Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Shoe Doesn't Fit

I hate listening to politicians speak. I find it frustrating and almost embarrassing. I avoid it at all costs. The last State of the Union I watched was given by Jed Bartlet. I don't even like watching Jon Stewart skewer Mitt Romney with clips from his stump speeches. It often angers and disgusts me to watch these men and women act like they know what they're talking about, so I avoid it.

But I watched Maine's Education Commissioner Steve Bowen's presentation at the Samoset this past week anyway. What I expected was that this presentation will sound good enough and exciting enough that people will hop on board the good ship Standards-Based Education.

The opposers will be on the other side of the argument from me: "there's nothing wrong with traditional education." For people like me who want the power and control over education to be in the hands of children, it will not go nearly far enough.

What I expected to see was the self-congratulation of a guy who has been touted as Maine's leader of great educational changes that are so crucial to our children. What I will see is change that is no change at all.

My thoughts while watching the video:

He's critical of NCLB, and I guess we can be grateful for that; but who, in this day and age, is still publicly in favor of it? Our President is critical, but his Administration has re-released it with new cover art, and we're still waiting for new music.

He speaks of the Committee of Ten, that "working group of educators that, in 1892, recommended the standardization of American high school curriculum." I am very skeptical that we are moving away from the K-12 course of study as designed by them. The Common Core State Standards and the Maine Learning Results repackages it. The needed refocusing of education is still nowhere to be found.

He has my attention when he talks about customized systems. But what this leads to is a discussion of narrowing in on ways kids can be made to learn stuff they don't care about, though. His segue to School of One reveals that he is NOT talking about narrowing in on who kids are, but how they can best be made to learn what we tell them to learn

Focus on the kids! Restructure school so the first duty is to RECOGNIZE and HONOR them for who they are. Then provide the support, time and resources to guide them to becoming the people they want to be.

When I make this argument, people generally object, thinking that I don't think kids should learn to read and write or do math unless they want to. But you don't need to use silverware to eat food. You can be nourished without it. But if you are around other people much, you'll learn to eat with silverware. You'll want to; your exposure to the world of other folks eating food will make you want to.

Kids will want to learn to read when they are engaged with the world around them. They'll enjoy math when they see that life is full of math.

We are still focused with a kind of panicky anxiety to making sure we control what kids are learning. Adults have learned a lot over the past ten years, and our education has yielded this: If you can't force kids feet into the small shoes of our education system, provide a shoehorn.

But the shoe is still too tight. Nothing will make it larger. Nothing will make it work. Nothing about the mandated K-12 curriculum will replace the need to discover who these kids are, and center their educations around that. I call it the identity imperative in our schools.

I might be faced with this argument, "But Lisa, it works. It's working. Kids ARE more engaged, they are happier, they are pursuing their educations with vigor and zeal!"

In an institution where real choice and freedom to learn is not even part of the conversation, kids will respond to any offer of options. What they won't do, because they haven't been asked, is look inside themselves for what most energizes them. They will take the opportunities we provide.

We lose something in this system, and it is not a small thing. We teach kids that what they need to learn does not come from inside them. We teach them to gain self-respect by complying with adult values. We teach them that to gain our approval, they should become passionate about what we tell them to value. What we lose is the newness of young thoughts, wonderful ideas, originality, creativity, great innovations.

Student Voice and Choice is the biggest lie in this system. What kids are choosing is how they can demonstrate learning of something they have been manipulated to care about. But who they actually are and what they'd really choose is entirely left out in the cold.

All this effort does is create a structure wherein a central focus is co-opted by the manipulation of kids instead of holding genuine value for them. There can only be one central focus in an institution. For my money, it should be those human beings who are shorter than we are in stature, powerless to control their lives, handed only those responsibilities that we impose and without any rights at all.

The standards-based system does not, as advertised, put children in the center. What we need is a true revolution in education, one that gives children rights over the education they create for themselves.


  1. Right On! One of your best pieces yet.

  2. I still haven't read Steve Bowen's speech, but I agree that education today does not encourage kids to discover themselves, find their voice, and what they care about. They learn to say what they think their teacher wants to hear.Or if they aren't good at that, they get discouraged and turn off. My kid's school is trying a standards based system, which is LESS arbitrary and more informative than a letter grade. But it doesn't put education in the hands of kids.

  3. In this piece, you really hone in on the essence of what is wrong with education. Thank you for this passionate critique of standards-based education.

  4. I should make clear -- although I stand behind what I say about the proficiency-based system, I support moving toward it 1. because it's inevitable in light of the Common Core and 2. because it doesn't stand in the way of better systems, like the Schoolwide Enrichment Model or the Met/Big Picture Schools.

  5. "I might be faced with this argument, "But Lisa, it works. It's working. Kids ARE more engaged, they are happier, they are pursuing their educations with vigor and zeal!""

    I, too, get this response a lot. But I have yet to see any convincing evidence that this is true. I have pleaded to allow student survey instruments like Gallup, Hope Survey or High School Engagement Survey to be consistently introduced into the discussion.

  6. For some reason, it's acceptable to get feedback from students only in most controlled environment possible. I'm in favor of getting it by any means necessary. If we set up a shoutfest, then that's what we get. Kids have a right to shout at us.

    That said, student survey instruments sound good too. :)

    But even if SBE gets positive feedback from kids, we need to remember that it is better for them, yes, but still, not good enough.