A month went by fast, and I will be the first to admit that it has been both a painful and hopeful learning process. A painful process because I am feeling a little less trust in this community. A little less trust that people presume best intentions – something I am guilty of not doing and certainly something that I have felt on the receiving end of this last month. But hopeful because I have met some really wonderful individuals who have given of their time, talents and resources to try and ensure that this process remains as productive as possible for the sake of our larger community and the larger goals we share.
I said it would be a week before I posted on the Oppressive Schools letter and it’s been longer than that. The honest truth is that I struggled about whether or not to sign my name to it; the back-and-forth in my mind and heart has led to lost sleep and moments of anxiety. It’s been hard to put my finger on exactly what the issue has been and I am thankful for the chance to talk with friends, and even strangers, about that question because it has helped me clarify my thinking around why signing onto this particular articulation of the problem didn’t fit for me.
Last Wednesday evening was one of those nights when I was struck by what it means to really be an ally for those who don’t feel they have power or voice. I live in Denver, CO, a wonderful city on many levels. As is the case with many wonderful cities, its benefits are sometimes its drawbacks. This feels true in many sectors, and the education sector is no different. I feel lucky to have had the chance to get to know and work with and alongside many amazing people who are all committed to doing what they think is best for children. I don’t agree with people on everything but I do appreciate that everyone believes they are working towards a better system. However, Denver is a small city or a big town – take your pick. Over the last seven years I have watched the same roster of players fill different leadership roles in the education community, and being able to work with others and not rock the boat becomes a bit of a pre-requisite in that type of environment.
I took the summer off. Not from thinking, but from writing. Because honestly, who can manage to be disciplined when the kids are out of school? ☺ But welcome back to the Third Rail. Even though I haven’t been writing, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling and interviewing and have a whole host of fun issues to dig into. So let’s start with an easy one.
I was troubled by David Brooks’ column this weekend about communities of character and the schools that he uses as examples of institutions that intentionally focus on building students’ characters. I also had a conversation on Tuesday with someone who used the term “character-driven” to refer to schools like KIPP, Success Academy and the Denver School for Science and Technology (which I reference here only because it was highlighted in Brooks’ article). Given some recent schools visits I have been making, including to a Success Academy school in New York, I am worried that these college prep charter schools are now being held up as examples of schools that nurture and promote character.
Someone asked me exactly who I meant when I used this term, and it’s a fair question. I intentionally put the phrase in quotes for the purposes of my open letter because it has been used over time by dozens of different groups committed to changing the US education system from whatever happened to be the prevailing approach at the time.
Today, however, I am using it in the way that it is used as a self-identification term by a group of individuals in the education policy space who adhere to a general set of ideas about what approaches and policy levers should be used to create meaningful change in education. It is a diverse camp that pulls together individuals and groups that often believe in the same solutions but for very different reasons. An example would be charter schools, an idea appealing to both Democrats and Republicans for related but perhaps ultimately different goals.
I have been watching the opt-out movement across the US with fascination. What I find most remarkable is the reaction of many in the education reform community to the growing chorus of voices pushing back on current reforms. Many of us have been worried about the direction of reform for years, but it was easy to ignore us as naysayers. Now that students and parents have taken matters into their own hands and pundits like John Oliver have taken up the cause the concerns are not as easy to ignore.
But what I find astounding is that many in the education reform community still don’t get it. Sure there are small elements of this movement that are about conspiracy theorists trying to claim “government intrusion” into state education affairs.
I was at a Montessori school in New Haven last week and got to spend some time watching primary kids ages 3 years to 5 years in their classroom. Montessori primary classrooms have an area called practical life that is filled with activities like sweeping, washing, cutting, pouring. For the uninitiated it is a little disconcerting to see children in school apparently “working” rather than learning.
We forget that for millennia human children lived lives that were very different from the ones they lead now. They were outdoors, they explored, the moved, they encountered dangers, they learned through experience. Our society has evolved rapidly over the last 100 years, but our basic human nature, our brains and our physical bodies have not.
Our family is spending the Christmas and New Year holidays in east Asia this year. One of my older brothers and his family live in Singapore and we not seen them in over two years. Given how often they come to the US, it seemed a good time to make the trip over. As it turns out, our trip has been a four for one deal.
We flew through LA to spend some time with another brother and his family. We arrived in Singapore to find that one of my cousins and her husband are doing a biking tour of Vietnam and that we are overlapping with them for a few days. And yet another cousin who lives in Australia is heading over to India for a work event and routed herself through Singapore to see us when she learned we were in the area/region.
There is a fascinating trend in policy these days that is related to the “decision-based evidence making” that I wrote about a few months ago. It appears that Texas, the state where standardized testing beatification began in the late 1980s (thanks to Ross Perot), reversed course.
For better or worse, however, the “Texas miracle” led many other states, advocacy organizations and the federal government to make standardized tests the lynchpin of education reform efforts, most notable No Child Left Behind and other “accountability” systems at the state level.