Revolution, Not Reform

A recent education blog post pointed out that teachers who survive their first two years in the profession mostly still leave teaching by their fifth year.  The author, Debra Vladero, notes that these teachers grow in effectiveness, as measured by various criteria including student test scores, for their first three years, then level off. Their performance actually declines in their final year of teaching, as if they are giving up before they actually quit. And teachers who start later in the school year are less effective than those hired before it begins.

I have been pondering this information, and thinking about its relationship to Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive.” Then I heard a song by Jeffrey Lewis and all the parts began to come together.

The song is Time Trades, and the gist is that we don’t get our life’s satisfaction from working for money or for other people’s satisfaction. Lewis suggests that, in addition to whatever we do to survive economically, we also need to “try something you can get smarter at, something you might just be a starter at. It could be poetry, it could be chemistry, it could be trying to make a new happy family.”

The point is that we get deep satisfaction from deep learning – lifelong learning. So, you trade time for mastery. As Lewis puts it, then “when you get old you blow some whippersnapper’s mind.”

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

This hits directly at the same point Pink makes about our three, overarching psychological needs: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The movement for school “accountability,” as put into practice through laws like “No Child Left Behind,” has removed all three of these from the grasp of teachers. Is it any wonder that good teachers are leaving in droves?

Our model of education does not treat learning as a dynamic, lifelong pursuit. The politicians and bureaucrats who operate the factory system of public education treat learning as a fixed-outcome, limited-time-only necessity before people can get on with the business of being good, cheap labor.

This means that, just like educator Edward Cubberly suggested in the early 20th century, teachers should be considered workers who are turning raw materials (children) into finished products (workforce-ready laborers). Just like in factories, you offer bonuses to the more “productive” workers and punishments and layoffs go to the laggards.
In a factory, there is no chance to master anything more than a simple, repetitive task that offers no challenge to an adult mind. No one pursues additional classes in hole-punching or screw-driving. Any challenges for the intellect and the whole person are left for “leisure” time; hence the idea of “hobbies,” which grew up to help 9-to-5-ers keep from going insane from the mind-crunching monotony at work.

So, in our system, we don’t treat teachers like respected professionals. We treat them like replaceable components. We grind them up and spit them out by denying them access to any of the three human needs that motivate us.

Look at autonomy. It doesn’t exist for many teachers. They are shoehorned into overcrowded classrooms. Then they have to deliver literally scripted curriculum in which every teacher in that grade level must be at the same point in the same lesson at the same time on the same day. These scripts are written by private companies and purchased with taxpayer dollars. These same companies then develop and sell the standardized tests that schools are to use to evaluate student learning as well as teacher “effectiveness.”

The move to a national set of “common core standards” is yet another way these companies are working to swallow the bulk of public education funding in the name of “reform.” Fewer and fewer local choices in what and how to teach will mean a further dumbing down of our population while swelling the coffers of the biggest publishers. Don’t forget how laws are made, in that old saying about gold and rules.

Not only does the system reject and thwart teacher autonomy, this same straitjacket approach removes any opportunity for teachers to develop true mastery. It takes very little skill to read from a prepared script every day and to follow a carefully-prescribed set of steps to someone else’s goals and objectives. By making teaching a factory-like job that extends without variation into a gray, bleak future, we all but put up a big “KEEP AWAY” sign for our best and brightest.

Last on the hit parade is purpose. If a teacher’s purpose is to train parrots, and if the measure of that teacher’s success is how many parrots learned 100 percent of their lines — well, I don’t see that as motivating too many gifted individuals to the profession.

Add now the disrespect for teachers that political candidates have stirred up, the constant demands for “pay for performance” (a proven counterproductive strategy), and the increasing requirements that teachers pursue advanced degrees and national board certification at their own expense. It’s a wonder that anyone studies to become a teacher any more. So many other jobs are lots more fun, and many of them pay better in the bargain.

All of which begs the question: Who will be the ones left teaching when nearly all passionate and skilled professionals have fled this prescribed and punitive environment?

No More “Reform” — Please!

Wave after wave of “reform” has swept American public education since the mid-20th century. I can personally remember things like New Math, Phonics, and Whole Language taking over the curriculum for a while, then fading into the background.

