Thursday, September 11, 2014

One More Chair

I've been exploring lately the idea of not merely reforming, but transforming education (here, here, here, and here). It appears I'm not alone. What's next?

I'm here to change the world, and if I'm not, I'm probably wasting my time. ~Utah Phillips

Based upon the responses I've received over the past several days, it's clear that a lot of early childhood educators are "with me" when it comes to fighting for the transformation of education in America. This doesn't surprise me, of course, I've been engaging in public dialog with my fellow teachers here on the blog for the past six years, but when I write that sentence, it sure sounds as pie-in-the-sky as anything I've ever written, and as an idealist, I've imagined lots of pie-in-the-sky.

I want a transformation. We want a transformation. Heck, as misguided as he is, Bill Gates wants a transformation, but despite his billions it's becoming increasingly clear it ain't gonna happen on his watch. Why? Because, and I'm as surprised by this as anyone, it appears we still have a democracy: reformation, let alone transformation, can only happen when we all have a voice.

The big system can be pretty overwhelming. We know that we can't beat them by competing with them. What we can do is build small systems where we live and work that serve our needs as we define us and not as they're defined for us. The big boys in their shining armor are up there on castle walls hurling their thunderbolts. We're the ants patiently carrying sand a grain at a time from under the castle wall. We work from the bottom up. The knights up there don't see the ants and don't know what we're doing. They'll figure it out only when the wall begins to fall. It takes time and quiet persistence. Always remember this: They fight with money and we resist with time, and they're going to run out of money before we run out of time. ~Utah Phillips

I took a look at what the White House says it's got planned for our youngest citizens and confirmed that it's mostly just more of the Race To The Top, competition, rigor, and accountability crap that comes right out of those meetings of the "elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists" he promised he would tap for the job, while excluding the rest of us. Still, it's not all bad stuff. I certainly like the idea of "preschool for all" and "boosting" the availability of childcare, especially for low-income families, although I'm sure we disagree on how to define "high-quality." There's probably no better use of our education dollars than to spend them on "empowering parents." And I don't necessarily quibble with the other goals, although the evidence is that without the voices of teachers, parents, and students helping to navigate, they've managed to Keystone Cop their way into the mud. To quote our president: "After they drove the car into the ditch . . . now they want the keys back. No! You can't drive."

Of course, that's where the car-driving metaphor falls apart, because to do something as big and as important as transforming education in America, the one-driver scenario is still going to wind us up in a ditch.

The best metaphor I can come up with, and it's far from genius, is a gigantic round table, big enough to accommodate one more chair. No one ever said democracy would be fast or easy. When New Zealand, with a population of less than 4.5 million, developed it's beloved Te Whāriki national early childhood curriculum framework, the first stage alone, from conception to publication, took five years, but with some parts not being completed for another 15. An even more diverse nation of over 300 million might, logically, take longer than that. In other words, transformation isn't a goal, it's a process: a long, deliberative one at that. But, you know, at the deepest level, we already spend all our time on the planet engaged in process, so why should this be different?

So, I suggest that the first step in this long journey is to start by finding a table big enough to accommodate one more chair. Our federal government has a table, but the chairs are apparently already full. We could march on DC and demand seats as many have suggested over the past several days, and maybe that's the way to go: maybe the first part of our process is shouting so loudly that they have to listen to us. And when we're successful, that will still mean there are millions of other voices that need to be heard, so we will then need to begin demanding more chairs.

I'm willing to take that approach and see it's merits, but I've been thinking about another way to go: maybe we need to build our own table, one that is from the start designed to accommodate one more chair. 

I guarantee, that if I am elected, I will take over the White House, hang out, shoot pool, scratch my ass, and not do a damn thing . . . Which is to say, if you want something done, don't come to me to do it for you; you got to get together and figure out how to do it yourselves. Is that a deal?  ~Utah Phillips

In other words, I'm thinking that the only way to get this long process going is to get together and figure out how to do it ourselves, and the first thing is to start listening to each other: public school teachers, preschool teachers, special ed teachers, private school teachers, university professors; parents, parents of all colors and ethnicities, wealthy, poor and middle class parents, parents of children with special needs; children of all ages and of all backgrounds; business, non-profit, and philanthropic leaders, representing concerns of all sizes and from all economic and social sectors; scientists, researchers, historians, and others with specialized knowledge and wisdom . . . 

Then we begin to talk, listen, agree, while always reaching out to those who might not agree and invite them to sit at our table. I think the goal is a beloved early childhood curriculum framework like the one they have created and are creating in New Zealand, but I'm probably wrong. Maybe we start by creating "small systems where we live and work." Maybe it's a process of one school at a time, one district at a time, one city at a time, one state at a time. In the end, the best process cannot be determined from where we are now. It will have to emerge from the talking, listening, and agreeing.

And the table must always be big enough to accommodate one more chair, even for the "knights" who fall from their castle walls.

Every day, talk to at least two people who don't agree with you. It's the only way it is going to get done. ~Utah Phillips

So, I guess I'm opening it up to you. Maybe a good place to start is by creating a more complete list of those we know must be represented around our table, because I know mine is incomplete. Let's start figuring out how to do this ourselves. Indeed, that's the only way anything ever gets done.

What's next?

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Anonymous said...

Hi Tom, I am the manager of a voluntary sector playgroup in Scotland. from what I've read in your blogs our playgroups share many similarities to your cooperative pre-schools and I also admire the Te Wharikki movement/ethos. While not understanding fully the American education system, I do recognise the constant pressure to deliver outcomes and meet targets at a time when the idea of learning through play is an ideal rather than a reality. Fortunately in Scotland we are moving away from obsessional testing to a more creative curriculum but it can still be hard to secure funding for groups like mine. I would love to draw up a chair at your table to discuss with like minded others how best to promote and preserve the ideals I think we share

Unknown said...

I love this post. Transformation is 100% what we need. Change is one thing but it is still constructed on a broken system, only through transformation can we rebuild that underlying structure.