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Sam Chaltain: Q & A on School, Community and Choice

Sam Chaltain is an educator and author who has been writing about challenges and changes in our schools for the past decade. He has released a new book, Our School; Searching for Community in an Era of Choice. I asked Sam to help us understand what the book is all about.

1. What was your goal with this book?

As any educator knows, most conversations about school reform occur at 30,000 feet, and without a clear sense of what teaching and learning actually looks and feels like on the ground. So my goal with Our School was to put a human face on school reform in general -- and school choice in particular -- by spending a year on two D.C. campuses: a first-year charter school, and a 90-year-old neighborhood school. I wanted readers to experience what it's like to work in the exciting, chaotic start-up culture of a brand-new school, and see what happens in a district school when high-stakes testing starts to ramp up. But mostly I wanted to tell a deeply personal story about teachers, students, and our ongoing efforts to craft more equitable communities in order to clarify the state of public schooling as it is -- and begin hinting at what it ought to be.

2. We are now using test scores to determine the quality of teachers and schools. What do you think we should be using instead?

I think the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has a great recipe for determining teacher quality -- one that, coincidentally, is co-constructed by teachers, for teachers. Every profession worth its salt has agreed-upon standards of professional conduct and expertise. Why should teaching be different?

Another great model is the use of peer-assisted review, or PAR, programs, like the one they're now doing in Montgomery County, Maryland (and where, not by coincidence, they also actively measure the hope, engagement and well-being of their students).  

Going forward, I think the challenge for educators is to find ways to honor both the timeless art of teaching and the emerging science of how we learn. The word "data" has become its own sort of political football, but the reality is that good teachers are always using data to inform their work with children. The question is, simply, which data, why, and to what end? So to the extent that teachers can be leaders in identifying better ways of evaluating their impact on children, the better the field will be.

3. I am hearing more and more of teachers, students and administrators feeling that they are experiencing a climate of fear. What should we do to make our schools less fearful places?

I definitely witnessed a greater degree of fear in the district school I observed than in the charter school; I think part of this stems from the impersonality of city-wide bureaucracies, and part also stems from the national rhetoric around teachers and teacher evaluation, and the myopic definitions of what constitutes teacher effectiveness. But another part, which I describe in detail in Our School, is that we are in the midst of the most significant redefinition of the teaching profession in over a century, and all of us are going to need to reimagine some of what we do, perhaps even some of the things we do really well.

In my estimation, we are moving away from the Industrial-era notion that content knowledge is the ultimate endgoal of schooling, and towards an Individual-era notion in which content knowledge is merely the means by which we reach the endgoal, which is a broader set of skills and dispositions that can guide young people through life. That's a much better recipe for children - and it's a lot harder to do well, day in and day out. What old habits or ways of being will teachers need to let go of in order to let new habits and ways of being come into focus? That's a scary question, and an important one, and it's something educators should embrace discussing more openly together.

4. How do you see us dealing with this dichotomy that you describe of making choices based on personal interests versus the need for our schools to function as cooperative community resources?

There's a reason Plato's vision of the ideal republic depended on a plan to raise all children in common; he felt it was the only way to mute self interest enough so that adults would care for the well-being of all children equally.

Clearly, that's not happening anytime soon -- so what do we do instead?

This is, of course, the timeless question for our country: finding the delicate balance between the "me" and the "we." If I was in control of everything, the first thing I'd do is change the way schools are funded in America -- we'd come a lot closer to equity if all schools were funded equitably, and if one's property taxes weren't either the keys to the kingdom or their own form of incarceration. But that's about as likely as Plato's plan for child-rearing, so what's left?

In the epilogue, I outline three things that I think need to happen if we're going to reimagine education for the modern world: we need to prepare and support our teachers differently; we need to evaluate our students and our schools differently; and we need to remember that our democracy is something we do, not something we have.

I'll leave it to your readers to see what I say about the first two in the book itself. But I'll try to unpack the third one here.

