Every child…

1) Every child deserves a great teacher.

2) Every child deserves opportunity regardless of zip code.

3) Every child can achieve…

But does “great teacher” have a cookie-cutter definition, or does every child deserve teachers that have the desire, training, know-how and support to meet varied individual needs?

Does every child deserve to get the same great opportunities within their zip code, or are opportunists looking to give potential customers that fit a particular mold an escape hatch to a different zip code? Once “poverty is not an excuse” became kind of beat up by the facts (regarding the economic and social realities tied to geography and impacting the community school’s stats) it became clear that some “reformers” looked more to segregate peer groups and pull them away for efficiency than to truly improve the situation for “every child”.

And what exactly do we call achievement?

Sorry about starting a sentence with “And”-a cardinal writing sin, I know, but:  A) Count your blessings I’m trying to be less gross and profane (my default setting usually) ; B) I rarely stand on formalities like that; and B) Users of that “every child” sentence starter have committed ongoing sins of sloganizing. Using “hopey-changey” words to “cut and run” while seeming to wag the finger of shame at schools, teachers, unions and what has also been called the “status quo”.  So many slogans and so little time to dissect. Certainly no room to question it, and who would dare? Of course any child can achieve, but if schools are to be labeled, and educators evaluated legitimately on something we’re calling “achievement” (the realization of goals), there should be some agreement on and collaboration in the ways and means of making achievement happen and what goals should be prioritized.

We can start by saying each child instead of every-making the best first-step by acknowledging that people are individuals and there is no “every” because  all of these young learners come to school with a wide variety of priorities of their own, and just as wide a variety of needs and challenges. Our endeavor and obligation is to maximize potential and empower future individual citizens to pursue their dreams, not someone else’s standards for acceptability.

We can continue by ignoring the most destructive voices, opinions and approaches presented as if they are either bold or visionary. Vacancies in brains and hearts reveal themselves in the spitting and sputtering vehemence with which one refers to those who do a job he never could and in the way another explains away her unwillingness to carry the truly heavy weight of serving the neediest and most challenging students.

Worse though, are the carrion eaters who flock to the defense of such false prophets and their ignorance hoping to fatten themselves on the kills. Worse than simple boot-lickers: they are self-important opportunists looking for the perpetual benefit of nepotists and revolving doors that sweep the lazy from one lucrative failure to the next.

Roll up them sleeves, jokers. Get into the classroom, help, learn. Each child deserves an opportunity, not your opportunity.

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School readiness

“What is an example of schools having a poor readiness?”

I was asked this in a essay-to-comments chain on writerbeat.com

My piece was a redux of “Good for Students”, where I describe (among other things) what we would/should/could do if we really wanted to make teachers and schools more accountable for closing what is called the “achievement gap”. For starters, we should also focus on school readiness.

If I say “school readiness” I mean learner readiness for school. Before I walk out of the door, I need to have clothes on. Before I get in the shower-the opposite. Before learners come to school or whatever mechanism/setting has brought them to the present place on the learning/training path- they need the preparations of the past. You can only move forward from where you are today and cannot pretend that you can build on where you might be tomorrow, next week, or as investors/curriculum and testing corporations have through their intrusion on public education policy…where a learner might be years from now (or worse-simply ignore accepted developmental norms as well as the variations/variables that can come into play)to the benefit of some back-filled formula that is supposed to mathematically ensure some standard outcome.  To move forward (or upward) that foundation needs to be in place. Scaffolding.
On the front end of school comes a child. At the end, a young adult hopefully ready for the world. While much can be done in between in terms of remediation in cases where a foundation is compromised, by the time a 4/5/6 year old hits the classroom, a significant amount of “foundation” has already been constructed. Has that foundation been constructed in a “me first” environment of relative wealth and entitlement? A “me first” environment of crime, drugs, poverty? An environment regardless of economic situation filled with books, love, lots of language and communication? There may be a number that can be placed on the neural pathways possible in the actual cognitive web  being constructed in the developing brain, but it would require lots and lots of zeroes as placeholders.
The variations and purpose of those networks that condition/shape a learner’s behavior are revealed to some small degree in kindergarten screening exams used to gauge school readiness. More and more, the negative impacts of a gamed “free market” and rigged political process are seen in the classrooms as more families struggle to survive, tread water, become desperate, or sink. It is not “choice” or lack of motivation in all cases (maybe in some), but when you destabilize a family or an economic class, you destabilize the nation’s ability to send children to school with “readiness”.

