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Calling All Contrarians: The Time for Questions Is Now

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It happened again on Thursday.

I have a 6-year-old son in 1st grade. He likes school, but it took him some time to warm up to it. Last year he got off to a rough start when his kindergarten class recited the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time, and he responded by crawling under his desk. Later he had to eat lunch with the principal for having too much fun on the bus. He was terrified; for a while there we thought we'd never get him to go back to school at all. But he found his footing soon enough, and before long he was completing his hour of homework every night like a pro, just like kindergarteners have always done.

Wait, what? Sometimes I reminisce about my early days in school—the plaid suit jacket I liked to wear, a butterfly collar poking out and resting on the lapel; the year I got glasses and everybody made fun of me; the time my brother cut my hair, very badly, the night before school pictures. I have a collection of things I produced in those years, the best of which is probably a Valentine's Day heart I made for my mom complete with a rhyming poem. I also remember my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Kuebler, whose big project for the year involved having all of us create a bird-watching scrapbook, and her brother, Mr. Kroger, who taught in the room next door but would drop in for unannounced visits and tell us about his experiences in World War II while he watched the traffic roll by on the street below. And I remind myself, not infrequently, that I was a pre-school dropout: My parents stopped making me go when it became apparent that I just did not like my teacher, Mrs. Grubbs. Imagine a parent making that decision today.

I'm sure in some ways my kids' experiences have been and will be similar to mine, but even the artwork they create these days is more sophisticated. I know, too, that I faced frustrating challenges academically as a student—my 6th grade math teacher, A. A. Wilson, will forever be remembered as the most patient man in Beaufort County, South Carolina—but I don't remember feeling the pressure my son feels on a regular basis. And that brings me back to Thursday, because that was the most recent time my son forgot to do his homework.

All he had to do was read a short book but he had simply forgotten to do it, and he was devastated. While I tried to explain that he would be spending 45 minutes on the bus, and could, in that time, probably read the book several times over before he got to school, he launched into a fit of anxious rage. I never really managed to calm him down. The bus came and went without him, and I drove him to school. He hardly said a word, but his unease was palpable.

After dropping him off I couldn't stop thinking about the overwhelming sense of nervousness and dread he had felt all morning. Not every kid takes his homework as seriously as this one does, but he's surely not the only 1st grader who is aware of the pressure that defines his school experience. I felt terrible for him. In a way, I felt even worse for the rest of us.

What's going on here? Our 1st grader is not alone. He has an older brother and two sisters who have also navigated the world of school in the age of "no excuses" and No Child Left Behind. Each of them has faced a unique set of challenges: Our oldest son struggled, for a time, to even be taken seriously as a learner, while our older daughter has had her creativity stifled in school and frequently talks about being bored by it. Our youngest daughter is still in pre-k—where we attend sober conferences with her teachers to discuss "school readiness" and where, in somber tones, we are asked if she talks at home since she doesn't always seem to show much interest in doing so at school. (For the record, she does talk at home—constantly.)

I don't know if my kids are typical, but I do know that their experiences worry me a little. I don't worry about them not getting into college or failing their state proficiency exams or not developing the reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills of a 9th grader before they even hit kindergarten. I'm really not worried about them keeping up with their international peers on standardized tests. I'm not all that concerned about their "global competitiveness" or how they'll function in the "emerging global economy," especially since the "new" world economy seems increasingly to resemble a very old world economy where a very small fraction of the population enjoys wealth and privilege that the rest of the world can only dream about. Like the manufactured crises that always seem to pop up the month before a major election, these seem to me to be problems that will ultimately work themselves out. And, anyway, the problems may be real but the fear and anxiety we attach to them are often applied in measures that are grossly disproportionate to their actual importance.

What I am concerned about is what all of this talk of accountability and expectations and competitiveness is distracting us from. It is an American tradition both to constantly tinker around the edges of schooling and to never be satisfied with it; we want our schools to solve social problems, economic problems, cultural problems, and political problems, but we want them to do it on shoe-string budgets (or on healthier budgets with very long strings attached) and rarely provide more than lip service to the problems of educating young people. Our boundless faith in the power of schooling to change futures, even with limited resources, is both inspiring and deeply frustrating—inspiring because we sometimes see it work, deeply frustrating because it so often doesn't.

There are a few things that I believe to be true about formal education: that it works best when student concerns and interests are at the center of everything educators do; that it is most likely to be beneficial to students when teachers are taken care of, too; and that it should both represent and respect the values of the larger culture in which it exists while also encouraging the people involved, through open interaction with each other, to question those values. I also believe that you can throw money at this problem and, if resources are well allocated, make a huge difference in peoples' lives. Oddly enough, I have found that my commitment to ideas like these make me a bit of a contrarian. Many would-be reformers say they put students first, but that's not always what they do; instead, they spend a lot of time trying to out-do each other and raising money for their next venture, money that does not always make its way into schools meaningfully or at all. They say they care about teachers, then question the value of pensions and other benefits (like tenure) that offer essential security in a topsy-turvy economic world where, especially in education, it seems no one's job is safe. They remake the curriculum in ham-handed ways that stifle independent thought and discourage the kind of questioning that is the true foundation of a world-class education. By undermining our faith in the quality, purpose, and value of public education, they force us to accept changes that compromise the ability of the schools we have to function effectively. In other words, they make schools worse by convincing us that they actually are worse, and once that perception becomes real to us there really is very little schools can do to prove that they are effective at all.

It doesn't have to be this way. We live in a messy world dominated by a bottomless flow of information and noise—information that sometimes threatens to swallow us whole and that applies real pressure to our lives that we have to deal with. As adults, our job is to shield young people from some of that pressure so they can learn how to manage it and can continue to grow. Being contrary sometimes implies disagreeing simply for the sake of disagreement, gumming up the machine just for the purpose of making somebody fix it. That can be worth doing because sometimes it slows things down long enough to make sure we get the solution right, though it's important to have a constructive goal in mind as well—there's a difference between a contrarian and an obstructionist. But being a contrarian can also connote something else, something much more positive: To me, contrarianism begins and ends as a useful exercise in questioning assumptions. It is about asking the right questions, and asking the hard questions, too. Is every teacher a good one? Not by a long shot. Does that make them all bad? Does tenure sometimes "protect" bad teachers? Yes, it does. Does that mean we should eliminate it entirely? Do for-profit charter chains sometimes put the interests of shareholders ahead of the interests of stakeholders? I'm sure they do. Does that mean that it's fair to lump locally run and locally funded charters with them? By asking these kinds of questions, guided by a set of core principles that don't change as the political currents shift but can change as new information comes in, I think we can get closer to understanding what we want schools to actually do. And if we can do that, we can then start a real conversation—one polluted by less noise—about how to get there. 

It may well be true that kindergarten is the new 1st grade—at this point it might be the new 4th grade—but it doesn't have to be. With apologies to Thomas Jefferson, a little contrarianism now and then is a good thing. It's good to be that person in the back of the room who asks the questions that make other people uncomfortable. There is value in making people support their assumptions with logic and evidence. Especially if it helps take the sting out of some kid's day when he forgets to do his homework. 

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