As I say in Our School, when it comes to a nascent experiment like school choice, we have within us the capacity to turn an open marketplace of learning options into something creative and regenerative. But there is nothing automatic about it. Choice by itself leads to nothing. As John Dewey said, the purpose of education is not to merely grant children freedom of activity or choice or movement, but to empower them with the freedom to engage in intelligent activity, to make intelligent choices, and to exercise intelligent self-control in identifying, and then acting on, their unique strengths and interests. And so it is with us.           

Consequently, I worry about what could happen if too many of us simply assume that the invisible hand of the modern school marketplace--or, worse still, the incentivizing hand of the modern school official--is a sufficient strategy for ensuring that all children receive equal access to a high-quality public education. In the end, should we define public education as a public or a private good? Will our efforts to unleash self-interest (which is, after all, what the economist seeks to economize) strengthen or weaken the connective tissue of our civic life? And will the current trajectory of the charter school movement unleash a virtuous cycle of reforms that improves all schools, or merely add another layer in our historically inequitable system of schooling? As British sociologist Richard Titmuss has said, "The ways in which society organizes and structures its social institutions can encourage or discourage the altruistic in man, foster integration or alienation," and strengthen or "erode the sense of community."

To me, our changing notion of community should be the central concern of anyone who cares about schools in general, and school choice in particular. To transform our communities, however, we need more than just new ideas about how to organize our schools or prepare our teachers or assess our students; we need a shared emotional commitment to those ideas, and to one another, that we can translate into new norms of behavior. And as any regular readers of your blog know all too well, this is what's most absent from today's school reform debates.

We don't listen to one another, because we don't respect or trust one another.

This is a problem because, as The New Yorker's Atul Gawande put it recently, ideas alone do not lead to behavior change: "People follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process."

That social process is what allows people to adopt new norms of behavior. And "to create new norms, you have to understand people's existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what's getting in their way."

But this is not what we do. Instead, we sidestep the slower process of co-creating new norms in favor of the quicker path of mandating new behaviors (see, e.g., Race to the Top). But as school change expert Michael Fullan points out, the key to real systems change is building collective capacity, which he defines as "generating the emotional commitment and the technical expertise that no amount of individual capacity working alone can come close to matching."

Potential innovations like smaller classrooms, in other words, mean nothing unless the move is coordinated with relevant professional development for teachers to help them employ new strategies. Establishing national standards means nothing if the end result is merely more national exams and less high-quality, locally driven assessments that use those standards as a common frame. And new teacher evaluation systems mean nothing unless the teachers who will be evaluated in them feel a sense of ownership over the new processes that will determine their professional fates.

How we feel about a new idea shapes how, and if, we apply it. No shortcuts. No excuses.

Unfortunately, as Gawande explains, "we've become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, 'turnkey' solutions to the major difficulties of the world. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability." So we try to sidestep that variability altogether, which is the equivalent of recalling the first half of the famous quote by Winston Churchill--"Democracy is the worst form of government"--and conveniently forgetting the second half--"except all the others that have been tried."

American democracy was intended to generate, not suppress, the energy created by conflict, so our differences of opinion are not the problem. But the only way our ideological dividing lines can lead to "civil friction" is if we allow the people and organizations we disagree with to become more than mere obstacles to greater efficiency, or stock characterizations of good or evil. "Our diversity consists only in part of demographic differences such as race, ethnicity, and social class," writes Parker Palmer. "Equally important are the wildly different lenses through which we see, think, and believe."

In the end, my ultimate hope for Our School is that it helps readers develop a deeper feel for how differently we all see, think, and believe. The things we talk about when we talk about school reform--charter schools, testing, teachers, choice--are not black-and-white concepts; they are myriad shades of gray. That means the only chance we have of developing a system of schools worthy of our children is if we step out of our righteous certainty and lean into our empathetic openness. And the only way we'll do that is if we're willing, amidst the "uncontrolled variability" of ourselves, our colleagues, and our institutions, to talk through our deepest differences respectfully, openly, and with urgent patience.

What do you think? Can we advance towards better solutions through the "urgent patience" that Sam Chaltain advocates?

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