Sunday, April 29, 2007

attempting to change education - some personal thoughts

I wrote this for dailykos and also posted it at my own blog. I decided that it might have some value over here since the piece is clearly related to the main subject of this group blog, and I hadn't posted anything for a while. If there is strong objection, people can let me know and I will pull it.

Education is the subject about which I most often write, about which I most often think. When I get a chance to speak with a public office holder, it is the subject almost certain to come up. I write about education and not only here. Last year I urged Yearlykos to have a panel on education and took the responsibility for organizing and leading it. I do all this as I continue to deal with the realities of our current educational system as a full-time classroom teacher.

Every now and then I find it useful to step back from specific issues to see if taking a larger view offers me any deeper insight or understanding. This diary is a small example of such a step back. It is of course based on my experiences and observations. It is especially shaped by my recent involvement in a number of efforts to shape the reauthorization of NCLB. And it is not thought out in advance.

Let me repeat that last thought - this diary is not thought out in advance. I am giving you a contemporaneous look at my larger reaction. You are hereby put on notice, even as you are warmly invited to continue reading.

Education is inherently political as well as social and moral. The latter two are perhaps easier to grasp. Education is social because even learning about oneself occurs in a context of interaction with others, both as individuals and in the larger context we call society. Insofar as it occurs WITH other people, be they designated teachers or fellow students, it involves relationships not only with the material, but with each other. I have come to understand it as a moral undertaking because the choices one makes in the process of learning or teaching have consequences. How one uses what one learns also has consequences, and the reasoning or judgment one applies both in the learning and the application of that learned will affect not only oneself but also the others in the varied larger contexts in which we exist. Absent reference points and recognition of the impact both on selves and others, our actions are amoral, as if we were in a vacuum. But we are not. In my mind there is no such thing as knowledge for knowledge's sake, pure knowledge, because the mere act of choosing to devote time and energy to the process of learning requires us to make choice to do that rather than something else, and that choice potential does harm or makes us oblivious to suffering at some level.

All of the foregoing is incomplete lacking a full understanding of the political nature of education. Plato recognized the power of education to shape societies, which is why he attempted to restrict what most members of his ideal Republic could learn. Greater knowledge derived from learning represents a very great threat to existing order. How we choose to organize our thoughts can define how we organize our societies. Knowledge can represent power over others. All of these are aspects of what can rightly be considered a political process.

IF how we thing, what previous experience and knowledge we legitimize in our current thoughts and actions has the power to shape the outcomes,then how much more so is the case within formal educational processes. The mere act of defining a school as "public" clearly indicates that the actions done therein, what and how teaching occurs, is something done on behalf of the society that funds those schools through its willingness to pay taxes. Control over that process - of curriculum and instruction - is thus inherently a major political issue. And given that the direct and indirect costs of public education just through the end of high school represents perhaps 4-5% of this nation's Gross Domestic Product, how those funds are raised and spent is of necessity a major political issue.

Arguments over education policy are very different than those over most other areas of public policy. Almost everyone has sat in a classroom at some point, whether K-12 or post-secondary. And there seems to be a normal human tendency to extrapolate, universalize from one' particular experience. Those who have children of their own often care very deeply that the education available to them reinforce their personal values and/or give their offspring the greatest possible chance for success, however that might be defined, in their future lives. Oftime those who do not have children or whose children are past the age of education or who choose to exercise the freedom this country offers to bypass public schools object to having to pay for the education of the children of others. Since schools are often the largest local government expenditure, and since the primary source of local government revenue remains the tax on real property, every homeowner has a stake in how much money is raised for public education and how those funds are applied. That tends to universalize discussions over education policy, at least at levels through high school. So there is a combination of a near universal belief of the public that they know something about education and a recognition that even without children they are involved in education through their taxes. And political figures who address education are cognizant of this, which further politicizes discussions of education policy.

In my forays into educational policy, as a reader, a graduate student, one whose classroom practice is shaped in many ways by the application of policies in which I have little say, I have come to realize that there is much wrong with our educational policy. Perhaps that is because we do not have consensus on the purpose of public education. People tend to talk past one another because they simply presume common understanding of purpose which does not exist. I recognize that we do not have a consensus on most important issues facing this nation, and a major part of our political discourse is devoted to trying to sway a sufficient number of voters and opinion makers to one or another point of view. Education policy is not completely different, but given the belief of most people that they understand education (and as a teacher I would argue with that belief) the political discussions involving education are that much more complicated. In things like international relations or tax policy in general there is at least a reasonable amount of common vocabulary (although how that vocabulary is used is subject to interpretation). One real problem in discussions about educational policy is the seeming lack of a common vocabulary. Even the words that appear the same can mean diametrically different things when expressed from differing philosophies about the purpose of education.

