Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A mandate for hard work

It has to be the greatest headline I've read in a long time: "Election Unleashes a Flood of Hope Worldwide." The New York Times article on global response to the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president certainly mirrors local reaction among the educators and students where I work.

One of the words I have not heard very often regarding the election, however, is "mandate." A few years back any election that involved a simple plurality was hailed by the victor as a mandate, and yet, in this decisive year, pundits and politicos alike have refrained from its use.

But, idealist that I am, I do believe that this election was a mandate. However, I like to believe that the mandate was not for Barack Obama and his supporters to rule but rather for something deeper, and ultimately far more potent: the election was a mandate for the American people to pull up our socks and start working together to address the challenges that face us.

On the educational front the challenges are clear and the list of failed attempted solutions long. More and more public school children are being left behind as failure and drop-out rates soar while the teaching of real content is being abandoned in favor of year-long exercises in standardized test preparation as schools scramble to keep their increasingly meager funding and teachers sell their creative pedagogical souls in order to keep their jobs and their tiny raises. Teacher unions are caught between supporting real academic change that teachers know will help their students and defending their members from bad external initiatives and public attack; in a particularly vicious self-fulfilling prophecy, the more unions are seen as defensive, the more they are regarded as working against the interest of change, and of kids, and the more this seems to become the case.

In a cruel twist that is hardly surprising because it has become an American tradition, it is private and independent school students in more or less unregulated schools who thrive and proceed onward to four-year colleges in numbers vastly disproportionate to the percentage of American students they represent. The reasons for this are clear: not only are students at these schools more consistently (and often heavily) funded, they are often the children of relatively affluent parents whose commitment to and understanding of the educational process is high from the start. As socioeconomic classes have become increasingly stratified in the time of George W. Bush, the gap between material haves and have-nots has become an even greater gap between educational haves and have-nots.

But there are other reasons. As schools of choice, private schools and the subset of independent schools that are usually the intended subject matter of this blog, are privileged to allow their teachers to teach as they see fit and to develop strategies for engaging students--and families--in what at their best are true learning communities. Few licensure or standardized testing requirements trouble these schools, and accreditation agencies usually have little trouble giving their imprimatur to their work. Similarly, colleges accept their students in bulk and prospective families (many of whom can pay, but not all--financial aid improves access to many schools even for the poorest families) line up to fill empty seats.

Furthermore, these schools are free to pick and choose from among the best educational practices available. Guided by school-determined missions, their faculties and administrations can use any means necessary to serve student bodies they know well both as people and as learners. They need not fear including substantial elements of "character education" or learning focused on civic engagement into their programs, nor do they shy away from considering the arts and even athletic competition as part of a holistic learning experience.

Independent schools are seen as so desirable that "school choice" and voucher activists continue to work for ways to allow public funds to be used toward tuitions at such schools. For many reasons, such schools represent a kind of ideal to many families.

I think that one could argue as to whether freedom from regulation has been a cause or an effect of independent schools' relative success; as long as their students appear to thrive by conventional measures, there is little perceived need to control their work by such unconventional measures as annual testing or Adequate Yearly Progress reports. No one worries whether the science faculty at schools who send their students off to the most selective colleges are certified.

If President Barack Obama and the 111th Congress want to improve America's educational system, it is time to turn away from the failures of No Child Left Behind and the absurdities of hyperregulation. They need to invest the public--eager for real change--and their supporters in the teachers' unions in a program of educational reform that mimics not an industrial, one-size-fits-all model but rather the independent schools that have a proven and sustained record of success.

Along with a return to local control of schools in the context of a real effort to develop curricula that will prepare students for college and the 21st-century workforce, this would mean
* increasing funding for teacher education programs that support both subject-matter knowledge and real pedagogical and curriculum-development expertise, including finding ways to provide incentives for the most able students to enter these programs;
* encouraging all schools to create serious, mission-driven professional development programs designed to bring faculties together as communities of practice;
* looking around the world for model programs that bring families and schools together in the common cause of educating children well;
* instituting universal pre-school and kindergarten programs that focus on both cultural and pre-textual literacy skills that will prepare all students to read and succeed from early elementary years forward;
* abandoning mass-production standardized testing and replacing it with authentic and in-depth assessment that rewards real understanding, real knowledge, and the skills and habits of mind necessary for educational and vocational success in our century; such assessment is necessarily built by teachers and schools and is keyed to educational goals they set, informed by the most current research in education, cognition, and societal needs as well as knowledge of their own students and missions; and
* making access to college and top-flight pre-professional training available and affordable for all students.

Conservatives should rejoice that these proposals don't even require adding to a federal bureaucracy, although some of them cost money that will probably have to come from a combination of local, state, and federal sources. There's no real need for a department of education here, even, although I think that education is so critical that I can't conceive of the federal government not playing at least a clearing-house and advocacy role in education reform.

I began this blog in my belief in the value of a set of practices that I call the New Progressivism and which have obtained wide currency in independent schools. I believe that these practices, detailed elsewhere but implicit in the policy recommendations listed above, can save American education and American children, even in the lowest-performing schools.

The election should give heart not only to educators, but also to students, families, and citizens at large, but we need to recognize that the mandate is for all of us to embrace new and not-so-new ideas that can really bring change. I have presented a few of these, and, challenging as they might be to implement, I think that they could truly help make the kind of difference for which so many of us voted and which so many around the nation and around the world have been craving.

1 comment:

Asma said...

Hi Peter,
I'm very happy to have found your thought-provoking blog. In the course of researching the history progressive education, I never came across this site a few weeks ago, but now it is on the first page of a google search for "wiki progressive education," and it contains the clearest explanations of the theories of progressive education that I have found. How's that for international recognition ;)

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