Sunday, April 25, 2010

To Bend or To Break: Flexibility in the Blueprint for Reform

During this past Thursday's Advocacy Day, two members of the US Department of Education presented those assembled in the Hall of the States with some of the highlights from A Blueprint for Reform. One of these highlights was the new school rating/classification system.

In the No Child Left Behind version of ESEA, schools either made AYP or they did not. Schools either passed or failed. According to the DOE, these classifications were too narrow. I agree.

In the No Child Left Behind version of ESEA, the response to failure was heavily prescriptive improvement plans. According to the DOE, this prescription was too narrow. I agree.

In the No Child Left Behind version of ESEA, successful schools were those that implemented a prescriptive set of practices. According to the DOE, our goals should be tightly defined and our methods should be more flexible. I agree.

The only problem comes in the implementation of these flexible measures. According to the DOE, flexibility is only allowed in successful schools. Low-performance schools, altogether about 10% of the nation's schools, would need to follow a prescribed path to redemption. I disagree. So did a number of members assembled in the Hall of the States on Thursday. Many asked why low-performance schools, institutions classically in need of flexibility, would not be given latitude to reach their goals. The answer was rather surprising.

Both gentlemen concluded that all students must successfully reach the tightly defined goals because students can no longer afford to be unprepared for a college education. They even have this defined clearly in the Blueprint. All students will be college- and career-ready.

I wanted to get this dialogue started because I think it is important for people to discuss how these new policies will affect them. Unfortunately, all of my resources with which I would write are packed in boxes as I wait to move into my first home this week. I guarantee that this week-end I will bring some other thinkers' thoughts to this discussion, but for right now let's take the topic head-on.

Should low-performing schools be given the flexibility to accomplish their goals?

Should they be prescribed a remedy?

Will this remedy even be remedial or will it be more of an intervention strategy?

I look forward to reading others' thoughts on this portion of the new legislation.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Advocacy in an Age of Acceptance

Has anyone ever considered the downside of an accepting society?

For some reason that question popped in my head tonight as I was re-re-re-re-reading Chinua Achebe's essay in response to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (the essay is titled "An Image of Africa" for those who are interested in reading it). The most surprising idea in Achebe's essay is that Western psychology needs Africa's otherness in order to define its own success. Looking at his analysis, there is little that can be said to challenge his argument.

I was also thinking about politics and advocacy. I live outside of Washington, D.C. Politics is a way of life here like you would not believe. Lately, those politics have been given free reign as we experience seismic shifts of our own within departments and between people. Some people in the school have been asked to step down as leadership. Others have had class "scheduled" away from them in an effort at reprisal for perceived slights against the administration. People have gone from upset to angry. Politically, we are at a crisis point.

Then, I stop and think. See, a very important decision for the School Board in my home county has crept up and made victims of more than just teacher salaries. Now, the gap patrol is seeking to fill in the needed money by slashing the contracts of 11 and 12 month employees to just 10 months. There are thousands of employees in this county. Only 800 are in this predicament. Yet, there is enough outcry and organization that they may not take the 11 and 12 months anyway.

This organized rebellion is managed because the managers are the leaders. They set the rules; rules that are used to keep teachers from advocating for themselves. Meanwhile, administrators send out e-mails advocating for themselves, and getting results.

What do other teachers say about this? Anything but what should be said. Some are frustrated but unwilling to speak up. Some say they can't care because they are disappointed. None feel like they can do anything or else risk employment.

This fear and complacency is why events like the Advocacy Day are so important. Education is a communal, social enterprise. Who will educate students if the teachers don't feel they can do their jobs? Who will send their children if they lose faith in the schools? Who will run the day-to-day business of the school if the administrators are busy canvassing for their salaries? If we do not cooperate, then the whole mess falls apart.

The NCTE National Advocacy Day is a chance for us to stop and remember that we do have a say in how we are assessed, how we teach, and how we help students succeed. It reminds us that politicians and administrators sometimes need to be reminded that teachers are career professionals who are unafraid to voice their concerns to make education a better process.

Literacy education is particularly important to how schools work. History, science, math, and English all require that students read. Small engine repair, agriculture, and auto body classes require that students read. Health and Physical Education require that students be able to read. The focus on literacy that the LEARN act provides is an essential part of making our schools more focused and successful instutions.