Lately, “reform” has taken on a new, more political meaning. American corporations, seeing the huge gobs of money spent on public education in the US every year, determined to take as much of that money as possible. They set their legislative minions to work crafting a law that would create the illusion of accountability while actually breaking the back of public education.

The goal: eventual privatization, meaning profits, of the “broken” system. And in the meantime, sell as many new productis (textbooks, materials, tests, remedial systems, etc.) as possible to lock up the marketplace for the big boys. (My thinking here is not sexist; the system is.)

So now “reform” was driven by one measure alone: test scores. Everything done to improve public education would be focused on driving test scores higher. And because we are a simple-minded folk, we would only pay attention to reading and math. And maybe science later on. Things like geography, art, history, dance, literature, music, philosophy, theater — who needs ‘em? They just muddy up the waters. People can’t pay attention to all that.

It was brilliant, really. Define success in stark and simple terms, and then make success impossible. In the end, ride in to the rescue on a wave of free market rhetoric and rake in all the bucks. Run education like a business, goes the refrain.

The strategy is working like a Swiss-made timepiece. Around 50 percent of American public schools are now labeled as “failing” under No Child Left Behind. As the standard moves toward 100 percent proficiency, that number will only go up. Hand-wringing and teacher-bashing dominates the conversation. Profiteers are poised to pounce.

Like a Business? Really?

Doesn’t it sound great when politicians promise to run some governmental function “like a business?” Sounds all down-to-earth and hard-nosed and unsentimental. Harrumph.

But do we really want that? I mean, businesses go out of business all the time. Wouldn’t that be a bad thing for an essential service? And since the purpose of business is to make a profit for the owners or investors, wouldn’t that lower the quality of the service? If the company could make a better profit by squeezing more kids into the classrooms and firing more teachers, they would not think for long before pulling that switch.

If the business was better off as a result, would you mind your children doing without textbooks, or computers, or desks for that matter? If profit’s the goal, why put students together in “schools” at all? Why not have all teaching delivered to the student’s portable device, wherever they are?All for only a few hundred dollars a month subscription fee. Per child of course.

It has never been possible to just pour knowledge into children and have them magically transform into thoughtful adult members of society. That is a fable we have told ourselves. And it has never been possible to create a cadre of workers who can reliably teach every child to pass every question on every test invented by people who probably couldn’t pass the tests themselves.

The Arts Should Be First

What the arts offer us is not just an elegant, memorable, and powerful way to communicate our understanding of the universe around us. Though that should be enough right there, don’t you think?

The arts offer us a way of thinking that is completely aligned with our need to solve difficult global and local problems of all types. Thinking as an artist means being able to think creatively and in new ways about complex or stubborn challenges, and finding enduring ways to express those solutions. It means being persistent, able to look at situations from a variety of perspectives, and willing to find the humor in a tough spot. It means being empathetic yet playful, organized but willing to yield to inspiration, and always remaining open to new possibilities.

If we were to train all children as artists, then everyone would bring that set of skills to every profession. (Can you imagine how much more intelligent debates in Congress would be?)

Revolution, Not Reform

There is no way to save this system by re-forming it. The parts of it that don’t work have been shored up and entrenched and buttressed, while the parts that used to work a little have been dismantled or allowed to crumble away. We need revolution.

  • We need to re-use the factories we used to call schools in some appropriate, business-oriented way. Let them be incubators for new small businesses, whatever.
  • We need to find places for our new schools that are in the hearts of communities, visible to all, and part of the world around them.
  • We need to be sure those new schools have places for learning in all modalities, places for celebration, and places for interaction with experts and learners from everywhere in the world.
  • We need to expect more of teachers, to demand that they be dynamic, creative, and inspiring lifelong learners that children will want to be like.
  • And, most of all, we need to restore the foundational place of the arts in the learning process, for they embody everything we know about speaking to one another of the complexity and wonder of the universe.

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About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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One Response to Revolution, Not Reform

  1. rbdancer says:

    Here’s a 12-year veteran teacher, who has survived her initial immersion and is still trying to be creative and to be a lifelong learner — while having fun doing it.

    Check out her blog post: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/ted-lesson-planning-student-writing-heather-wolpert-gawron

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