Auld Lang Syne

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pluralism is born in schools; but are we killing it at its source?

I've been thinking heavily about the problems with our larger society, relating to the stalemate that exists at every level of government. We seem to be (again) a deeply divided country over issues like gun safety (school safety is a huge part but not all of that heated debate at the highest levels) and budgetary concerns, and on and on, often ad nauseum.  We are divided on the role of government in the daily lives of citizens, voting access, and access to quality education for our young people. We seem to be on a continuous loop and cannot extricate ourselves from the "problems" long enough to sit down and think them through rationally (in many cases). I am left wondering where the fissure opened and swallowed reason, which used to be a virtue and now seems utterly vilified by the "powers that be" in DC and state legislatures. When did the funhouse mirrors become the lenses through which we observe and engage?

I believe with all my heart and mind that education is the last best hope for solving our problems. However, we can't seem to agree upon what constitutes "quality" education in this country. We measure and measure and grind our teeth to stubs over scores. We blame and shame. We revile teachers and accuse them of being "the problem" along with their unions. There is plenty of blame being slung and teachers have become easy targets. I have ideas about why, but the purpose of this entry is not that... stay tuned though as it is coming! For now I want to address something that may be a can of wriggling worms unless it is actually a safe harbor where we might moor this sinking ship and regroup.

We open for-profit charters thinking businesses must know how to educate, how to run schools, how to weed out the best and brightest from the chaff of the ordinary. We blather on and on about curriculum and standards. What I am not hearing is a solid mission statement that outlines in PLAIN language why we educate in public schools at all. Oh sure, there is the flavor-du-jour message about "preparing today's students to compete in a global economy (or "on the global stage") message that seems to have gotten huge traction in the media and at school boards and education committees across the land. BAH. This is what I'd call a load of bullshit, but just say psycho-babble if you are not into expletives.  Let's unpack that message for a minute:

Prepare our students... :  This sounds like we are operating a training facility of some sort, a place where the only thing that matters is rote performance of tasks. I can't help but question this. I am also reminded grimly of the final part of that old B & W movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, where we see the cookbook which says it all, portrays the real message that was so understood: To Serve Man. I personally prefer the word, "empower," but maybe I am being too lacking in commercialism here. Can't have that.

to compete... : We must ask ourselves whether we believe education is a zero-sum-game? Is it an event or series of encounters where there are winners and losers? We have gone from a country of states and towns and cities where local schools were the norm to large conglomerate systems of unified districts and consolidated schools. We believe, or have come to believe, that we must make it a race to some finite goal line. Arne Duncan has dismantled the notion that smaller is better. He has promoted this new flavor du jour, Race to the Top. It is  putting lipstick on the pig yet again, making No Child Left Behind into Some Children Will Be Ahead while all others do get left behind. For a race, is by its very definition and denotation comprised of a top few "winners" and a bottom multitude of "losers."

in a global economy... :  How's that global economy principle working out? Ask Greece, Spain, and others whose economies fall or rise (so far none of that rising part) by ties to a "global" monetary unit (the Euro). It seems to me that economic motives in education are less about personal and community success and esteem than the more rote, competitive motives that pit people against one another in a zero-sum game modality. We say we are looking for students to be "successes," but our plan to get them there is more like a series of job-tied constraints with a different label slapped on the process for education to make it palatable. Ask whether it's our end result to gin out worker bees who are measured by what monetary contributions they might make later on. Are we asking our young people to settle for an education that will assure they work in jobs that bring home a basic salary? Are we dressing up the model in order to "feed the queen bee" with skill sets and production figures as measurements? I think we are. It is worrying.

I did not take up writing as a way to earn a living wage, although it would be nice to have a society believe that this thing I do has economic benefit for me and for all. For the "earning" part, I turned first to nursing, then to teaching. Always however writing was part and parcel of who I am as a human being. Yes, I admit it: I am first and most of all a human being.

and on the global stage:  Perhaps most insidious and sinister of all the psycho-babbled parts of our "message" is this idea of humans as mere actors in the schema of society. In all plays and films etc there are the protagonists, the villains, the do-gooders who are just too nice to survive, and above it all the director and the producers. Is this thing we like to call education some grand production, and we the players? What script are we following and who is in charge? Is this a grand comedy where all of us are fools who manage to marry and ride off into the sunset at the end, or a tragedy where everyone dies?

