This was not an optimistic conversation. I don't have a list of all the things we touched on in my dinner with Alfie Kohn--from data mining to innovative curriculum to building better teachers--but there was little about which we disagreed. This is not a golden age for public education--or for the public's valuing of education (two different, but interwoven, things). We talked as two professionals--a veteran practitioner and an education thinker--deeply concerned, deeply worried about the direction that America has embraced, in an effort to improve our education system.


There is not and never has never been a "War on Christmas" in public schools. Everyone in America gets Christmas, for weeks, whether they want it or not. The First Amendment lets us sort this out, school by school, keeping educational integrity uppermost. School leaders can serve as models of inclusive and respectful citizenship--a more admirable goal than majority domination.


It strikes me that we are shaping our education system around the media-driven idea that only some ideas and abilities matter and must be pursued, full-bore. Other ideas--say, the potential of representative democracy, or caring for our fellow humans--may be nice, but are completely secondary to striving and winning, nose to the grit stone. What good is a growth mindset if the things you feel most passionate about doing and being are undervalued?


Who's really in charge of explaining school-embedded teacher leadership, selecting the right goals and purposes for individual classrooms? Who is inspiring teachers to find their own paths--based on the own carefully honed experience and observations--to lead? Is what we're seeing about teacher leadership in the media driven by the big cannons--the federal government, the well-funded organizations and grant-receiving universities--rather than actual teachers working in grubby classrooms, scattered across the country?


When authentic, experienced teacher leaders step out of their boxes to speak about education issues, they always run the risk of stepping on the toes--or in the limelight--of someone above them in the pecking order. Simply expressing a widely shared viewpoint feels like subordination to some school leaders. When teachers have a national platform and thousands of readers or fans--when their voice and leadership are elevated--they become a threat.


Just try to read an editorial or feature piece on education, via any media outlet at all, without coming across a commenter who wants to righteously and indignantly toss all the problems--from low test scores to Security Guards Run Amok--back into parents' laps. It's as if the rest of American society didn't exist. As if grinding poverty, political corruption, greed, cultural debasement and racism had nothing to do with the so-called failings of students and their families. Let's blame the parents.


What is this amazing low-tech strategy that's filling the gaps in cyber-learning? Answer: the teachers are sitting in the same office, as they're managing their on-line classes. So it's valuable for teachers to be physically present and connected to their peers, but not so important for kids? But--wouldn't students wouldn't also benefit from putting their heads together with peers and having in-depth conversations about literature or democracy or fractions?


I am in full agreement that we would be better off if people across the spectrum in Ed World started with a vision of what public education could be, rather than going for the next big win, as is our habit in matters of public policy. But. I spent 30 years in the classroom, serving as test subject for high-flown political rhetoric and ill-advised policy. The idea of a "personalized, relevant, and real-world-situated" classroom for every child is not even close to new.


So what are we to make of Arne Duncan's surprise departure from his cabinet position, where he dutifully played POTUS Basketball Bud and less-than-articulate mouthpiece for the extremely well-heeled Democrats for Education Reform? Does anyone else wonder about the timing of this? Why was John B. King waiting in the wings? What's the policy-making strategy here--and who's calling the shots?


Finding the ideal environment--solitary or collaborative, active or passive--for each student's optimum performance, when you see them four and a half hours in a week, if there's no pep assembly? Not likely to happen. Not that teachers don't try. That's what bothers me most about these "if schools would only" articles: the assumption that teachers are blindly plowing ahead, happily adopting "fad" educational trends, heedless of the needs of individual students.


The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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