The Purpose of Education, part 4

A friend has suggested I read Ted Sizer’s “Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School“. I also checked out his “The New American High School“. I took a lot notes, and in reflection I was mostly concentrating on how Sizer defines the purpose of schools and education. Unsurprisingly, he came back to a couple similar themes time and time again; the goal of education is get learners to grow and exercise their mind such that they can learn on their own.

 

“Horace’s Compromise”, which was one report of three back in 1984, noted the challenge to the teachers of the time, which are still present today; teachers know of a better way to teach, but because of the box the system puts them in, they are constrained to teach according to the guidelines handed down to them. As stated in previous posts (“What are public schools supposed to do?“, Purpose of Education parts 1, 2, 3), there are many people who try to lay claim to what is important for our students, what they must learn and what they must become. An observation made by Sizer caused me to consider our own “mission statements” – Sizer found that most schools’ goals or objectives were very lofty but were not reflected by the day to day operations of the school. It makes me wonder how standardized testing and assessment helps all our students gain “knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to direct their lives, improve a diverse society, and excel in a changing world.” How does social promotion and strictly regimented time periods help in that endeavor?

 

Sizer has caused me to ask several questions about the architecture of modern public education. For instance, why is public education modeled on business, with a governing Board, a CEO/Superintendent, COO, CFO, etc? Why do we have over 500 pages of “board policies”, written by legal teams in legal jargon? (Even John Carver, of Carver Policy Governance, on which the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB) is largely based, asks this question)

Where is teacher autonomy? We have some, but very little. Where is the student voice? I am thankful that efforts through the conduit of Dr. Taylor’s social justice team, more and more students actually have a voice and adults are listening. While it is trickling into board meetings via official student Board Liaisons and a little bit through the Facility Planning Tier I committee, we need a lot more.

 

Sizer has also taught me that we need to question the purpose of our local schools often – for the basic reason that the purpose should be constantly changing in a constantly changing world. Sizer recognizes there are no perfect answers to the messy chaos of relationship-based communities and their schools. Raymond Callahan pointed out in “Education and the Cult of Efficiency” that we run our schools like businesses for the sake of “efficiency”, but what we lose is the richness of human relationships.

 

Between the two books, Sizer has a number of practical, relevant an eye-opening chapters. I’ll close with one on “Space and Cost”, in which he talks about the physical buildings we call “schools”, as it is directly concerned with the current focus of the school board and an impending expensive November referendum.

“First, challenge the notion that we collectively – through the state – have the obligation to educate all our children by means of a formal, school-building-based collective schooling. Might there be effective alternatives, such as a mix of homeschooling and in-school schooling? Or computer-based lessons that can engage students anywhere? Or in space shared with other enterprises, such as a community college or public library?”

 – “The New American High School” page 113

He makes four more points (pg 114-115):

  • Alternatives to a dedicated building that is completely busy from 7:30 am through 2:00 pm and mostly empty otherwise – can it be used for other things, does the learning have to only occur during those times?
  • Are the state’s educational and assessment goals legitimate? If not, what are you going to do about it?
  • Which public resources that are already available to higher education, public libraries, public radio and public television could be applicable to elementary and secondary grades?
  • Examine (question) the plans for school systems; “human intellectual activity is not orderly and some human needs and abilities are crippled by too much uniform channeling” – do our systems constrict creativity?

 

More to come.

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Basic building blocks of community: trust and relationships

I have been referred to a number of books, research papers and TED Talks in the past couple of months, and I have observed a common lens through which I am viewing most of these resources – the blueprints for how people optimally work with each other.

Since this post is a little long, I’ll give you the cliff note up front (aka, “too long; didn’t read” or tl;dr). If you want things to get better in our community, you gotta put your pride on the shelf and go listen to someone else. You gotta walk in someone else’s shoes for a little while.

Make sure you check out the references before you completely walk away from this post; the TED talks in particular are quite engaging (Mitra, Semler, Sirolli, Varty).

And now for the full-blown version…. Read the rest of this entry »

Jails, computers and standards, oh my!

There have been many things brewing in Unit 4, and this post will only cover a small fraction of them. I believe the topics I have chosen for today are actually all related – let me explain as I go.

Jails

What in the world do jails have to do with a public school district? I am so glad you asked because that means you haven’t turned your brain off. Reading various materials from the CU Cradle2Career, the United Nations criticizing the US about high rates of incarceration, Dr. Wiegand’s own mantra of “reading at third-grade level by third grade” and a myriad of findings via google (I know…), something as simple as reading proficiency in the early years has a high correlation to whether a child will later go to jail or not. That freaks me out. Because if that is true, why the hell don’t we do EVERYTHING humanly possible to make sure that doesn’t happen?!?

