Educating Potential

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The Oppressive Schools Letter – Take 2

I’ve had some hard conversations about my original post on the Oppressive Schools letter. A colleague posted a comment that captures a lot of the details of these conversations and it’s worth reading. I thought about editing my first post but I actually think the distinction in how I would communicate about these ideas in light of the conversations is worth preserving. These are hard subjects to address, these are hard conversations to have. That is the whole point. But it’s worth documenting that dialogue allows for growth. In that spirit, I’m posting here something that I think better captures what I’ve learned and where I stand. *********** 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 the authors of the letter, 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 is so troublesome for me. Anyone who knows me knows that I care deeply about words and how they are used. They also know I care about the intentions of leaders and educators, and the words “oppressive” and “dehumanizing” are strong words that seem, at first, to not leave much room for good intent. When spoken out loud or even written, these words feel like a judgment of character. They often serve to make people defensive and/or shut down. I struggled with signing my name to language that would make people disengage from the constructive conversation and action that can move us towards improving systems. Through my conversations, though, I have come to understand that the authors also care deeply about words and how they are used, and they chose their words deliberately. A[…]

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High school that works for all students

I just got back from a series of school visits for my book research. It is always re-invigorating to get back into schools, and these visits were particularly interesting because they were to schools that have instructional approaches which are fairly new to me. I was particularly struck by my visit to the MET Schools in Providence, RI, schools which approach learning in a very different way than traditional secondary schools.

The underlying philosophy is that human beings are situational learners, namely, that we learn things best when we learn them in the context in which we need to know them. Certainly, this makes sense. Young children learn by doing, and they learn to do whatever they need to do at any given moment in order to explore, navigate and master the environment they are in. If a child lives in a community where people speak only Mandarin, he learns Mandarin.

If she is in a household of people who are deaf-mute, she will learn to communicate in sign language. If children are provided with environments that require them to climb, read, weave baskets, ride bicycles, milk cows, or forage for food, they will learn these skills. This is how human beings have always learned.

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The real insanity of reform

I was excited when I opened the Denver Post op-ed page last week. There was an op-ed written by William Moloney, former Colorado Commissioner of Education, that was titled “Standards and assessments: Education reform’s bridge to nowhere.”

Sigmund Freud’s classic definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over yet always expecting different results — seems not to have registered with American education reformers who endlessly propose look-alike standards and assessments they claim will really, really work this time.

So far, so good. American attempts at improving education since the early 1900s have centered on setting up content standards, assessing students on the amount of information they have retained, and rewarding teachers based on how well students perform. Yet, there appears to be a general consensus that we are not where we want to be. Our latest response is the current educational reform environment where Common Core State Standards and the aligned standardized PARCC assessments are experiencing a wave of opposition nationwide from parents, students, educators and a politically-diverse range of interest and advocacy groups. The response?

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On teaching as a profession

When I started kindergarten in the early 1980s, the “face” of the average teacher was Caucasian, female and in her mid-50s. When I walk into my old schools today, the faces that fill the classrooms remain consistently female (with some exceptions) and Caucasian, but they undeniably skew towards young individuals. While there is nothing to indicate that age is correlated with teacher quality, there is significance to the demographic change we see.

The teachers I grew up with were on the tail end of several generations of teachers who entered the teaching profession when the career options of college-educated women and most minorities were largely limited to nursing, secretarial work and teaching. As Marc Tucker noted in Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, “There is reason to believe that the problem with the American teaching force is not that it has long been of low quality and must now be raised, but rather…the American public reaped the twin blessings of a highly capable teaching force willing to work for below-market wages under poor working conditions. Those who accepted that deal are now leaving the classroom in droves.”

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