Good for students

Good for students: Proven, research based approaches to economic equity and school readiness

  • “Grit and Rigor” are not magic words that make developmentally inappropriate choices and wrong-headed approaches suddenly work.
  •  Repeatedly insisting that annual testing is top priority in the education-as-vehicle-to-equity approach is either intentional and diversionary- or unintentional and ignorant.
  •  BUT: To be an educator in this modern time and to not realize that the changing world requires changing approaches in how we prepare young people for that world is dangerous-to yourself and those you teach.

YES our kids need to increasingly be able to grasp more and be able to do more than they once had to, but a large part of why they are not already isn’t because schools are failing or we’re not identifying “bad teachers” -it’s because of what we’re failing to do collectively. It’s what we allow to happen, and it’s even what we sometimes willingly participate in. To do the “long story short” (out of character for me, I know): our society is failing on the front end to prepare the number of capable learner/leaders it once did- and instead is focused on manufacturing mindless consumers and future workers.

What we are failing to do-and here I mean “we” collectively-a community a state, a nation-a world even. We are failing to hold our leaders truly accountable, rein in our markets and our own participation in them, and to teach our kids true character and responsibility. We’re failing to identify models and to really lift up examples of the kind of people we want our children to grow up to be.

Little bodies are being poisoned by cheap garbage food, their minds poisoned by the smut glorified in the media, and instead of focusing on those endemic and chronic dangers- we are driven to serve numbers tumbled and polished in various complicated formulas; or scores on various standardized tests that supposedly signify human value. But more proficiency on standardized tests of academic skills requires brains that process and perform more proficiently, which requires a foundation of cognitive health and experiences that will support and proficiency.

That means focus on positive cognitive engagement from birth, maybe even before (I would sing to my wife’s belly, and purely anecdotal evidence leads me to believe “You are my sunshine” worked magic on my daughters when they were in-utero). Great books in every home; parents freed from low-wage servitude enough to participate and support academic and emotional development; social networks and experiences away from televisions and gaming screens…

Making these the standards we shoot for would be a difficult goal, for sure- and potentially costly to the garbage dealers, smut peddlers and testing corporations (as well as PACs, non-profits and politicians feeding at their trough). But entering into this reform battle is true grit, and it’s not just good for students-it’s good for us all.

 

PART IIIB An Attempt to Wrap It Up

 

Public Education Needs to be Reformed

It’s true, I am in favor of school reform. We need school reform because times have changed and are changing-and it isn’t all good. Changing so much, in fact, that public education needs now to be thought of as more than a mere step-up to opportunities in life but also as the bulwark against the offensive forces depriving us of opportunities to truly thrive. A recent New York Times article describes the economic decay eating our nation from the middle out:

Younger households have borne the brunt of the slowdown. Those headed by people aged 30 through 44 are more likely to be lower income — and less likely to be middle income — than in 2000

These are our parents, our families, our neighborhoods. The jobs, the income, the opportunities waiting for high school graduates, college graduates, and young people looking to start families and lives and join these communities…those things that once strengthened and stabilized our nation and its economy…they just aren’t there the way they once were. The problem is that the public sector, used, abused and abandoned by the buyer-owners of policy, have been scapegoated for the conditions created by financial and political shenanigans not in their control. Not so much “public” as in parents and families (they were needed as a force to win over and turn upon itself-it’s own neighbors, schools, those just under-and-over class compared to them). The culprit pointed to was the public sector worker with any amount of job security, social and financial stability, or likelihood for advancement. Those became only for the wealthiest and/or those connected to policy. People who began to revolve in and out of corporate advisement, political appointment, and “non-profit” advocacy regardless of their experience, performance or content/clarity of their message.

