Monday, March 31, 2014

The Two Fronts

The battle for better public education has two fronts: the work to change the system, and to help those kids who are stuck in it now.  

The effort to change the system seems to be taking place in Maine districts that are moving to what we call the proficiency-based, or customized learning system. But we need to cast a very careful eye on what this change means for kids.

As the proficiency-based system unfolds in my school district, I become less convinced that it can really hold a key to creating a healthy education for all children. The effects of punitive measures for "not learning" are, IMHO, dire, both for those who appear to succeed and those who don't. This new system occasionally softens, but doesn't remove the worst aspects of the traditional model of public education.

To have the goal of students be the successful accomplishment of standards makes assessment more important than learning. I know all the arguments against that statement; I know how hard teachers are working to make that not be so. Just listen to the Twitter conversations among Maine teachers about the "science" of assessment! But the constant assessment is, and it always will be more important than learning, as long as we impose all of the same standards on all children regardless of their identities, their interests, comprehension and connection.

There are people who are working incredibly hard to make this system work. They believe in it deeply and defend it staunchly. They are trying, using all the tools they have, to take an assessment-driven system and make it look, sound, and behave like progressive, child-centered education. But it just won't scan.

Proponents of the proficiency-based system believe that in order for kids to be adequately educated, the same list of standards needs to be accomplished by all kids at just about the same time and regardless of interest and connection to the learning. This embeds in the system a fatal flaw, but public education has no other choice. These things are required by law and enforced by testing. The daily problem teachers face is: how to get kids motivated. But this is only a problem when their natural motivation is ignored; ignore it long enough and it will go away.

"The basics," those fundamental skills that we all believe kids must acquire in order to succeed in life, come when they have been made irresistibly interesting through students' activities. Public education is terminally topsy-turvy; you have to "learn the basics" before you get to do the fun stuff.

In my district both the middle school and the high school had special weeks where kids got to choose from a variety of fun and interesting things. At the middle school, my daughter got to work on puppetry and making solar cars. At the high school, my son got to do robotics, photography, and bridge design.

Those who had not finished the required standards did what they called "intensives." What's that? Can you guess? Catching up on unfinished standards. This probably seems right and natural on the surface. But it is punitive, and that is the way it will be taken by students. If you succeed in this system, you get to do cool stuff. If you don't, you don't.

What's wrong with this picture? Why does it have to be this way? Why does the system have to go against what would make kids happier, rev their engines, build self-respect from the accomplishment of really good work?

I think once again about Saul Kaplan's concept of connected adjacencies: rather than tearing down a flawed system, build a new one next door.  All kids need this option; those whose parents can homeschool or send their kids to a private school, and those whose families do not have that option. It has to be a community effort, with many families sharing the burden of providing a healthy education for their kids.

We need to think about two things: how to push back against this system and install one doesn't have directly or indirectly punitive consequences for "not learning;" and how to help the kids who are stuck in it now and are not thriving. Both endeavors need your help. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Guns and Murder

Is "guns and murder" an appropriate topic of study in public school?

Recently I participated in a meeting of my district’s policy committee as we were developing a new policy on our basic instructional program. My district has been actively moving from what is called a “traditional” model of education to a “standards-based” program for a few years, and it’s necessitating some changes to our policies, one of the last steps toward full implementation of the new system.

Now, for my money, the only change that would significantly shift the paradigm from “traditional” to something new and better would be to shape student learning around their strengths, interests, and pleasures. The incessant clamoring to “bring the basics” back to student learning? We’re covered.  The “basics” are defined differently from adult to adult, but for some reason, everyone and their dog seems to think the learning of the multiplication tables is the most critically important task we can give our students. I’m willing to go further: you want basics? Reading, writing and math? Get kids involved in exploring the stuff they think about, talk about, and itch to explore. Give them an environment where they can make and create. Focus on who they are, each as individuals and collectively, as groups who gather around similar interests. The basics will happen.  It isn’t rocket science.

Well, actually, I’ve been told that rocket science isn’t really rocket science either; it’s rather simple when you come down to it. Put an engine facing down and a rocket facing up. Pack in enough fuel and a way to ignite it. Park a few people at the very top and try to attain orbital velocity. Bang. (Literally.) Rocket science.

