Non-Standard Ideas for America’s Public Schools

Kindergartenhistorysaurus: finger-painted collage, newspaper stuffed, dinosaur created by Kindergarteners at Soutwest Baltimore Charter School (2009)
Kindergartenhistorysaurus: finger-painted collage, newspaper stuffed, dinosaur, created by Kindergarteners at Southwest Baltimore Charter School – (2009)

The value of any education cannot be found in a test score. Education’s value is fully realized only after what is learned becomes useful to the learner.

With President Obama’s recent statement concerning the overabundance of standardized tests (ST) in public schools, it appears as though common sense will finally be injected into the highest levels of the public education conversation. This is not to say we will see the end of standardized testing anytime soon; but, we can at least begin thinking about the day when these tests, and the standards they attempt to measure, will not be the focus of every politician’s education policy. If we’ve learned anything from this federally mandated experiment over the past decade and a half, it is this; standardized tests are really good at predicting one thing, socio-economic status.

It seems as though standards and the tests that measure achievement (and all that goes along with the entire debacle), have been at the forefront of education policy forever, yet it was implemented at the Federal level just thirteen years ago. The idea of Test – Measure – Sanction/Reward, was not immediately questioned by many members in the profession; but by the end of President Bush’s (43) first term, a majority of educators saw the bigger picture—and the effects on students: heightened anxiety; increased apathy ; and new pressures for many students who are already enduring elevated stress levels in their everyday life. The calls for reform grew larger and more vocal and finally we have turned a corner.

Since the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB (2002))(the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)), our way of educating children has changed dramatically, and not so much for the better. With each passing year, increased pressure has been placed upon educators and administrators to improve test scores so as to avoid the sanctions that may come from not meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP). On the surface, this might seem like a logical way to ensure the youth of our country are getting the best education possible. In reality, it means corners will be/have been cut, laws will be/have been broken, and many in the system will/have suffer(ed). Additionally, curiosity, creativity, and the joy of learning have taken a back seat to raising test scores.

My biggest concern with all the focus on standardized testing (aside from the stigma that adheres to schools and students who regularly don’t achieve the rank of “proficient”), is the presumption that because we are providing standardized tests to capture the progress of said schools/students, then those students must be engaging in standardized learning. This is simply not the case.

Whether students are learning differently due to their own genetic variations in learning styles (nature) or because of the environment in which they are raised (nurture), or more likely a combination of the two, it is ridiculous to assume that the basic learning experience (for nearly 50 million students nationwide) will be standard. Moreover, the environments in which these children grow up and the learning communities that are charged with educating them are vastly different in social, economic, and physical makeup. This is true across all sectors, be it nationwide, state-wide and even district-wide.

By assuming to know what a student should be able to learn, we are providing a kind of default setting for achievement. This means the aspiring cyber security analyst may not receive work that is challenging her mental acumen in the appropriate areas and the future aircraft mechanic is taking courses in algebra II or chemistry when they would be better served learning about the mechanical workings of Boeing’s 777X flight controls. And for the student who has no idea what direction he is heading, then a curriculum that provides a well-rounded and integrated course of instruction (core subjects as well as arts, languages, and skills based classes) would be most appropriate. We must remember that as quickly as technology advances, so too will new jobs be created. Attempting to teach kids by the old method of rote memorization is fine for multiplication tables; but the jobs of the future will require far more in the way of creative thought processes. Standardized tests cannot hope to capture the complexity of the creative thinking of a 15 year-old student.

To be clear, I am not arguing against standards, just the idea that a 1-size-fits-all standard is not serving the majority of our students. Moreover, education is NOT a business, students are NOT inputs, and student success CANNOT be determined with standard output, e.g. test scores.

Standards and standardization have their place in education and elsewhere. I contemplate how crazy life would be if we didn’t have the advantages of standardization everywhere we look. The standard Polo shirt, standard pick-up truck, standard bank system, standard political candidates, standard grilled cheese, & even standard metronomes for our standard musicians to incorporate into the Standards. But really, do we believe that a standard serves to provide the best take on any given product or entity?