So education reform was launched and flown by these forces-less experienced in education or interested in educating citizens; more interested in training future citizens for survival in and compliance with the currently destructive system.

A truer reform effort, different than the current one grounded in a campaign of misdirection and misinformation, will be one that doesn’t just toss about words like “school choice” or “teacher quality” when it plays well in snips and snaps. It will be about more than a collection of arrogant and privileged non-educators playing education expert-partnering with policymakers to avoid the real issues and replace those issues with tests and data. True reform will come after a deepening of the debate regarding what those terms (and others used in current reform’s dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge[i]  style talking points) mean for who-and what efforts need to be made to move us forward on a better path.

Regarding a better path:

First off, let’s be honest: if you fail to get adequately educated your outcomes are less likely to be desirable. Surprised? I hope not, but current education reform narratives are built on this understood truth as if it’s some new epiphany limited to those who are behind the school reform campaign. Their evidence that schools are failing include a long semi-legitimate list (remember, I believe reform needs to happen but we need to replace theater with thought): that so many more young people are struggling in school; that so many are failing in school; that so many leave high school and attempt college unprepared; that so many drop out or are expelled; that test scores aren’t what they should be…it goes on and on.

The reform campaign, while likely to produce improved outcomes (“survival”?) for some, was initiated under an umbrella of blame that is not convincing. Sure we can all be better, should want to be better, but the propaganda can get a little outrageous-and it must be kinda fun too. I’m sorry, but there’s a twisted part of me that wants to travel back in time and be a fly on the wall for the conversations that rocketed Rhee from lousy teacher for a few years to nationally renowned teacher humiliat-er  and education expert. For those who can reach back to the classics and make this connection, I am going to give reform-think a shot:

The only reasons Charlie Bucket made it to the final round was that he was a disconnected white child of privilege, and because Willy Wonka ran a shoddy, narrow vision failure factory (and was himself an overprotected failure…probably a pervert too), and all his products were wrapped in shiny packages but contained little real quality. Actually, Charlie didn’t really earn that factory…he was just given it because Willie didn’t want to hold him to a higher standard!

What many reform advocates avoid is a discussion about the undeniably correlated factors that 1) impact a learner’s ability to take advantage of opportunities and in concentration can place hurdles in the path of a school’s academic mission-turning it towards a more social one; and 2) encourage market forces to undermine the goal of having a truly educated citizenry, turning the goal of public education towards feeding the free-market furnace. It didn’t take long for reform narratives to shift to “the most important in school factor…”

But of course. That’s like an arsonist avoiding responsibility by saying the most important in home factor in preventing fires is a fire extinguisher. The market seeks to undermine, blame and maximize economic and social control.

Under Obama, the privatizers—led by Bill Gates and the Walton family—have opened a huge area of government to an industry led more by entrepreneurs than teaching professionals

While this did come from Alternet, I wouldn’t categorize it as just typical Alternet alarmist-speak. The folks involved in test-based accountability and common standards are pretty much on the record salivating over the opportunities available in the edu-product market-especially those available once citizens are compelled to comply with common standards, becoming a large population of standardized consumers.

What do you suppose education reformers and our leaders intend for the world our children are growing up in to? Is it a “civil right”-is it right at all, for us to demand, test and punish a growing number to ensure that a few more will merely survive?

Can we do better with a refocused brand of reform for all of us?

[i] Patches O’Houlihan, dodgeball legend

 

PART III A: I attempt to wrap it up!

DISCLAIMER: The following contains honesty, critical thinking, philosophical conjecturing, counter-point and common sense-in no particular order. Use caution if you are adverse to deep thoughts and open minds. The opinions and advice found here represent the thoughts of the author and the strange voices of his invisible friends.

