"Ask an impertinent question, and you're on your way to a pertinent answer." —Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man
As of October 2015, my goal for this blog is to ask 101 impertinent questions.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Another Kaputnik Moment?

President Obama has called for another Sputnik moment to revitalize our education system and make America competitive once again. I began my career as an English teacher in 1965 and over the course of that career saw how the approach to education reform set in motion by our original Sputnik moment contributed to the decline in academic achievement. I would even argue that the last fifty years that were set in motion by that first Sputnik moment caused the decline. For the sake of our children and our nation, we must not allow history to repeat itself.

The most damaging legacy from that first Sputnik moment has been the elimination of the arts and the denigration of the humanities. The most fundamental problem among students today is the inability to read. Reading is fundamental to learning at all levels and in all fields of study. Reading is fundamental to all learning. Reading is a skill. But reading well is an art that requires imagination, perspective, and a point of view. All of these qualities are enhanced through the study of the arts and humanities. The same can be said for critical thinking. Yet, today in many schools, thirty thousand years of what it means to be human have been reduced to an occasional elective. How can young people assimilate and order information without some framework of understanding that helps them ascribe meaning and perspective to what they're learning?

Studies now show that student performance declines as children get older. This isn't surprising when when we consider that over the last twenty-five years we've tried to solve the problems in our schools, not by expanding the imagination and perspective of our students but by subjecting them to an increasingly standardized curriculum that is geared to nothing more than raising test scores.

The history of testing is a study in irrationality:

Testing was used to assess student progress.
When test scores didn't improve, teachers were encouraged to teach students how to test.
When test scores still didn't improve, teachers were encouraged to teach to the test.
When test scores still failed to improve, teachers were instructed to drill students like little soldiers for the test.

The obsession with testing is not a valid teaching methodology, but rather a mentality of competition instigated by ambitious leaders. As history and great literature show us, hubris of a life defined by ambition is doomed to failure. Right after the first Sputnik moment, America rushed to launch its own satellite into space. So sure that our rocket would succeed, officials broadcast the launch world-wide. The rocket blew up, and our satellite got no farther than the surrounding weeds. Newscasters dubbed our failed satellite Kaputnik. By driving children to study math and science without the balance of the arts and humanities, we make them instruments of competition defined by ambitious leaders. Only, it's the children who are falling among the weeds.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Mr. Illich and President Obama's Sputnik Moment

The last two blogs have recalled excerpts from Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society, first published in 1970. Illich was an Austrian priest known for his critiques of western culture. Today's blog offers his reflections on curriculum. Illich mistrusted institutionalized learning and favored self-directed work, such as offering students a list of names and works related to projects that interested them. While I still favor public education, Illich's insights articulate ideas we need to consider in order to bring more meaningful reform to public education. The following passage about curriculum seems prophetic in light of the way American schools have dumbed down and pureed curriculum over the years.

"School sells curriculum—a bundle of goods made according to the same process and having the same structure as other merchandise. Curriculum production for most schools begins with allegedly scientific research, on whose basis educational engineers predict future demand and tools for the assembly line, within the limits set by budgets and taboos. The distributor-teacher delivers the finished product to the consumer-pupil, whose reactions are carefully studied and charted to provide research data for the preparation of the next model, which may be "ungraded," "student-designed," "team-taught," "visually-aided," or "issue-centered."

Jargon is the language of bureaucracy. Jargon works like the language of advertising. It makes people feel good and makes their ideas sound right and important. We all want to feel good, right, and important. But as feeling that way doesn't make it so.

Recently, President Obama called for another Sputnik Moment. The President has been praised for his inspirational words. We all like to be inspired. But those same words he used were spoken back in the fifties. Driven by national pride, we flung ourselves into the study of math and science so we could beat the Soviets in the arms and space races. I lived through the first Sputnik moment and saw how our response to it changed our approach to education in ways that actually created many of the problems schools face today. I invite you to visit my Web site to learn more about the first Sputnik moment and why the last thing we need is a second such moment.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mr. Illich, Standardized Tests, and the Consumer Index

Much that happens in our schools today is defined by measurable objectives. In fact, measurable objectives seem to define who we are as individuals and as a people: who has how much and how can we get more. It's difficult to know how we got started down this road as a culture, or why it's so hard to recognize the flaws in the current belief among many that the way to save our nation from economic ruin is to get more people buying things. Is it what we can measure that will save us, or those qualities that can't be measured: compassion, creativity, justice for all, and a sense of responsibility based on the welfare of all rather than special interests?