Tomorrow a group of folks have provided an opportunity to listen to state representative Carol Ammons and participate in a public forum:

Build Programs, Not Jails is sponsoring a public forum on Thursday, April 30.  Carol Ammons will be the keynote speaker.  The title of her talk will be:

“Envisioning Future Directions for the Criminal Justice System in Champaign County”

Time: 6:15 p.m.

Place: Urbana Civic Center 108 Water St.

Also featuring performances by spoken word artists Klevah Knox and T.R.U.T.H.

Co-sponsors: Champaign County ACLU, Champaign County NAACP, First Followers Re-entry Program, Peace and Service Committee of the Friends.

Light refreshments will be served.

More information is available from the “Nation Inside” website and the News-Gazette (“forum set on criminal justice reform“).

Computers

Yesterday and today various administrators and tech team members are in Saint Louis at a “Future Ready Regional Summit” learning about the effective use of technology. The St. Louis Public Radio offers another take for those who are curious:

http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/school-superintendents-gather-share-ideas-keeping-pace-digital-changes

Having talked to a few people about technology in the classroom and the trend to go more and more hi-tech, I know there is a wide spectrum of perspectives on this direction. And this is where I can going to make my first connection, between jails and computers; rather, more specifically, it comes down to addressing the achievement gap and issues of equitable access, not just to technology, but skill building and attainment of knowledge. How? Is it possible to go beyond all the buzz and hype and show that all the money we are dumping into technology is actually having a positive impact on some of the deepest and most critical issues of our society?

Allow me to segue to a News-Gazette story in which Dr. Wiegand briefly mentions a desire to expand computation-thinking that is being pioneered at Kenwood. I have written about Kenwood several times, not to mention that they have a pretty public presence on social media if you want to follow them yourself (techtime blog, twitter accounts for Todd Lash and KenwoodStars, Ctrl-Shift’s website, U4Innovate website). Last night I learned that Kenwood and Dr. Wiegand are enthusiastically exploring the Mission Hill School model of a public school (referenced in a previous post).

Forget about the computers for a moment. Forget about all the hype wrapped up around Obama’s push for the reformed NCLB. The point I want to make here is that school can be fun. Or to use a different word, learning can be (and should be) fun. And by “fun” I don’t mean utterly undisciplined free time; I mean to imply something with a very definite structure and purpose, something that nurtures and develops a sense of awe and wonder about the world around us. Peel away the jargon, the buzz words, the fads, and what I want to find is the joint passion shared between teacher and student.

The connection between jails and computers? Give a child a love of learning, a love of books, a love of people, and she will change this world into a better place.

Standards

Dr. George Reese suggested I read Raymond Callahan’s “Education and the Cult of Efficiency“. I actually found the book to be rather depressing since he points such a drab and dire picture of how Education has evolved. Until I got to the last chapter. I do not agree with all of Callahan’s final conclusions about what we can do, but I do believe in what I think his intent was. We have idolized Efficiency; we have been on a quest to ever “do more with less”. There are thousands of examples where this is most likely a good thing. But when it comes to the unique position of a teacher and a child, “efficiency” is the enemy. To be clear, I am referring to the relationship-building aspect, the need for the teacher not just to understand the material, but to understand the child as well. Callahan seems to make an argument for “teacher as social worker”, which I have grown to respect. In the past I have mentioned Lisa Delpit’s “Other people’s children”; recently, I learned about Robert Putnam’s somewhat similar book “Our Kids”. After watching a video of a book discussion, I was reminded of how we too often look to protecting our biological children, and blissfully look the other way when it comes to other children.

And what does this have to do with standards? I am going to submit that we have standardized on the wrong things. Furthermore, who has set these standards? Why is it that the powerful and rich get to determine what is most important? And how has that worked out for us these past 50 years?

I am fully convinced that we do not need to raise academic rigor for the sake of being competitive in the global marketplace. In fact, I would go one further and say that is the absolute wrong direction to focus in. Our enemy is corruption, greed and hate towards our fellow humans. The News-Gazette recently ran a story about the “shooting epidemic” in Champaign. (epidemic: “a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.”) Did the ISAT help any of the victims?

In all the controversy swirling around PARCC and standardized tests, I am hearing a lot of complaints. But what I do not hear that much of are feasible, practical solutions. To that end, I have some homework for you.

Get off your computer/device/screen. Take a walk outside, or sit in your favorite chair, maybe on the porch, visit a lovely coffee shop, have some comfort food, drop by the local barbershop. And think. Look around you. What are some of the biggest problems in our community today? If you need help to jog your thinking, try visiting the 1000 block of Northwood Drive. Or the Times Center (70 East Washington, Champaign), the Crisis Nursery (1309 West Hill Street, Urbana), or the County Jail (502 S Lierman Ave, Urbana).

What standards do you want our children to focus on in order to make Champaign a better place?