Another complication is the admixture of scales. By this I mean that there is a major contradiction between the desire for the perfectly personalized instruction that meets the needs and interests of an individual child - something for which many parents advocate on behalf of their own children - and the general understanding that doing things in more standardized fashions is more efficient and hence more cost effective. After all, much of our ability to afford so much "stuff" comes from the the uses of standardization. We use mass production, we have set sizes for everything from clothes to drink containers to door openings to lightbulb sockets to whatever else you care to add to such a list. Yet even as we are often drawn to the savings in money and reduction in aggravation (in finding something that fits/ we gain from such standardization, we are also often drawn to the unique, the hand-crafted, the custom-made. This conflict plays out in many areas of American life: think for example of the conflict between homeowner associations that try to keep some uniformity of appearance and the desire to customize and personalize that which one owns including one's home. Education is not different. In our attempts to seek to determine if educational funds have been well spent we seek some standard measure even as we may be unsatisfied if the uniqueness of our own child is ignored in the process of achieving success on such a measure.

During the past few years I have had many occasions to deal with a wide range of people concerned about schools, teaching and education. All of the complicating factors noted above have come into play. And when dealing with elected policy makers or those who aspire to such positions there are several additional factors. More often than I care to recall I have encountered an additional set of complication; the politician
- recognizes the insufficiency of his position and the correctness of what I am telling him but tells me why it won't sell to his voters/committee chairman/financial supporters/interest groups that back him
- has taken a position that is contrary to what she now recognizes is correct and does not feel she can afford to take the political hit to change her previous position
- sees the value of what is being suggested but argues against it on the basis of cost, even when shown that over the longterm the additional costs are far less than just the economic benefits

Perhaps because of my online writing about education and my participation in a number of lists devoted to various educational topics, I have increasingly had occasion to have others share their thoughts on how to fix education and teaching. I recently solicited ideas on a few narrow topics on behalf of a congressional staffer with whom I am working and got back no less than three complete approaches to reforming some aspects of education. In each case the person sending had reflected long and hard about a particular aspect of education, usually curricular, and developed an approach that was rooted in a particular philosophy and applied - often quite ingeniously - much of the knowledge developed in recent years in the various cognitive sciences of how people learn, retain, and apply new information and skills. All were impressive. None were directly on topic to the request I had sent out. I am sympathetic to the senders: they have worked long and hard to come up with an overall framework that they perceive as far more effective than our current approach to schooling. I admire them, because I am not that systematic as a thinker, despite the pretensions of this essay. And I am frustrated, because for all of the insight they have gained, often in real-world application of their approaches, in our current way of doing education policy in this country there is little chance that what has been learned in such approaches will even be considered. Too much of our battling over educational policy is because we are pushed to believe that there are immediate crises that must be addressed, that we cannot wait until there is greater understanding, that we must act NOW. And as a result we pour incredible resources - of money, of the time of our educators and our policy makers - into approaches that lack the experiential base of some of the approaches that have been sent to me - and what we wind up doing is creating even more problems.

I recognize that there are those who are venal. They seek to undercut the legitimacy of public education. or to shape it so that they can make a profit, or to insist that it meet their economic needs even if it does not meet the needs of those being "educated." Realistically, they are less of a problem than those who are well-meaning, but unwilling to step back and look at the larger picture. Politicians in particular want to fix problems. That is how they can make a difference. So if someone can identify a problem and offer a way to fix that problem, there is a strong tendency on the part of politicians to want to grab hold of the suggestion and run with it. And few politicians have the time - or the inclination - to fully understand a topic as complicated as education. Remember, we all tend to think we understand it, because we have almost all sat in a classroom.

I don't have high hopes that we will ever get education right. On the other hand, I know that our young people are actually far more resilient when it comes to learning than many involved in the policy making process understand. They often learn very well the unofficial curriculum. If they attend school in run-down and overcrowded buildings with overworked teachers and under the gun administrators they learn very well that our society does not value them enough to put sufficient - and the correct - resources into their education. When we place all of our emphasis on high stakes tests of one sort or another, it merely reinforces a tendency that used to develop in middle school but is apparently now becoming more evident in lower grades: they want to act with economic precision, so if it is not going to be on the test, why should they pay any attention? And once the test for which we gear them is complete (often a month or more before the end of school), of what importance is anything else we may offer them?