Perhaps we should rethink our approach to education where measurable objectives in the form of standardized testing have taken the humanity out of learning. In 1970, Ivan Illich wrote, "People who have been schooled down to size let unmeasured experience slip out of their hands. To them what cannot be measured becomes secondary, threatening. They do not have to be robbed of their creativity. Under instruction, they have unlearned to "do" their thing or "be" themselves, and value only what has been made or could be made."

Millions of dollars are spent on self-help books and motivational speakers across the social and business worlds. Perhaps, we ought to change the way we educate our children and save ourselves a lot of time, money, and personal angst. Perhaps the crisis in America is not economic but spiritual. Over the last fifty years, the arts and humanities have been so denigrated that today in many schools, more than thirty thousand years of what it means to be human have been reduced to an occasional elective. Certainly, we don't want to go back to the open classroom of the seventies where students wandered about schools defining their own courses of study. But discipline and scientific thinking not the antithesis of creativity and compassion. Or rather, they shouldn't be. The challenge is to achieve a balance so that the measurable and unmeasurable can inform one another.

How could the rejection of the unmeasurable qualities of the human spirit not have contributed to the divisiveness plaguing our political system and the greed that motivates our financial system? Where will all the social networking get us if we don't know how to work together as a people to solve the problems that threaten our wellbeing as individuals and as a people?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mr. Illich, Finland, and the Ironies of Testing

In Deschooling Society (1971), Ivan Illich warns of the dangers of an education system in which measurable objectives are the measure of all things. Today's post begins a series of quotes from Deschooling Society, offered for the purpose of encouraging reflection on our education system's obsession with testing and an increasingly standardized curriculum.

"School pretends to break learning up into subject 'matters,' to build into the pupil a curriculum made of these prefabricated blocks, and to gauge the result on an international scale. People who submit to the standard of others for the measure of their own personal growth soon apply the same ruler to themselves. They no longer have to be put in their place, but put themselves into their assigned slots, squeeze themselves into the niche which they have been taught to seek, and in the very process, put their fellows into their places, too, until everybody and everything fits."

Currently, Finland has been leading the way in international test scores. As my website report on the Finnish education system shows, teachers were not encouraged to teach to the test. In fact, the nation was surprised to learn they came out on top. More to the point for this post, the outcome of the tests revealed the smallest gap between the highest and lowest scores.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Thoughts for Expanding America's Moral Imagination

Rabindinath Tagore (1861-1941) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. One of India's most distinguished poets, he was also a distinguished educator, social reformer, philosopher, and advocate for India's liberation from imperial rule. The following poem was published in a book of prayers entitled The Heart of God.

Let My Country Awake

Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by You into ever widening thought and action—

Into that haven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Data vs. Imagination

Today The New York Times carried an article that discusses some novel approaches to education reform. In one school, students are offering suggestions to teachers on how to improve their teaching. In other schools, young teachers are working together to modify their teaching styles so that their schools function more effectively. The article suggests that, as in all things, progress is most effective when people talk to one another.

The article does point up that this new approach has generated conflict between teachers and administrators. Not surprising. Bureaucracies die hard, and people with power are loathe to give it up. It's too bad that school officials lack the imagination to realize that the willingness and freedom of teachers to change is probably the only way to true education reform. Imagine the reform that could occur with the kind of leadership that encouraged teachers to work together in individual and collaborative efforts to create more effective classroom experiences for students. Just as the school in which students are teaching teachers, perhaps teachers should be given the opportunity to teach administrators.

In his Tucson speech, President Obama urged an expansion of our moral imagination. There's no better place to begin that expansion than in our schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan should take note. Instead of his plan to amass data about student performance through Race to the Top, why doesn't Secretary Duncan expand the moral imagination of our public education system by funding programs that encourage administrators, teachers, and students to work together to solve the problems in their schools?

Monday, January 3, 2011

2011—Quest for a New Direction

When I first started teaching in 1965, I would look at older teachers waiting to retire and scoff at their constant complaints about the way our culture was changing and their unwillingness to adapt. Now that I'm pushing seventy, I find myself in a strange situation. I'm frustrated with the younger generation of educators and reformers who keep repeating the follies of the last fifty years of education reform that has turned our education system into a national disgrace. I find myself becoming grouchy and focused on the negative. And there are certainly a lot of reasons to complain.

