BY JOHN THOMPSON
In advance of Monday’s pro-public schools rally at the state Capitol, Oklahoma education bloggers have been challenged to articulate what we would do about schooling if we were a Queen or King for a Day. The first 10 of the 600-word posts are here. My contribution can be read by clicking here or you can read it in its entirety later in this post.
Moore Public School administrator Rick Cobb introduced the series in his Blogging from a Prompt: If I Were King. Cobb speaks for virtually all of the educators who I know when he explains the mess created by test-driven school reform:
I’ve seen great teachers reduced to a shell of themselves. Even worse, I’ve seen them leave the profession. Our federal waiver is only better in the same way that draining pus provides slight relief from an infected wound. High-stakes testing is a constant shell game. The design ensures that there will be winners and losers. Losers become the targets of corporate education reform.
Then, elementary school teachers protested the damage done by test, sort, and punish to our youngest children. Fifth grade teacher Tegan Sexton, in Queen for a Day!, calls for education to become a team effort. She then explains, “Some of the moves made by the governor’s office and the legislature make me a further believer that public education, in the political sphere at least, is nothing but a power grab with extraordinary amounts of money available to be exploited. And all of this is on the backs of our children.”
Shanna Mellott, in Choosing the Road Not Taken: Another Brick in the Wall, challenges an essential component of the bubble-in mania by citing Pink Floyd’s song, “Another Brick in the Wall.” We teachers “don’t need no thought control,” but the purpose of top-down school reform is to create a compliant teaching profession that stops resisting the teach-to-the-test dictates. When educators push back, defending the exchange of ideas in engaging classrooms, accountability-driven reformers double down on their micromanaging.
Mellott affirms, “It’s time to tear down this wall and design a different plan for schools. If I was Queen for a day, I would relate curriculum to the interests of the students, show teachers that they are appreciated, and get rid of testing in favor of portfolios.” Only after she speaks up for her students does she add, “The last brick that should be obliterated is using just a test to show the growth of students. A test only gives a brief look at what has been learned, not the complete picture that a portfolio would show.
Retired educator Claudia Swisher, in Fourth Generation Teacher, and Nicole Shobert, in her Thoughts and Ramblings, both embraced state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s reminder: “Every mandate ends up on a teacher’s desk.”
Swisher has long authored pithy and wise observations about schooling, such as “Standardized Testing tells us about learning as much as Reality TV tells us about reality.” She presented the science-based alternative route to school improvement: “Schools would provide wrap-around services for families – medical and dental clinics, social services would be housed in neighborhood schools.”
After performing her Queen for a Day role, she then demanded her tiara and scepter.
Shobert also concluded with humor; after protesting the effects of testing on children as young as kindergarteners, she added “Give every child a pony … [totally kidding …]”
This parent’s affirmation of holistic education concluded that we must “dismantle and delete TLE, ACE, A/F, [test-driven accountability systems] and anything related to high stakes testing.”
Elementary principal Jason Bengs, in his The Principal’s Cluttered Desk, also contributes humor to the series, calling for “the sarcasm font” to help explain education reality. He notes:
Far too many of our students are being forced to grow up too fast. Absent parents often lead to or are symptoms of generational poverty. If we can tackle this issue, many of our poverty related issues would begin to diminish. This is a complex issue that obviously couldn’t be taken care of in a day. If we could solve this issue we could have a greater impact on education than any mandate or test will ever come close to accomplishing.
The secondary music teacher, in Challenge Accepted: Queen for a Day, added more humor, citing Tina Fey and resisting the urge to post “a bunch of references to Queen songs.” She also says with a wink, “since I’m Queen, I’ll open up my treasure room and pay for districts to have a position for somebody to coordinate PD, mentoring … ” On a serious note, she explains:
The education field should not be a place where we just parachute drop a bunch of fresh graduates [or alternative or emergency certifications] into the classroom and say, “Good luck!” The mentoring needs to continue into those first few challenging years when we’re losing so many promising teachers because we threw them into the deep end without floaties.
If he was the King, high school teacher Scott Haselwood would “completely reorganize the way that high school looks.” Since it “is IMPOSSIBLE to learn when you are hungry,” Hazelwood would “allow schools to meet the basic needs of our poorest students – without making difficult choices [feeding kids or hiring another teacher].” According to his vision:
Students would exit high upon completion of a well-designed, well researched project. This would resemble problem based learning at its finest. It would not be some quick thing easily completed in four weeks. This would be an involved process, requiring the student to work with several teachers in several different curricular areas. The skills developed in this project will be do beneficial in real life – adulthood is not spent bubbling in circles on firms! You work with others, you communicate regularly, you think outside the box. Let’s stop killing the creative thinking and start developing it!