As a teacher I am a public employee, hired to carry out public policy that is shaped at many levels, often quite removed from the reality of my own classroom. That often presents me with a direct conflict of the needs of the individual students who appear in my classroom (and remember, some get so turned off to school that they simply stop coming). I am constantly juggling the various aspects of such conflicts, with varying degrees of success.

I make the attempt to communicate what I see and experience in the hope that I may thereby make a positive difference for a few more students. I have no illusions that my own perceptions about education are any more complete than those of any other person. While I do not universalize my own experience, even as a teacher, and while I am probably far more widely read about educational policy and theory and practice than the vast majority of people, I am also not omniscient either in aspects of education or in the challenges that different groups of students bring to the classroom. Still, I feel that perhaps the voice that I offer, the understanding I have of the intersections between the political, social and moral aspects of education, give me a somewhat unusual point of view, even perhaps a unique one.

And so I persist in acting beyond my own classroom. I write, I talk with policy makers and "ordinary people." I know that our system of education badly needs changing. Meanwhile I have students before me whom I must assist in learning. It is a balancing act, with choices that are not always pleasant to make. I have no choice but to compromise by ideals in the hope of having some immediate positive effects. I suspect that many involved in making policy, whether as professional educators or as politicians confront that same problem.

This has been a rambling excursion through some issues that concern me. I wonder if people encountering it will even embark upon reading it, and if so, how many (or will it be few?) will persist to this point. I cannot predict that. The writing has served me - it has enabled me to place my current activities of lobbying on the Hill in a broader context, and perhaps thereby enabled me to persist even knowing how little impact my actions may have. I am but one drop of water hitting upon the rocks of our educational policy. Perhaps there will be others, and perhaps someone will read this and be motivated to act as only she can, with her unique experience and perception. And if enough of us bring our uniqueness together in commmon? Perhaps we can begin to make a difference in how we do education.



Barbara Stengel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barbara Stengel said...


Your "ramblings" make several good points quite explicitly and one critical point implicitly.

Yes, we are confused about the purposes of schooling. Most folks don't even talk about the point of the enterprise because they think they know. Those who do talk about it speak at cross-purposes or disagree outright with respect to whether economic, political, social, or even existential purposes ought to dominate. And until we get some vague agreement on the purposes, our chances of "fixing" the system are nil.

But, you point out, maybe fixing the system is a fool's errand. Maybe we can't "fix" the system -- either in the sense of getting it completely right OR setting it in some stable form. And since policy is really about fixing the system, then perhaps spending so much time trying to get it just right is not time well spent. Still, some aspects of our present system are clearly doing harm -- and it is more than "tilting against windmills" to right clear wrongs.

What comes through most clearly though is the value of reflection about the system and the work and the possibilities and the purposes by those who do the real work of our educational system -- the teachers. And this is probably the one feature of the system I would work the hardest to expand and enhance: the capacity of individual educators to take a clear-eyed look at just what each is doing and why and to assess how it's going. This suggests something about teacher candidates' prior "dispositions" (ah, that word!) and the way they should be educated/prepared, as well as about the structure of their employment (i.e. the time and the encouragement to do this kind of reflection -- imagine "in-service" about the purposes of our work!).

If teachers have the time and capacity for both fine-gauged (examining all kinds of "assessment data" with respect to specific but broadly conceived goals) and broad-gauged (examining the question of purposes in general terms) reflection, they will themselves be the wedges for appropriate development and change within the system. Policy will be born in the context of practice rather than imposed by those who are altering systems.

j m holland said...

My name is John Holland. I am also a classroom teacher interseted in education polciy. Since I earned my National Board Certification I felt I could actually do something about it. I have offered recommendations to the Virginia Board of Education regarding the reauthorization of NCLB. I usually think of policy like this: Everyone working on public policy is actually like everyone building a boat. If we get involved with a particular polciy early on, we can help design it, shape it, see that it will float, be progressive, and offer expert advice from the teacher's perspective. If on the other hand we come to the table late, we are likely to be one of the many people involved with sanding the boat so that it will move smoothly. Even though both jobs have their merits, I would prefer to be on the front end of the process. I have, however engaged in some work from the begininng and we are getting close to the end now. Sanding a boat I helped top design and build is much more rewarding than sanding a boat I wasn't around to see born.
Just some thoughts. Check out my blog if you are interested.

Kathryn M. Benson said...