Waiting for Superman was supposed to be the hot new film that would reveal the truths about the problems in America’s schools. Sadly, it turned out to be nothing more than an infomercial for charter schools and a sentimental portrayal of the injustice of a lottery system that determines whether a poor child will go to a good charter school or be condemned to a failing and overcrowded public school. Nothing points up the superficiality of Mr. Guggenheim's assessment of American education as his film's conclusion. The solution to the problems in our schools, he tells the viewer, is “you.”

Mr. Guggenheim now claims his purpose was merely to encourage a dialogue on education in America. His failure is evidenced by the fact that media gurus who had shown absolutely no interest in or understanding of the problems in education suddenly became experts on learning—dismissive of public school teachers and advocates for charter schools.

Meanwhile, Joel Klein, upon leaving his post as chancellor of New York City Schools, is claiming that one of the great achievements of his tenure was the closure of failing schools in favor of smaller charter schools. Unions have complained that because charter schools can reject problem students who have to go somewhere, public schools that remain open have become even more overcrowded and overburdened. While the facts show this to be true, Mr. Klein responds by saying that the real problem is a power struggle with the unions.

One of the stars of Mr. Guggenheim's film and a compatriot of Mr. Klein is Michelle Rhee, who boldly stated on the big screen that our children are getting a "crappy education." As chancellor of Washington D.C. schools, Ms. Rhee got a lot of press for firing bad teachers. It never seemed to me that she even considered the possibility that it's difficult to be a good teacher in a bad system. When I googled Ms. Rhee yesterday, most of the hits were about her upcoming wedding. While it seems petty to mention this, I do so because it seems to me that while Ms. Rhee might have been sincere in her initial desire to help children, that desire got lost in Ms. Rhee's slash-and-burn policies and image for toughness. A beautiful and intelligent woman with a gift for the sound bites, Ms. Rhee cuts a perfect media figure.

I have to admit that I'm jealous. And perhaps bitter. It's harder in this world to be heard if you happen to be a less striking, white-haired excommunicated teacher who lived through the half century of reforms that crippled our education system and finds that while, yes, children are getting a crappy education, the solution is way more complicated than firing all the "bad teachers." Ms. Rhee claimed that in her three years of teaching, she worked wonders with her students who then went on to bad teachers and lost all they'd gained. So then why doesn't she teach all the bad teachers her method so that they can all be wizards like her?

I don't know all the details of Ms. Rhee's success in her three years as a teacher. I do know that in my first three years of teaching, I was enthusiastic and inspiring, and I cared about the students with all my heart. The students responded. But it wasn't until I became an experienced teacher that I realized it was arrogance to mistake youthful spirit for skilled teaching.

During my career, I worked under four public school superintendents. Three of them came in with high flung promises, created a mess, then moved on. I also met with Al Shankar back in the sixties when he was a leader in shirtsleeves out to change the system and drumming up support for the American Federation of Teachers and challenging the establishment ideas of the National Education Association. When I was a keynote speaker at a convocation of Montana teachers in 1995, Mr. Shankar appeared on a big screen in hall of educators, right alongside the president of the National Education Association, both sporting the corporate image.

I believe that Mr. Guggenheim is a well-meaning person whose artistic credentials gave him a bigger voice than he should have had. Mr. Klein won his reputation as a United States District Attorney. Neither man knew enough about education to handle the responsibilities they were given. Ms. Rhee, for all of her prestigious credentials and confidence, shows little understanding of the complexities of the problems in our schools and none of the leadership qualities that will be required Time and opportunities were lost, money was squandered, America's education system remains a national disgrace, and millions of children continue to receive a poor education.

What I've just described is a microcosm of what's happening in our education system and what has been happening for the last fifty years. We need a new way of thinking about how we educate our children. Over the years, many excellent books have been written about the crimes of injustice in our education system. These books have not stopped the injustice or stemmed the tide of academic decline. I don't see what can be accomplished by any more complaining about the problem. Analyzing the problem won't do any good when our leaders show no indication of paying attention. Most of all, I don't want to become like the older teachers of my youth, always carping about the system.

Anything I would say in The Gullog is merely a variation oof everything I've said about education reform on my website. I hope you will take some time to review the information there. With this new year, the onset of age, and the feeling of time nipping at my heels, I'm going to continue to do what I began doing as a young teacher. I'm going to continue my quest for a better way of educating students. As my memoir Prisoner of Second Grade shows, the system never took kindly to my goals. That's no reason to quit. My new memoir The Romance of the Netartians, is the story of how I recovered from my excommunication from the teaching profession. I hope you will join me in this adventure of sand, wind, and sea that led me to the teacher I'd been waiting for all my life and showed me what's been missing from the last fifty years of education reform in America.