I hope that tomorrow results in a focused and clear message of how English educators believe literacy should be handled in our schools. I'll follow up this week-end after Advocacy Day is over.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thoughts on Consumerocracies: Commodifying Truth

Bear with me. I am about to wax philosophical.

From Jonathan Kozol's The Shame of the Nation, p.96:

"Learning itself…is now defined increasingly not as a process or preoccupation that holds satisfaction of its own in propreitary terms. "Taking ownership" is the accepted term…children are encouraged to believe they "own" the book, the concept, the idea. They don't engage with knowledge; they possess it."

Every teacher has had that explosive epiphanic moment when a great concept dawns fresh in his or her mind, allowing each one of us to glance at the truth of human existence; from our most poetic literature to our most elegant mathematics, we seek to understand our world and discover a bit of Truth in our short, yet important, existences. From the most experienced professor to the most down-trodden of poor and homeless, we have no claim to the common Truth that binds us. We seek instead to kill, to steal, to swindle, and to shop our way to a counterfeit feeling of purpose that can never satisfy. How dare we, we teachers who are meant to guide our students in a quest for Truth, pretend that anyone can own any part of our great human Truth, our great lives.

Anymore, we acknowledge the Truth with our lips, and then betray it in the face of real need, love, and understanding: the children and teens of tomorrow's world. These young trustees, for they are as entrusted to us as they attempt to place trust in us, expect a world of market-readiness in school. The truth is that not all subjects supply "McKnowledge" on a sesame seed bun (with or without the special sauce); they shouldn't and they have no business trying. Find the business application of Coltrane, seek the bottom line in Orff, delve for the cold equations of life in Proust--I am an English teacher and I'm still seeking my slice of Truth in Proust--these things simply do not exist in parcel form within these great human works. They will not and they cannot exist in the humanities. The humanities exist as a counterpoint to the almost deific experience of finding natural truth in a science lab or abstract truth in an imaginary number.

When Roman emperors would ride into Rome victorious, they used to have slaves that would stand next to them in their chariots and whisper into their ears one phrase over-and-over again: "You're only human." The humanities, and forgive my subservient metaphor, are the slave to the mathematics and sciences in our schools and in our worlds. Where science may think it has found truth, literature finds a way to remind it of the humans that helped it discover that truth. Where mathematicians believe they have "found" golden ratios and numerical patterns in the natural world, musicians have known how to apply these ratios and patterns to the notes that please and inspire us. The sciences and mathematics may deal in more tangible truths, but only the humanities can interpret their worth; they are both necessary in the "educated" person's life, the yin and yang of our schooling.

Science and math are important, but they are only human inventions, not the keys to apotheosis. Trump and his millions be damned, but there is more satisfaction in the sublime realization of glanced-at truth than in all the dollars I've ever earned or spent; yet, we tell our trustees, our charges who place their intellectual faith is us, that the bottom line matters and the larger Truths are irrelevant. That may be our greatest failure as teachers and as people: missing an opportunity to awaken our students to the beauty of human life so that they may see, engage in, and learn some form of Truth.

In the Purgatorio, Dante's pilgrim is branded with seven P's by the angel who guards the gates of purgatory. The angel says to the pilgrim "When thou art within, see thou wash away these wounds." As he climbs each of the levels of Mount Purgatory, an angel confronts the pilgrim before he passes to the next consecutive level. The angel wipes away one of the P's as he speaks the beatitude that cures the particular sin of that level (e.g., pride's opposite is the beatitude "Blessed are the poor in spirit" or the humble). School is the purgatory of life. Our students come to us and we are supposed to give them the knowledge not just to live, but to live good lives. I have no space here for a discussion of moral definitions or religious apologetics, but I find it interesting that a lot of what we say is "wrong" in our hearts and minds seems to match up across the board (at least when it seems to really matter). The point is that unless we present humanity at its weakest and at its strongest, we are letting a golden opportunity slip through our fingers. We are playing at becoming Satan, directing students to consume the fruit of knowledge without showing them its proper and improper uses, without showing them how to make critical judgments. We show them the sin and we present to them the beatitude; then we, mistakenly, tell them that both have equal value.

We don't own knowledge. We don't own Truth. We do occasionally get a privileged glance at it. We want our students to come to the Truth as it can be seen, to engage with it, and to have it leave its mark on them; however, most of all, we want them to leave their indelible mark upon it. We wonder why our students misbehave: they know what we are cheating them out of, holding out in front of them. We are dangling the ability to interpret and appreciate Truth in front of them like a carrot before an ass. I wouldn't like the metaphor either.