The nature of human interaction, which education brings about, is social and moral. Just as you say, we gather together is various ways to teach and learn. We strive for Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons.” The morality is a complex issue, as well, as it involves the choosing of curricula, programs, funding, district lines, selection of administration and faculty, etc. Is this right? Would something else be better? The morality lies in the willingness of those involved to make choices that are in the best interests of all. These two aspects stand in the shadows of the political nature – not just funding through taxation, not just the Constitution, those are the de jure manifestations of the political nature – more significant and powerful are the politics of those who find themselves in charge of making educational policy. Their politics speak more loudly to policy than taxes paid, willingly or unwillingly by the public or the Constitutional mandate that gives major responsibility for education to state governments (another issue). Rather consider the individual as well as collective politics of those in power who make policy, who determine the nuts and bolts of the lives of our school children – funding of programs, policies that determine who is tested when over what with particular consequences. That is the political, much more insidious than more benign and obvious forms that you mention. The interactions you describe with elected officials highlight the misplaced authority that allows them to make policies that are self-serving and reprehensible. Until education is more locally controlled and child-centered with financial support the only type of federal input, other than perhaps serving as a repository/clearing house for educational data, information, etc, all of us teachers and students will function as some sort of guinea pigs, pawns in the big bucks game of federal programs that squelch the life from all, an enervating jolt of pain.

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility
for it and by the same token to save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for
the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide
whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their
own devices, nor to strike from their hands their choice of undertaking something new, something
unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.
—HANNAH ARENDT, 1961, P. 196

teacherken said...

Kathryn wrote "blockquote>Until education is more locally controlled and child-centered
with financial support the only type of federal input, other than perhaps serving as a repository/clearing house for educational data, information, etc, all of us teachers and students will function as some sort of guinea pigs, pawns in the big bucks
game of federal programs that squelch the life from all, an enervating jolt of pain."

I will agree in part, and disagree in part. I agree with what she says about the role of the Federal government in general. But I would have to insist that history demonstrates a need to ensure that states and locality do not discriminate - on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, physical disability, learning disability, etc. That complicates things more than a little - if these are federally
established rights, then the federal government must have some level of oversight to ensure that such rights are not denied.

I think it possible to combine both a large degree of local control and flexibility to meet local needs and the federal responsibility of oversight of federally guaranteed
rights. But then, I come back as I often do, to a far more basic problem: what is the purpose of public education, for however we shape the various roles played
by political and governmental entities at various levels, these should be congruent with the purpose we ascribe to public education.

teacherken said...

I agree with you on the importance of practitioner reflection, and would argue that such should apply not only to the classroom teacher, but also to the administrator. Yet as our school days and responsibilities are currently structured there is little opportunity to do so and even less reward or recognition when one manages to accomplish it. Far too much time is taken up with CYA documentation, rather than meaningful documentation and reflection.

And I would argue that building such reflection, or if you will metacognition, to the learning processes for the students would result in a far greater of ability of students to guide their own education.

Aaron Schutz said...

Yes, local control is no panacea. One grassroots group in Florida, for example, ended up mandating a strict form of Direct Instruction for a large number of their schools. And local control can end up discriminating.

However, the key issue for me is that those who do have "local control" are the priveliged. Try to change tracking, for example, as Jeannie Oakes has shown in detail, and you will run head on into these folks. The people who don't have local control are those who are marginalized in a range of other ways as well.

It is local groups that will be able to fight to direct federal funding in their district to the most needy schools. Right now, the local groups with power fight for the opposite, usually. (Think as well, here, of the parent groups that form around magnet schools in inner-city areas to protect their funding).

We often think of community as if it were a noun, but it's really a verb. It's an ongoing process that emerges in different times in response to different pressures. We need to create communities that can fight for their rights in areas where these kinds of intentional groups do not currently exist (or are limited in their capacity). Perhaps even if they end up fighting for Direct Instruction I'm not sure about this, but maybe as long as they aren't a part of the far right wing movement that has no interest in dialogue, at least a group has been created that can fight.

Only when we have a diverse group of institutions on multiple levels will we be able to fight effectively for even the most basic kinds of equity. Dan has been arguing, for example, for the importance of a "foundations" organization to wade into this fight as a collective.

Many of these issues aren't about clashing instructional issues or complex pedagogical challenges.

Two studies of different urban contexts found that 50% of low-income inner-city children of color have untreated vision problems . . . .

And Ken is right. Teachers, in general, don't have time to work on these issues. So maybe we should stop focusing almost entirely on teachers.