of which are bald-faced lies. I blame parents for being suckers, perhaps, but I blame our elected representatives and corporate reformers for selling fear instead of hope. When I write posts like the one I did yesterday, it's at least in part out of a wish, I suppose, that parents like these, or at least parents who aren't already there yet, will read it, and then read more, and then become angry at how they've been duped. Fear can motivate, so can hope, and so can feeling like you've been tricked.

High test scores will never lead to better citizens. Rote learning, worksheets, and homework won't either. I don't want my future partners in self-governance to be docile, rule-following, obedience machines. I dream of a day when all schools offer curricula based upon science and logic, not history and ideological guesswork. I dream of children being trusted to educate themselves through their free play, learning to be creative, responsible, thoughtful, compassionate citizens. I know that this will not happen anytime soon. There are too many minds to change. There is too much misinformation, too many lies, and a history of inertia to overcome.

What I do hope, however, in writing posts like the one I wrote yesterday, is that parents will begin to look at their children's play in a new way, that they will engage the "common wisdom" about education with a critical mind, that they will ask tough questions and push back, not just on behalf of their own children, but on behalf of all of us, reclaiming, at least, evenings and weekends from the mind-numbing abuse of tests and homework.

The rest of us really need your kids to help us figure out how to do this better.

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Unknown said...

When I read your posts like this one I am practically jumping up and down with pom poms in hand, cheering Yes!Yes!Yes! But, then....I have no idea what to do next? We are supporters of public school. My mother-in-law is an exceptionally talented middle school teacher of Language Arts, we support our school and our teachers in many and varied ways, and we know the importance of public school and the long term impact it has on economic and social developments of communities.

But, I have shed tears over rote leaning, my 5th grader memorizing words to fill in blanks without any grasp of the whole concept or story and our 2nd grader following closely behind. I refuse to give up our family's quality of life over homework and I pulled our son from the accelerated reading program last year (4th grade) for too many reasons to list here. We have very little scheduled outside of school (church & scouts) and for hours almost every day of the week our boys play outside with friends. Bikes, scooters, bugs, football, hiding, running, and doing okay managing conflicts among siblings and friends. We value our family time together and tend to travel as a pack the majority of our time. What else can I do to combat the rote/robotics/cookie cutter days of school? I just do not see homeschool as a viable or appealing option for us. Thank you for your words, insights, and love of your work!!

Diane Streicher @ Diane Again said...

As one of the pro-homeschool voices on your previous post, I feel a responsibility to tell you more of my story. I did not blithely abandon my civic duty by refusing to participate in public education. I wrestled, long and hard, with the implications and consequences of homeschooling upon both the institution of school, and upon my children as emerging citizens. And in the end, I had to acknowledge that my children's lives were not controlled experiments - I had one chance to get it right, a mere 13 years to invest in the formation of their character, and there were no do-overs or second chances. In the end, I decided I was not willing to gamble that the education reforms we all know are desperately needed would be implemented in time to impact my kids' lives. So I decided to try homeschooling

Now, interestingly, after 8 exciting years of independently homeschooling, we enrolled in a brand spanking new alternative learning program in a nearby school district. Specifically designed to be, essentially, a school for homeschoolers, the program was, at first, a dream come true. Homeschooling parents and district educators came together to shape an environment that truly honored and respected kids, and for some time, we had the best of both worlds.

But you know what? After the first five years of innovative, exciting out-of-the-box education, our program began a long slide down the slippery slope back into the box of traditional public education. What drove the de-evolution process? Not test scores - our students excelled. Not behavior problems - every new teacher was shocked to see that the extraordinary freedoms of our program yielded not chaos but a surprisingly well-behaved student body.

The fatal flaw was money. State officials could not fathom funding a program that did not abide by traditional education methods, and targeted deep budget cuts to these parent-partnership programs. Along with that stick, they dangled carrots of re-funding, but only if we would agree to implement more traditional-school adaptations to our program.

So twenty years after this innovative and highly successful form of public education came into being, it is all but gone. And while I have great respect for the many caring teachers and other professionals who are doing their best to make public education work, my faith in the traditional model of public institution, as well as the public policy that drives it, is gone as well.

Anonymous said...

After reading Dr. Peter Gray's articles on school reform and having seen "War on Kids," I am convinced that change can't happen within the existing system. :(