Sunday, September 30, 2007

Creating Schools We Can Trust

this is crossposted from dailykos - I think the content of what I wrote is relevant here, and I also want to encourage people to read the book. When I do review it I will probably also crosspost that review here as well. Peace.

This is really the litmus test for you, as president. Each and every time a policy decision comes before you, you must ask yourself: What impact will this particular policy have on the development of trustful relationships in every local community? Every single law or regulation that comes out of Washington helps or hurts such relationships; none is neutral.

Those words are from Deborah Meier, one of the most important thinkers and practitioners in education in recent decades (read her bio here). They appear in a book entitled Letters to the Next President: What We Can Do about the Real Crisis in Public Education edited by Carl Glickman. While I will soon be doing a review of the entire book, I wanted to focus on Debbie's section, which is entitled Creating Schools We Can Trust. Please keep reading.

I have often argued, here and elsewhere, that what happens with our schools in the canary in the coal mine of American society. I also advocate a view of schools in which their primary purpose is to prepare students to be full participants in an American society which is a representative liberal democracy (and here liberal is a technical political science term which has nothing to do with the political spectrum). I began with the quote from Meier that I did because while she is writing specifically about educational policy, her words are applicable to ALL governmental policy - and in the case of this administration, whether it is USA PATRIOT Act or NCLB, we have seen policies destructive of community, destructive of the maintenance of the kinds of trustful relationships important in real education and real community.

I mentioned that I will be reviewing the book. This is a new edition for the 2008 election. While I will write more when I do the formal review, which will first appear in a professional publication in the next week before I cross-post elsewhere (although what I post here is likely to be slightly modified with a link to the actual review), it is worth noting that the book contains pieces by teachers, educational scholars, students. There is a foreward by Bill Cosby, who has a doctorate in education from U of Massachusetts, and letters by such notables as Asa Hilliard, John Goodlad, Sen. Jim Jeffords, Lisa Delpit, James Popham, and Ted Sizer, among others. The 2004 edition was prophetic, warning about the impact of NCLB, with the writers warning that
unless the bill was drastically changed, we would see a further narrowing of curricula, students would e subject to more and more test-taking preparation for poorly conceived examinations, and that states and school districts would lower their passing levels and manipulate test score data and drop-out rates in an effort to scam the system. They foresaw that student engagement and interactive learning would be pushed aside and replaced by more didactic, "drill-and-kill" teaching. The letter writers also predicted that the mandated formulas the federal government would use for doling out rewards and sanctions to schools would be unworkable.
And it has come to pass. Tteachers have been left with a mess.
Those words by Carl Glickman help us understand that we need far more than merely tinkering around the edges as No Child Left Behind is reauthorized. I have written and will continue to write about this, but today, thanks to Deborah Meier, I want to focus on one part of what I believe is important if we are going to have schools we can trust, and that is the nature of relationship.

Parker Palmer, who wrote The Courage to Teach; Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life, a book which greatly influenced my own teaching practice, argues that teaching is a series of overlapping relationships - between teacher and students, among students, all with the subject being studied. Perhaps that is why the first paragraph of the letter from Meier so grabbed my attention:
Every time you thin, "What can I do for education?," I hope you keep the following thought in mind" There is no way we can raise kids well in the company of adults we don't trust. At the heart of good schooling are relationships: relationships between trusted teachers and children, and between trusted teachers and families. No form of curriculum or teaching method can succeed where these do not hold up. No good ends can be bought at their expense. Where trust has never existed, we have never had good schools. Where it has eroded, we have lost ground. Where it endures is where the beswt education occurs.
And Meier warns us tthat
Rooted in distrust, the laws we hae now can only heop that distrust grow

Meier offers a list of 8 suggestions, which I will reproduce below. You may not agree with all of them, but there are the product of almost 4 decades as a thoughtful professional educator:

1. Get the Size Right: Small is Better.
2. Encourage Local Decision Making
3. Get Good Information
4. Provide Choice
5. Provide Resourcew for Improving Facilities and Supporting Professionalism
6. Provide Time
7. Use a Language of Respect
8. Close the Gaps

I want to focus briefly on the 7th, of using a language of respect. Let me briefly quote the beginning of Meier's remarks on that point:
Since kids cannot learn from teachers or schools that they neither trust nor respect, the way we publicly talk about teachers and schools matters. Disrespect comes in many forms, but it starts wiht our leadership. Our children learn by example: It's hard to be taught by people whom powerful people look down upon. Keep this in mind when you think about how little teachers are paid and what that pay differential says to kids. I hae seen too many parents act out the disrespect they read in their local newspapers and hear from their local and national politicians and then act surprised when their kids act up. Please, be careful how you speak of schools and teachers when you address the nation in press conferences and public speeches.

As a teacher I know that I must model what I expect from my students. If my words and my actions are in conflict, student will focus most on how I act. And I think it not unreasonable that those who desire to lead this nation demonstrate a recognition that their actions often speak far more loudly than their words. If they truly want to leave no children behind, then their approach to public education, to schools and teachers, should demonstrate a sense of respect rather than serving to undercut public trust in the institutions and people who are striving mightily to serve the needs of our children and our nation.

I am perhaps more fortunate than most teachers, something I readily recognize. I have the trust of my department, my school, even the system-wide administration, to exercise professional judgment in how best to serve my students. I rarely have problems with parents. Perhaps it is because I call all parents at the start of the year to touch base (although I must create the time to do so - it is on top of my other responsibilities, done on weekends and evenings). Perhaps it is because I provide ways parents can track what is going on in my class, with all assignments for the week up on a webpage. Perhaps it is because I am willing to converse - again usually on my time - via email or phone: my parents have my home and cell numbers. I trust that they will not abuse that access, and because trust is a two-way process they are perhaps somewhat more willing to trust me.

I can do these things because I am supported in a way many teachers are not. That provides the framework that allows me to build trusting relationships with most of my students. I have very rigorous standards, but if a student is really trying and yet still struggling, I will give her the benefit of the doubt and offer additional assistance. That enables me to reach many students who might otherwise be put off, or not be willing to try.

Let me be clear. I am far from perfect. There are students and parents with whom the relationships can be difficult, I make mistakes of judgment and of action. But I also accept responsibility, publicly apologizing when I am wrong. I thus model - for my students and their parents - that making a mistake is not the real problem, provided one is willing to accept responsibility and move to correct.

Our leaders should model what they wish us to achieve. That clearly applies to those of us in positions of responsibility within educational institutions. It also applies to our political leaders as well. And so I believe an appropriate conclusion to this posting will be to quote the final paragraph from Meier's letter to the next president:
ABOVE ALL ELSE, be the kind of person we brag about in school. As president, demonstrate the habits that you want us to value and engender in a good student. Our nation has had a long history of putting down "school smarts." We either need to change schools and what defines "school smarts" so that they match what we honor elsewhere, or we need to be sure that the leaders of our nation are in fact models of the kind of smarts we honor in schools. When you are elected, be sure the people making decisions about education on your behalf in Washington have recently spent time in schools and that their own children attend the schools about which they are making policy. Look for people you'd trust to take care of your kids.


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