Friday, April 03, 2015

What's Next?

As I prepare for my upcoming trip to Greece, my last couple posts have circled around the idea of what it would mean to not just reform, but totally transform education in America (here, and here). Today, I intend to wrap things up with some thoughts on how to go about making it happen. I write here about what I know, my own country. The pathway in Greece, or any nation, will be different in it's details, but I expect there are some principles that can guide us all.


In the US the corporate education "reformers," lead by dilettantes such as Bill Gates have taken an ideologically driven approach, imposing a faith-based regime of standardized curricula and high stakes standardized testing, magnifying the worst of the past, while ignoring the voices of education professionals, parents, and students. They have manufactured their own "research," based not on how humans best learn, building on the work of education giants such as Piagett, Vygotsky, and Montessori, but rather focusing narrowly on how children function in schools. It's like claiming to understand tigers by studying them in a zoo. And from this, they've fashioned a Dickensian set of devices that have been working their way downward over this past decade from high school toward our youngest children.

Up here in the Pacific Northwest, we've apparently been spared the brunt of it until recently, but now it's here and it's getting ugly. Up until 2012, one hundred percent of my former students surveyed told me, without question, that kindergarten "is better than preschool." For the past two years, their responses have been much less enthusiastic, even from the ones who have thrived, while a small, but significant percentage have been reduced to tears and the kind of self-doubt that, according to their parents, has lead them to question their ability to learn.

We have not changed what we do at Woodland Park. We proudly offer a progressive, play-based curriculum, based upon the best science about how children learn. We send enthusiastic, motivated, curious, self-directed learners out in to the world. Kindergarten has changed, with a heightened emphasis on developmentally inappropriate "academics," and it is not sitting well with children who expect, as they properly should, to be in charge of their own learning.

Not long ago, a former parent posted this on Facebook (edited to protect privacy):

Not happy about kindergarten, for many reasons. One of which is that his teacher won't allow them to make paper airplanes at school. So we made them at home. And he can fold one all by himself now. What his teacher doesn't understand yet is that paper airplanes are a study of science for this kid-engineer. With a discussion of symmetry, creasing, and types of triangles, (he) practiced unaided until he got it. We tested grandma and grandpa's design versus mommy's design and discussed the attributes of each. Yesterday, we studied painting in grandma's house for about 10 minutes, making astute observations of the feeling and mood portrayed, characters and setting. Discussing Impressionism. Before bed we observed a diagram of the moon rotating and revolving around the Earth as the Earth rotated and revolved around the sun, refreshing our vocabulary for these processes. All of this . . . He led. I hope his total anger toward kindergarten fizzles soon.

People often ask those of us who teach in play-based preschools, "But how to they adapt to traditional school?" Up until recently, the answer has been, "Just fine." But this is no longer even traditional school: from where I sit, kindergarten is rapidly turning into a test score coal mine employing child labor to earn profits for corporations like Microsoft and Pearson Education. I'd say that "total anger" is an appropriate response.

I will not drill-and-kill preschoolers, I will not pre-grind their noses, I will not turn my back on the science of education in order to somehow "prepare" them for this. Indeed, developmentally appropriate play-based education is the only preparation there is. In the words of Sydney Guerwitz Clemons, "We don't starve to prepare for a famine. We fatten them up to the best of our ability and hope they survive."

It's not our job to get children ready for kindergarten. We are sending them enthusiastic, motivated, curious, self-directed learners. It's kindergarten's responsibility to get ready for them as they are doing in Ontario, Canada where play-based kindergartners are at the lead in transforming elementary schools.

I've come to the conclusion that if we are going to transform education, it is going to have to come from the "bottom" up. What we are doing in our play-based preschools follows the science of how children learn and places democracy at its center. As I suggested yesterday, the process that lead to New Zealand's beloved Te Whāriki early childhood curriculum framework could be an appropriate model for us. 

In President Obama's most recent State of the Union address he announced that his administration was coming after us next:

"And as Congress decides what it's going to do, I'm going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need."

Please note that he makes no mention of including professional educators or parents in this process. He's turning to the same cast of "jobs of tomorrow" dilettantes who brought us the anti-democratic fiasco of Common Core, across the board standardization, job and college prep for kindergarteners, and high stakes standardized testing. I don't claim to know how to do this, but we must begin our own process: a democratic one that honors the voices of government and business, yes, but that leans primarily upon the science of how children best learn, the experience of professional educators, the love of parents, and the promise of democracy.

Preschool teachers can lead this and increasingly it's looking like we must lead this. A revolution is coming. Who's with me? What's next?

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

I've been engaging in a public dialog with my fellow teachers here on this blog and face-to-face for the past six years now, and it's clear that most early childhood educators are "with me" when it comes to fighting for the transformation of education. The larger question is, "What's next?"

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, 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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Carol said...

The Orfalea Foundation is one of those philanthropists at the "government" table. They have spent several million dollars over the last 5 years implementing the Outdoor Classroom Project and Preschool Food Initiative in Santa Barbara County. We have created a strong, vibrant group of about 30 Outdoor Classrooms or what we call Demonstration Sites in SB County that welcome ECE staff and others to visit and see an Outdoor Classroom in action and provide training and consultation to assist programs in their own transformation process. We are out there, we just need to connect and become a collective voice! For more info on what we are doing you can go to or

Laurie said...

Thanks for posting the quote from Sydney - it's one of my favorites!

I'm grateful for your thinking and activism around education, and am looking forward to hearing you in Portland tomorrow.

Unknown said...

"It's like claiming to understand tigers by studying them in a zoo." So true.