Tulsa area educator Blue Cereal Education was tempted to simply cut’n’paste Scott Hazelwood’s post “and claim it was ‘group work.’” He would “Eliminate the Cult of College Readiness.” Blue Cereal would like to empower teachers so we don’t need to speak in “conspiratorial whispers” when we discuss what we believe is best for students. He accurately notes the way that reform has forced educators to “juggle our convictions regarding what SHOULD happen in theory with our concerns about what’s actually GOOD for the real kids in front of us.”
Principal Rob Miller, in his The View from the Edge, continued his practice of using wit to communicate serious truths as he articulated an alternative to former Superintendent Janet Baressi’s “Queen Janet of Molardum’s” regime.
Miller says that “Janet’s ‘off with their heads’ approach to most educational issues is not worthy of emulation, or further comment for that matter.” So, he intends “to operate my Kingdom with a sense of benevolence, common sense, and ample doses of humor. For inspiration, I will defer to the most memorable example of Kingly leadership I can think of, which of course is: ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’”
Miller wraps up the the series with common sense:
If you build your castle in a swamp and it sinks, don’t build in the same place. Think test-based accountability. Sometime when you try to fail you should not try in the same manner. It is called learning from mistakes. It is time to rebuild the castle of education on stable ground.
Several common themes jump out of these posts. Oklahoma edu-bloggers love humor and we love students. We despise high stakes testing, and we will continue the campaign to drive a stake through the testing vampire’s heart. And we yearn for the day when we can focus unflinchingly on improving education, and not being distracted by the need to beat back corporate reform.
Now, my contribution:
Schools Need “L’Dor V’Dor” or Generation to Generation
My aspiration is inspired by the words of Randi Weingarten who reminds us of the Jewish concept of L’Dor V’Dor, or “from generation to generation.” I dream of a learning culture where each generation teaches and learns from each other.
My parents’ generation, having survived the Great Depression and World War II, were committed to providing children with greater opportunities than they had. This was “Pax Americana” before our extreme confidence was shattered by Vietnam. In my postage stamp of the 1950s and 1960s, children continually heard the exhortation, “Pay close attention, I’m only going to show you once.”
Coming from parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and neighbors, those words were the opposite of a stern admonition. They challenged us to focus, so we could “learn how to learn.” By the time we were teens, our mentors urged us to practice “creative insubordination.”
Never facing a shortage of caring adults for schooling us on life in a democracy, I learned as much “wrasslin iron” in the oil patch and from fellow workers as I did from formal education. We Baby Boomers listened to Woody Guthrie and read Ken Kesey, and jumped into exploratory learning, often hitchhiking and backpacking widely.
My buddies were first generation working or middle class. We assumed that tomorrow would be better than today. We sought social justice where everyone could enjoy the same opportunities that we had.
I was born in the middle of a 40-year economic boom, benefitting from the greatest economic miracle in history. Generation X was not so lucky. They experienced a 40-year drop in wages, and a growing gap between the rich and poor. In my neighborhood, the decline happened overnight. The Reagan Administration’s Supply Side Economics, the savings and loans’ and banking industries’ collapse [which Reaganism prompted], and AIDS were followed by the crack and gang epidemic.
My Baby Boomer friends found incredible joy nurturing poor young neighbors who sought safety and love. I wish the same fulfillment for today’s generations, though not under such tragic circumstances.
Back then, the American Dream seemed to be in its death throes. We have since debated why the violence of the time receded. One reason, I believe, is that kids learned from their older relatives’ experiences.
If I had a magic wand, I’d wish that today’s children would be socialized into the same hopefulness as the Baby Boomers, while benefiting from the realism of subsequent generations. I would love to see the children of the 1980s and 1990s pass down the innovation which prompted the digital miracles of the last generation. The hard-earned experience of learning to compete in the global marketplace could provide a nice balance to the confidence that my generation was granted.
That wish may be fulfilled. Millennials might become the 21st Century’s Greatest Generation. They are the most multicultural and multiracial of our generations. They may face the prospect of lower salaries and benefits but, then again, they might reinvent our economy. And they could help reinvent our schools.
My wish is that young people will find purpose and employment helping us create full-service community schools and achieve socio-economic integration. Twenty-somethings could spearhead a Maker Movement or Teach Computer Games for America, and collaborate with students to develop new digital systems for authentic learning.
I wish them the joy an education version of a old-timey barn raising, making school a team effort, as they continue L’Dor V’Dor.
– Dr. John Thompson, an education writer whose essays appear regularly at The Huffington Post, currently is working on a book about his experiences teaching for two decades in the inner city of OKC. He has a doctorate from Rutgers University and is the author of Closing the Frontier: Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics.
Photo: Courtesy of Doug Folks, Oklahoma Education Association, taken at last year’s pro-public education rally at the Oklahoma Capitol that attracted 25,000 educators, parents, students and public school supporters.