Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What it Comes Down To

I've just gotten off the phone with Dr. Noam Chomsky. For an upcoming book on education tentatively entitled IMAGINE: Visions of What School Might Be, I had the chance to interview Dr. Chomsky, and it was a powerful experience--made even more powerful by the fact that I was calling on a tiny little Magic Jack device that helped me place the call from York, England to Cambridge, Massachusetts and only once during the 25-minutes did the device go haywire and almost hang the call up. Crisis averted, and our discussion was inspiring.

After recently finishing Diane Ravitch's utterly compelling and deeply important book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I have become more and more excited about the revival of the American Public School system.

Sure, it looks bleak right now, with market-based principles and privatization rampantly encroaching on a basic human right of children. Billions have been spent pressuring teachers to narrow their curriculum so that high-stakes testing becomes the sole focus on schools. What is lost is love of learning, authentic growth, development as citizens, the values of compassion, and the ethic of collaboration.

And yet, we're still standing as a crossroads. Even with the heavy financing of powerful foundations to pressure both the federal government and state governments to work towards competition and market-based principals in schools, somehow, the public school system remains undaunted. Even with vociferous attacks on teachers and teacher unions--media and Hollywood providing the microphones--the public schools system holds as its steadfast mission to reach and teach all children: not just those who can provide better test scores. But the children in special ed programs, the English Language Learners, those with severe behavorial issues--all children.

As a young high school student, I remember watching Morgan Freeman in the film Lean on Me. Originally, I was riveted by Freeman's portrayal of real-life principal Joe Clark. After all, he was tough. He did the dirty work of getting rid of all the "bad" kids. Gathered them on stage and kicked them out so that he could inspire, motivate, and teach the kids who really wanted to learn.

Right on! And, obviously, the media loved the figure of Joe Clark enough to make a movie about him.

These many years later, however, I see the film in a new light. For the first time, I am asking, What happened to all those 'bad' kids? Where did they go? If they were kicked out of public school, then what?

And when I think of similar get-tough figures from our current era--like Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein--an interesting trend asserts itself. We glorify those leaders who talk tough and place blame. Whether it's the bad kids in Joe Clark's Eastside High or the underperforming teachers in Michelle Rhee's District of Columbia, we find outlets to praise those who talk tough and point fingers.

And yet: a stubbornly troubling fact asserts itself. If we blame the bad kids and get rid of them, and if we blame the bad teachers and get rid of them--but the system still doesn't improve, what are we left with?

We find ourselves, then, where we should be beginning anyway: by examining the system itself. How can we truly expect public schools to thrive when funding is based on unequal measures--so that students in poor areas consistently receive vastly lower funding and vastly larger class sizes than students in affluent areas? (This was documented in great detail by Jonathan Kozol in his heartbreaking book Savage Inequalities two decades ago. The book was promptly praised by the press, then promptly ignored by policy-makers and today, that system of unequal funding is largely unchanged.)

How can we truly expect public schools to thrive when teachers are being pressured constantly to raise test scores, thereby spending vast amounts of class time teaching students test-taking skills that will become wholly meaningless skills after they leave high school. Where in the workforce or larger world community do people ask us to take multiple choice tests to prove our worth, abilities, or work ethic? Nowhere. We reveal and demonstrate these qualities via our social interactions, experiences, collaborations, and projects.

How can we truly expect public schools to thrive when we underfund them, overload teachers, pressure leaders to get test results, do nothing to change the status quo of the plight of those in poverty, and then hand 30 students to a teacher and say, get results?

Instead of brow-beating and pointing fingers, this is a time to support students and teachers alike: smaller class sizes for all teachers, increased autonomy and ability to be creative and interactive in classrooms, instead of narrowing the curriculum to focus on standardized test-scores, open it up to possibilities for authentic learning motivated intrinsically. Create ways to help those students with behavioral issues to change and learn new skills rather than kicking them out to the streets. Welcome all students--not just those privatization would encourage us to welcome because they represent possible rises in test scores.

Tonight, one of the things that most moved me about what Dr. Chomsky shared was his response to a question about switching the current trend in education, and some of his answer is a fitting way to close:

The public school system is based on the idea that we do care about other people. That’s what it comes down to. Charter schools undermine the public schools, and the other problem is that schools are very much underfunded, and if you want to destroy a system, underfund it and then people will say we’ve got to privatize it. As an example, when Margaret Thatcher wanted to destroy the public transportation system in Britain, she underfunded it, then she privatized it. That’s what is happening with the schools now.