Stop the No-Win Blame Game

Excerpt from The Crucial Voice: Chapter 5 What Is the Problem? Why Children Get Left Behind

WHAT WE HAVE IS A SYSTEMIC FAILURE

The system has failed to thoroughly educate the public about educational issues. Our inaction on this long-ago identified problem has led us to accept the unacceptable. As Yong Zhao observed in his book Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, “The American public, short of other easy-to-understand measures, seems to have accepted the notion that test scores are an accurate measure of the quality of their schools” (2009, 33). It is not right.

The takeover of our education policy and practices at the exclusion of “us” in the process has not been a result of the “business-model”; it has been a result of a greed-driven, self-serving society. It has brought more education wars: competition in opposition to cooperation, choice against commonality, rigor versus flexibility. Stop. The collateral damage has been too great.

The system has failed to show understanding of the learning environment that 89dd4de0e80a965b6d93a07100f7af0dneeds to be created in classrooms and in communities to provide what children need to be educated to their fullest potential. We have unknowingly created another “gap”—the wisdom gap. It is reminiscent of the story of the old man picking up starfish on the beach and throwing them back. A young boy thinking it foolish tells the old man, “it doesn’t matter; they’ll wash up again tomorrow.” The old man flings one far into the sea and says, “It mattered to this one.” That story didn’t just demonstrate that we can save one at a time; it also expressed the vision of the elder passing on wisdom to our youth.

Wisdom comes from knowledge, experience, and understanding. It comes with time. And as John Taylor Gatto expressed in Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, “without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present” (2005, 21). Gatto originally wrote that book in 1992 and used the term “pseudo-community.” In far too many places today, our “present” is no different from our past. Our nation is at risk.

But remember, not all schools are a problem. Schools that fail to properly educate children have a common underlying issue, as expressed by Ratner, “the absence of the key human resources” necessary to be effective (2007, 22). And if “academic proficiency” is our educational goal, current policies incorrectly assume “that schools and districts already know what to do to accomplish this goal and have the capacity to do so. . . . And it incorrectly assumes that if districts cannot turn failing schools around, the state departments of education have the capacity to assist them to do so, or, if necessary, to do it themselves” (49).

Capacity means possessing the knowledge, skills, abilities, motivation, and desire to accomplish a goal. In the case of school improvement, it means being able to take the handbook off the shelf and make things happen. First, we have to stop blaming each other. And then as Philip K. will tell you, “We must put aside our differences.”

We’ve all heard teachers who complained about how “the families of their students simply did not value education” (Noguera, 2003, 47). Yet it turns out that this statement, as Noguera points out in his story, was made by people who in reality didn’t know this to be true. It was and continues to be an assumption. If lawmakers and educators are out there “blaming uncaring parents, lazy students, or a society that does not provide adequately for the needs of poor children” (49), they need to stop playing the no-win blame game so we can get on with meeting our shared responsibility to serve the educational and developmental needs of all children.

When we have underperforming schools anywhere in our country, we have a systemic problem. If you believe there is no way to “reform” the public school system, then it is understandable that you would want to throw in the towel and privatize the whole business. But there is another choice.

We now understand better than ever what needs to happen and where that change needs to occur first—in the boundary waters where teachers, parents, and kids are found floating around searching for solutions to grab onto. ©2012 The Crucial Voice of the People, Past and Present (Note: Boundary Dynamics explains my use of “boundary waters.”)

Will society throw them a strong lifeline?

Will society throw out a strong lifeline?

Gatto, John Taylor. Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, Iceland Gabriola: New Society Publishers, 2005.

Noguera, Pedro A. City Schools and the American Dream: Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education. New York: Columbia University, Teachers College Press, 2003.

Ratner, Gershon (Gary) M. Why the No Child Left Behind Act Needs to be Restructured to Accomplish Its Goals and How to Do It. University of the District of Columbia Law Review, David A. Clark School of Law, Vol.9, Number 1, Winter 2007.

Zhao, Yong. Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization. ASCD, Alexandria, Virginia, 2009.

April 20th

This year, April 20th was Easter. So that is my excuse for not remembering the Columbine High School tragedy on that date.