How about this?

It’s not organic chemistry.

All of the scholastic achievers in my life have complained about organic chemistry. Empowering kids to learn is not organic chemistry; it’s more like rocket science: engine, fuel, rocket. Ignition, bang, liftoff.

So, back to my policy committee meeting.

My opinion of the newfangled “standards based” system isn’t all that high. I won’t go into why; you can read back in this blog.

Actually, since my last posts about my reasons for opposing the system, I’ve observed classrooms in three elementary schools and a middle school. I come out of that with admiration for teachers and principals working diligently to engage kids in learning the standards set down as important by the educational powers that be.  Some of them are doing great work; some of them are doing adequate work. All of them are working as hard as they can to engage kids in their learning.

None of them are empowering kids to do the learning that would be most meaningful to them.

So I have opinions about how we should shape a policy on our basic instructional program. I know my place; I’m one voice among eleven on our board, and we have collectively decided to pursue this road toward a standards-based system. We are all subject to laws on accountability, and we have very little wiggle-room, given the weight that has been given to teach the Common Core standards and be prepared for the tests that will demonstrate student “achievement.” So I’m not trying to stage an educational revolution in the policy committee room. I’m there mainly to be a pain in the ass, and try to insinuate some words into policy that give kids as much power as can be eked out of the system.

One instance of the replaying of my usual sentence, “Allow kids to follow their interests” provoked an outburst from one of the administrators around the table. “You know what kids in my school would want to study if we gave them the freedom? Guns and murder!”

I was taken aback and didn’t respond in the way that I knew, even then, that I should. I chickened out. I said instead, “Let’s not talk about the outliers as if they were the mainstream! Not everyone is going to want to study destructive subjects.”

What should I have said? Can you guess? I bet you can.

“Guns and murder? We can work with that. Want to raise the chances of kids being safer with guns? Let them study them. I wonder if you can get a plastic replica of a gun, one you can take apart and study its action and it’s mechanism. History. Famous guns. Guns of today. Gun laws. Write your position on gun control. Voila.

“Want to guarantee a kid won’t grow up to be a murderer? Let him study it. Study the Mansons. Study Gary Gilmore. Study violent death around the world. Study what happens when they get caught. Study what happens when they don’t.”

It doesn’t matter what they want to learn! I search my mind for stuff I really wouldn’t want a kid to study, and I fall upon pornography. I find I don’t have room in my mind for creating a course of study in that area. But I can’t think of another subject that you can’t make into something appropriate for school.

The thing is, this administrator doesn’t seem to know this. She didn’t know that the most important thing to give kids is your respect, and she didn’t know that the first thing you need to do to demonstrate that respect is to allow kids to study what they feel they most need to learn. Because learning what you want to know most doesn’t narrow your interests and your skills; it grows them. Pushing kids to learn stuff they don’t care about? THAT narrows learning.

Allow a kid to open his/her own doors, and more doors will open. Show a kid you respect what he feels he needs to learn most, and you will gain his trust. Then you’ve won the game. Continue to show that respect, and you will gain even more trust. “I”ll learn what you say I need to learn, because you have shown respect and supported my efforts to learn what I really want to know or the skill I feel I need to gain.”

How often do we allow kids in public education to get to that point? Exactly never. I mean, so seldom that it might as well be never. It can’t be proven that kids will respond badly to being given the freedom to learn because we simply have never tried it. All we’ve tried, in the lifetimes of kids who are in school now, is forced curriculum.

And in the standards-based system, where you are allowed to learn “at your own pace, and in your own way,” the same basic subjects are pushed at kids as under the “old, traditional” model. There is no education revolution here. This is newer, shinier coercive education.

There is occasional brilliance in our school district. Great teachers who inspire kids. Who work hard to get kids motivated (“motivating” being the process of first denying them the learning that they want, and then “getting them motivated” to perform tasks that are disconnected from their identities or interests. This demotivation process has been in operation since we first told kids to stop playing and come inside, sit at a desk and face the teacher).

But it’s no learning revolution.  Give the kid a chance to study guns and murder if he wants to, and you’ll create a learning revolution that is real.