Mann, those Transcedentalists

Horace Mann's Tenth Annual Report contains one of the most passionate and well-reasoned arguments in defense of the public schools ever written. The core of the report deals with one of the most difficult arguments in public education: the level of responsibility people have to fund the school, even if they are not currently benefitting from the services it provides. Mann's central assumption is that no one person can own the land because it is the naturally inherited gift of all men, an idea firmly rooted in the philosophy of the Transcendentalists. Mann's premises in the Tenth Annual Report are heavily indebted to the philosophies of the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, especially Emerson's ideas of the universal spirit that unites all men and the location of that universal spirit in nature.

In the Tenth Annual Report, Mann takes on the task of convincing people who have no connection to the common school system to pay the taxes that finance their daily operations. In Mann's day, those who wanted to, and were able to, educate their children sent them to private school. These upper-class and middle-class elites saw no need to finance a school system for the lesser members of society; after all, what could their simple minds hope to learn? Mann's argument had to circumvent this bias in order to win the support of these wealthy people. Mann decided that his best option would be to redefine the notion of ownership. Only with Emerson's philosophy as an inspiration could Mann take the common notion of what property was and relocate it to the "capacious storehouses of nature" (Mann, 1957, p. 64) to which all men have access. Mann, taking from Emerson's philosophy, uses the notion that "none of them owns the landscape" (Emerson, 2007, p. 18) to reinforce the idea that there are higher moral callings that require those very wealthy people to survive. There is no better place than in the natural landscape, "the woods, [where] we return to reason and faith," (Emerson, 2007, p. 18) to be the place where the rights and possessions of all men are safely stored; conversely, there is no better place for them to be shared.

Mann used this idea, that all people are connected through the natural, and spiritual, landscape, to justify the use of community property for universal education. Mann explicitly states that:

"I believe in the existence of a great, immutable principle of natural law, or natural ethics…which proves the absolute right of every human being that comes into the world to an education; and which, of course, proves the correlative duty of every government to see that the means of that education are provided for all."
(Mann, 1957, p. 63)

This premise is directly translatable from Emerson's ideas on the divinity of nature. Mann even places the power to ensure the right of every child to an education into the hands of "the will of God" (Mann, 1957, p. 63). There is a direct link between the right of man to live and be educated and the universality of the property people can own while they are alive; both of these rights, the right to property and education, are provided by reallocation of capital from the "capacious storehouses of nature" (Mann, 1957, p. 64). Directly after he establishes his belief in the natural ethics of education, Mann states that "nature ordains a perpetual entail" (Mann, 1846, p. 65) between all the successive generations on earth. The riches of the natural world are available to "no one man, nor any one generation" (Mann, 1957, p. 65), but to all people who live in the world. Nature is a universal right, education is a universal right, and God finds a way to provide both equally to all. No member of the elite families of 1846 Massachusetts would want to betray their "PILGRIM FATHERS" (Mann, 1957, p. 60) by not performing their divinely-charged duties on earth.

Mann returns to the natural world to illustrate the nature of natural ownership. According to Mann, those who live upstream from their neighbors have no right to mistreat the spring because it belongs to those who live downstream. Ownership constantly moves, shifting down and down and down until the stream reaches the sea. To complete Mann's metaphor, the stream will again belong to the man at the source since the water will be caught up to the clouds as rain and then poured out to replenish it. Mann then sets up a conceit between the natural property people think they own and the knowledge provided in school. Mann demonstrates that the knowledge of generation A must be respected by the subsequent generation; consequently, generation B does not own the information any more than generation C, the beneficiary of generation B, can claim ownership over the improvements they will make for generation D. The knowledge is constantly recycled, constantly brought back to its source, to be replenished and rejuvenated.

The knowledge of the previous generations, being a part of the property that all men have a right to possess, is the basis of the existence of the common school. Mann rails against ignorance because it only serves to stifle the community's ability to innovate. Mann believes in what Emerson said in his American Scholar Address: "the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better" (Emerson, 2007, p. 82). Mann and Emerson realized this country's potential for innovation and focused on what it could and would give to the world. Emerson wished that "our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, [would draw] to a close" (Emerson, 2007, p. 83) and that this nation based on the protection of natural rights could provide a superior form of education for its people. Mann was able to open the door to the school system that is now the right of every American citizen because of the Transcendentalist beliefs in the natural, divine right to an education and the perfectability of man.