I was reminded yesterday because I started re-reading my own book and the first chapter is about school safety and discipline. These are tough topics to cover in a short blog but here is the gist of it….

Misconduct —be it disrupting a class, bullying, or outright violence—is a symptom. We would be foolish to think it will ever go away completely; we would be wise to recognize that we must always work to identify the underlying cause as soon as a problem is acknowledged. We shouldn’t just look away and think things will get better without conscious efforts.

Many school and community people do understand that the best thing we can do is prevent behavioral problems—the causes of the symptoms. The “means” aren’t easy but the “ends” are necessary for existence of a civil society.

The school climate and classroom conditions that are conducive to learning are the same climates and conditions that prevent bullying and other disruptive behaviors. Creating the right learning environment (where it doesn’t exist) and continually fostering that environment is the best we can do.

So how much attention is the public giving to these issues of such importance?

Common Core, and the whole standardization movement, has dominated the national conversation on education. We are all getting sucked in! Me too.

But now I’m resisting except I must once again make this point; “standards” are being confused with expectations. And “standards” are being given unjustified priority in education reforms.

If we are going to talk about “expectations,…

…” they should be about ideas like the ones offered by Carl Bosch in Schools Under Siege: Guns, Gangs, and Hidden Dangers (1997). He recommended that we “hold high expectations” of students. But he asked that we “clearly define expectations of respect, dignity, and responsibility.”

These are “standards” of behavior the public system of free schools should feel obligated to promote.

My notes from back in 1999 (now 15 years ago) indicated Bosch stressed that primary prevention of discipline issues resides in:

1) uncovering the reasons behind inappropriate behavior,

2) the proper training and teaching of the skills children need, and he stressed that

 3) consistency and fairness were important qualities for children to learn that adults should model.

Yesterday, this quote came across my desk and I consider it helpful….

“In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments – there are consequences.”

Robert Ingersoll

Today, I hope all will step back a moment to remember and consider what is important. And we should be thankful that some still remember the tragedies and many still work towards solutions — every day.

April 20, 1999

April 20, 1999

Excellence as the Norm

Improvement — now there is a thought-provoking word! We instinctively know what it means but I’m once again off to grab the dictionary. Literally, it means an increase in excellence of quality or condition.

I like to think of education reform in terms of school improvement because if we aren’t focused on the quality of education and the conditions under which we expect children to learn, what’s the point?

Use standards as an example. If a standard isn’t excellent, it can’t guide improvement. And if the conditions in which we expect a standard to be met aren’t excellent, what are the chances real lasting improvement will occur?

The literal meaning said an increase in excellence of quality “or” conditions but I would hope people can understand that for school improvement we need both high quality teaching “and” excellent conditions under which learning takes place.

We can monitor outcomes until the cows come home but we won’t get real education reform until we supply the necessary inputs that create quality learning conditions. It’s up to us to provide the conditions conducive to creating a societal culture that values education and will unquestionably support classroom climates where excellence is the norm, for all.

High Stakes

Through my 11 years of helping in classrooms, I saw with my own eyes the learning climate and conditions within my “In Needs of Improvement” schools. The children falling through the cracks were not going to be recovered by setting higher standards. The reasons they fell were not typically things to be diagnosed by a standardized test. And “high stakes” testing was something I could see for what it was.

For me, the standardized test with the highest stakes, ever, was the National Board of Veterinary Medicine Examination. I entered that room after having four years of instruction at a highly accredited university with highly trained and experienced instructors, a relevant and comprehensive curriculum, plentiful instructional materials, and facilities that facilitated learning in a climate conducive to it. Being an adult, success was totally on me.

So when high-stakes testing came before the Idaho legislature in 1999, testifying to the Joint Legislative Education Committee on behalf of my students was a no-brainer. There was and is nothing fair about holding students, teachers, or judging schools based on standardized tests when the conditions for teaching and learning have not first been met.

High-stakes testing — for reward such as with merit pay, or, punishment-driven such as with No Child left Behind, it doesn’t matter — it puts something of value at stake. It has a place, but, K-12 isn’t it!

Will we fight to keep public education publicly controlled?

Will we fight to keep public education publicly controlled?

Today, the heart and soul of public education is at stake.