To help ring in the New Year with some mental housecleaning, I have tried to write to conquer and divide my thoughts on what has been called “education reform”. In this three part “use my time off to write” series, I have two parts behind me. Part I, focused on those who pointedly ask “What are teachers responsible for?”-while believing they already had the only answer and incontrovertible evidence that teachers regularly failed to meet their responsibility. Young people going to prison, low test scores, poor/unemployed people, the depressed state of our economy and a disappearing middle class…all it would seem are proof that public schools and the teachers in them are failing us-and this impression was promoted to an extent by our elected leaders at the state and national levels. To these responsibility police, teachers looking to provide counterpoint are simply avoiding the tiny box that is being defined for public schools and the teachers in them. Parents looking to bring a more well-rounded truth to the debate on behalf of their children have either been subverted by “special interests” or are disillusioned white suburban mothers who need to be shown that their children aren’t brilliant.

Of course brilliance, it seems, is only found now in charter schools, magnet schools, and prep schools…Objectionable practices in those settings are defended because those schools are described as representing “school choice”.

In Part II, I discussed some of the beginnings of reform in a slightly more serious way than in Part I (where I named a couple examples of outspoken critics of teachers and compared them to turds in a toilet bowl that prove themselves difficult to flush away). Plenty of writing has already done about how our new standards came to be and how much of whose money has been behind the making it happen-I prefer to focus on the disease (the ravages of a free-market focus and a culture/caste system that relies on consumption-ism over constructivism) as opposed to the symptoms (the cult of undeserved celebrity within the reform movement, an increasing population of economically/politically excluded, and students struggling to achieve expected outcomes).

This Part III is going to be about an admittedly idealistic (and yet more truthful) path forward-curing the disease. But first, let me frame my own writing-path forward (otherwise I slip much too far into creative writing mode- and then I’m slaying dragons whilst perched bare-chested and hero-style on the back of as manly a magical rainbow-farting unicorn as I can find). As I type I am sitting munching pizza and typing while my little “girl in recovery” gobbles pizza and draws a portrait of some other clown name Dan who has a blog where two boys just talk, squeal and laugh.  A much greater threat to today’s youth than schools, in my opinion. Thanks to Peter Cunningham (@PCunningham57) for sharing the story that included my Ella, but was really about the overwhelming dedication of a teacher who really gives it all, and I’m saying this now because I foresee the possibility of a PART A and PART B with this one.

To set up PART B, whether I get to it tonight or tomorrow, this is the road-map:

1) Public education really does need to be reformed-but it’s more about needing a grass roots driven reform-of-purpose, not reform conjured up by the casual elite who swim in closed circles and pat each other on the backs for how great their theoretical ideas are for other people’s children, OR purpose narrowly defined by data points that do no justice to the struggles of today’s learners or today’s teachers serving them…but work wonders for those with dollar signs in their eyes.

2) The endemic issues we are trying to solve, specific to education, are subject to the more systemic issues in policy, society and culture. In tandem with core academics and accountability for supporting higher standards in those areas (endemic issues do include stagnant student achievement), we need a system for accountability that makes test scores a facet, not the focus. We hear a lot about students not prepared for college-I fear we are not preparing them for any life other than a perpetually indebted consumer. The most meaningful results could be achieved through re-purposing learning standards, instructional approaches, and teachers’ practice/profession to an end-goal focus on what I call “climate change”: reform within our political, economic and social systems. Unfortunately, huge profits are made on those indebted consumer populations, and there is political resistance to changing those conditions.

3) It appears that education policymakers and their closest advisers, knowing the way the influence wind blows have done a cost-benefit analysis regarding public education and have chosen efficiency and cost-savings over moral and societal obligation to the greater good.

Okay…a busy few moments coming up here, so I will be posting this PART A. PART B is going to require more thought and self-restraint, and I’m in father mode right now. Thought and self restraint don’t really apply to proper fathering.