I am worried. I am deeply worried. Gone are the days where children/students went off to school to improve their minds and learn citizenship and other community-based values along with languages, penmanship, math, science, and clear thinking. CRITICAL thinking it is called now and yet so many people give it lip service and fail to see it AS critical, other than as a piece of a resumé that lands a good job perhaps.

Seemingly gone too is the garden of ideas that flourished over discussions and debate. We have enmeshed ourselves in the process of actually smothering pluralism by insisting upon the artificial values of competition and one-upsmanship, brinksmanship, and rigorous high-stakes testing that competes for instructional time and blurs the lines between true success and pseudo-success. Pluralism is the belief that there may be several good ideas and good approaches and good points of view that are valid. Sounds good. Is good. But...we have allowed ideologues to replace a search for larger truths with fact-absent rants and verbal bullying tactics that can only polarize and enforce a me vs you, a we vs them life. Pluralism has become a bit of an archaic term and certainly is not at all the focus of an educational message coming from boards and school committees. More often than not, when I use the term, I get quizzical looks, raised eyebrows, and the question: what is THAT?

Civics is dead, and in its place AP History (US and World) that only marginally passes for anything related to how people co-exist in a much more immediate and smaller political environment. It is AP because that label certifies an excellence, an ADVANCED PLACEMENT in the competing arena of education. It is a please pass go, please collect $200 School Monopoly game. The problem with that is that it leaves behind many bright and accomplished learners who do not have the AP opportunity, or who do not fare well on the artificial instrument that is the exam. But AP "success" is a meat and potatoes entity for school systems. It beefs up school numbers and reputations. It just plain looks good for a school to have large numbers of AP students who do well on the exams. Money follows. Loads of money. This is true for the rest of the high-stakes testing panoply. In resisting high-stakes testing (which leads to more testing, less instructional time beyond test prepping), schools actually LOSE funding. "We have to do it or we don't get the money," is what I hear over and over from school board members and not just a few administrators.

We tout STEM courses as what is "the" important curricular thrust, ignoring the fact that we have a Congress that refuses to accept the outcomes and findings of Science and Mathematics. The Engineering and Technology sides of the rectangle are utilitarian enough to be acceptable because they can be justified in that they fit the business model that is so popular today. Social studies, all social science, is suspect and looked at as some kind of witchcraft in terms of trustworthiness.  Social Studies is not even ON the SAT now. There is a writing component, because there was an outcry for it a few years ago, but it is a joke. Rubrics developed for scoring are artificial touch points and do not allow for any kind of writing that shows creativity or thought. If the rubrics' buzz words are found in the writing, the score is high even if the writing completely lacks style, mechanics, or creative thought. It's just too damn bad for that student who dared to take any kind of out of the box approach. We do not reward thinking whatsoever in our quest for "success" on these tests.

Where is the chance for healthy debate of ideas here? At this rate, it is seemingly nowhere. But why does it matter in the short term if our long term goals are purely utilitarian or commercial? It matters because we are human beings, each of us somewhat unique, with common needs for our shared planetary existence.

But unless and until we turn this train around, we are headed over the cliff. Not a fiscal cliff but an intellectual one, right down into a chasm of group-think destruction. STEM is a good thing: See, Think, Experiment, Mess up, then start again with fresh ideas and approaches and help from the ideas of others. My GRAND WISH for my children was that they learn to stand apart from me, their own legs firmly planted on the ground, doing their best and hashing out their errors with the help of great arguments and collaborations. It is the same wish I have for all of our children.

So what to do now? Indeed what the hell to do? Be a promoter of pluralism in your community. Share openly (with excitement, but not with arrogance) when you have an opinion, but by all means, talk to one another. That person in front of you might just have something important to say.