At some point during my sophomore year of junior college, I came to recognize myself as a teacher while working as a tutor for Dean Carter’s British Literature survey course. I had discovered my calling to be a writer about a year before that.
During my journey to major in education and certify to teach high school English, I committed fully to creating my own classroom unlike most classrooms I had experienced as a student, but I also pledged to work from inside the public education system to reform all of education—not just my classroom.
For nearly thirty years now, which include moving to teacher education after teaching high school for eighteen years, I have had my calls for reform marginalized, ignored, and silenced, but I could never have predicted the current education reform movement that has backed critical reformers such as me into a state of constant rebuttal—marginalizing us in the worst possible way as defenders of the status quo.
I have felt compelled to raise a voice of rebuttal often; however, the responses to my commentary I receive invariably feel less compelled to question the false prophets of education reform and more interested in challenging me for solutions—so here they are, my challenge to the false prophets of education reform.
Education reform must include three broad categories—acknowledging and addressing out-of-school factors that constitute the bulk of causes behind education outcomes, reforming dramatically public education and teacher education/certification, and confronting in order to change our political/public discourse about education and our assumptions about teaching, learning, and human nature.
How do we acknowledge and address out-of-school factors burdening education?
• Create and fully fund as a high priority social programs through federal and state agencies that address the identified out-of-school factors that are strongly linked to education achievement: “(1) low birth-weight and non-genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics.” The evidence for more than a century shows that we must accept that the idealistic claim education will solve poverty is Utopian and ultimately counterproductive, and education reform must be supported by social and political commitments to eradicate childhood and family poverty in the U.S.
• Design and implement a home library program that begins for every child at birth and continues until graduation. This home library program should provide for every child 20 books a year—authentic books, not textbooks—divided evenly between 10 books selected for the child and 10 books selected by the child/family. This program should be organized through local libraries and public schools, and federal and state governments should call on corporate America (amazon, Barnes and Noble, Scholastic) and billionaire education hobbyists to partner with federal and state agencies to fund this program. Access to books in the home will provide a greater boost to student achievement than any accountability, standards, or testing mandate—and at a fraction of the costs in time and money.
How must we reform dramatically public education and teacher education/certification?
• Reduce dramatically, and even eliminate, accountability, standards, and testing mandates and structures. We have thirty years of high accountability as evidence that the accountability/standards/testing paradigm does not work; in fact, evidence shows that this paradigm narrows learning, squelches teaching and learning, and exacerbates negative outcomes such as dropping out of school.
• Confront and reform teaching assignments. After excessive testing and misguided accountability, the next worst fault of our public schooling is the teacher assignment dynamic that tends to reward teacher experience and expertise by giving those teachers the smallest classes with the most privileged students. Peske and Haycock have exposed that children living in poverty, children of color, and ELL students disproportionately sit in classrooms taught by the least experienced and often under- and un-qualified teachers. This dynamic results in schools perpetuating the inequity of students’ lives instead of confronting them.
• Recognize the professionalism and empowerment of teachers by supporting their right to create and implement the education that each unique student and class of students bring to the classroom. We must drop the historical view that teaching can be scripted independent of real students sitting in a classroom. Standards (state or national) that can be packaged and imposed on any child or group of children are counter to what we know about teaching, learning, human nature, agency, and individual freedom. Teachers should be supported and expected to design and make transparent rich learning experiences that are unique to the needs of students currently in their care.
• Reduce and eventually eliminate stratified course offerings—tracking, elite programs of study, and current misguided support for charter schools that allow gate-keeping mechanisms to privilege some students over others.
• Increase significantly the role of active learning by students. Most of the school day is dominated by teachers talking and doing to and for students; students make few decisions and remain silent, still, and compliant—as required by the demands of those teachers. Passivity, silence, and compliance are enemies of deep and genuine learning—resulting in compliant students rendered incapable of the agency an education should support.
• Restructure high school requirements and paths to graduation, including the elimination of exit exams and standard requirements for a high school diploma. The U.S. Department of Education should solicit a national study of drop-outs throughout the U.S. to confirm causes for those dropping out in order to redesign high school to confront formal education’s role in creating drop outs, particularly as that is related to bureaucracy and accountability. The paths to graduation some be as diverse as the lives empowered people live after entering adulthood because standard is a false norm for making the transition from childhood to adulthood.
• Redesign teacher certification to increase the scholarly rigor of education degrees and to reduce and even eliminate the bureaucracy of teacher certification. During my path to teacher certification and advanced degrees, every moment spent fulfilling certification bureaucracy has impeded my quest to be an effective teacher, while my scholarship related to the field of education has been invaluable to my growth. The problem with education preparation is certification being too bureaucratic and prescriptive, not that the field fails to meet the parameters of a rich area of content and intellectual pursuit. Teachers as scholars are likely to raise the quality of the field while bureaucratic mandates designed to label and punish teachers are destined to lower the quality of that teaching.
How do we confront and change our political/public discourse about education and our assumptions about teaching, learning, and human nature?
• Confront and challenge crisis discourse and Utopian expectations for education. The record of history shows that conditions we often label as “crisis” are persistent patterns of reality throughout the past 100 years—racial and economic inequity, students labeled as not being ready for college work, drop-outs, test scores lamented as too low. And expecting through mandate 100% success by any organization dealing with humans can result in failure only.
• Reject the flawed assumption that learning is linear and sequential. Humans are natural learners, but cognitive growth is bound by brain development and easier to describe after the fact than predict. Our faith in and calls for a narrow “scientific” that is masking the pursuit of efficiency is alluring, but ultimately we have failed “scientific” by reducing that to “mechanistic” and “prescriptive.” And we have failed education by ignoring the complexity of being fully human.
• Acknowledge and address that traditional views of schooling and current accountability mandates and practices are counter to the claimed goals of public education for individual empowerment, human agency, and democracy. The discourse and the practices involving education are in direct contrast, and we allow this to persist, eroding the quality of our schools and our democracy.
• Reject an authoritarian view of controlling children and adults. Public education has done more to demand cooperation over the past century than to support human agency, which should be at the center of a people who value freedom and democracy.
• Expose and change our deficit views of children and especially children who happen to live in poverty. We tend to measure and evaluate children—and impoverished children more harshly—by what we identify as missing against cultural norms. These deficit views place unfair burdens on those children and honor norms as “right,” leaving those without power silenced and unable to challenge those norms. Concurrently, we must confront and reject the claims of a “culture of poverty”—a characterization that distorts human conditions through stereotyping.
Of course, social and education reform can and should include more than I have offered here. But the current reform movement, guided by false prophets, has created a manufactured dichotomy between them as reformers and all others as “defenders of the status quo.”
While I feel we are obligated to offer expertise as rebuttals, we must begin to be more diligent about offering alternatives to reform because we are faced with social and public education failures that are inexcusable, but change will not occur until we admit that the current state of society and public education is due to the efforts of the privileged and the powerful—who by allowing the status quo to exist prove that they are in fact not seeking the change they claim.