Providing standards (defined as “a level of quality, achievement, etc., that is considered acceptable or desirable” Merriam-Webster) is a way to communicate the lowest acceptable benchmark. But we know that having one benchmark doesn’t provide society with adequate options for anything: trucks, sandwiches, politicians, et al., so why should we believe that one standard for all students is an appropriate way to conduct learning? Having multiple standards for students that are interested in vastly different fields makes perfect sense. Engineers, nurses, and chefs have very few professional requirements that overlap. Hence the reason that education standards need to be updated to more accurately reflect the world into which our young adults enter; furthermore, the tests that attempt to measure progress need a total reconfiguration so as to provide meaningful assessment and feedback in realtime.

Yes, I took the ASVAB, a few Wisconsin mandated tests, and probably a couple more tests that millions of other students took; but I don’t recall a teacher ever telling me how important it was that I do well, doing my best was all that was asked. Nor do I recall ever spending an extra minute, let alone an extra hour, every day, to prep for the tests. I imagine my parents would have taken umbrage with such a waste of time in our educational day.

2 standard Jack-O-Lanterns
2 non-standard Jack-O-Lanterns

The current testing situation reminds me of a conversation that I’ve never heard, but could imagine taking place in the not-too-distant future, between two public school students (A.B. & C.D., seniors in high school we’ll say), at a standard pharmacy, in a standard suburb, concerning their standard day. And,  never having known anything but this madness of standardized testing, it might sound something like this.

A.B: Hey Man, what’s up?

C.D: Nothing Man, pretty standard day.

A.B: Tell me about it… (which didn’t really mean, “Tell me about it”, but having been conditioned to follow instructions exactly as they are read/heard, C.D. begins to tell A.B. about his standard day)

C.D: OK, so, I woke up at 7:05 and headed to the bathroom, it’s standard, 8’x5′, all the standard accessories, you know; took care of business and then got dressed in the standard threads my mom laid out for me, last night. I had a standard breakfast, 1 chocolatey chip eggo, 1 s’mores pop-tart, and a glass of juice that’s not really juice but it tastes like orange flavor, so whatever; then E.F. picked me up in his standard Toyota Camry, you know, the 2005 model that comes standard with cup holders, bucket seats, rear defrost, c.d. player, turn signals, which he only uses when Five-0 is behind him cuz a gear-head told him he could run out of blinker fluid if he used them too much…

A.B: Smart

C.D: …and it’s a manual, you know, standard transmission, it took E.F. like 10 months to learn how to drive that thing. Anyway, he had the standard jams on the stereo, “old skool” Beyonce´T-SwizzleThe Biebs, and one song that was totally not standard, he said it was in some drama thing his sister is doing, it kept talking about minutes and coffee and stuff, I didn’t get it. We talked about standard stuff: clothes, music, gym class, the girl who wears the standard jeans & v-neck sweater & always has her hair pulled back in a ponytail, which is so not standard, but it should be, I think, or not, I don’t know, and then we got to school, at our standard time, and met-up with G.H., I.J., & K.L, and talked about our standard night, you know, last night; we talked about sport-o practice, and non-sport-o practice, and our standard microwave dinner that tastes like—food, I guess, and about texting our bro’s & some chicks & I.J. said he was texting with the nerdy girl, the one that’s cute but totally not standard, wears Shell Toes, cat-eye glasses, I think she might have a tattoo on her ankle but it could just be a bug that’s always in the same spot, I don’t know, and our standard homework, math, english, science…I think I worked on something non-standard too, maybe it was something from social studies, yeah, Fred, No, Doug Fredrickson, or Douglas Freederman, I don’t know, something about the 4th of July…It’s Novemeber Dude, not July, JESUS! So non-standard, what’s that Dude thinking?

A.B: Um, yeah, ok Man, I didn’t really need to know step-by-step.

C.D: Oh, OK, so what about that party on Friday, after the football game, which we probably won’t win, you know, based on past performances, we’re so below proficient in football skills, it’s like the coaches aren’t spending enough time going over the standard plays.

A.B: Yeah, true.

C.D: Oh did I tell you about math class today?

A.B: Ummmm, no.

C.D: It was sweet, we went over the material for our next standardized test, all the information we’ll need to know so that we can score proficient. Those tests are So Boss! They hold us to such high standards and make sure we’re prepped for the ACT, SAT, H.S.E.E.s, & all that college-type stuff that we’re gonna be doing next year—in college. I can’t wait for college, all the standard courses, reading the standard texts, not having to think too much, you know, just keepin’ it real, preppin’ myself for that standard job I’ll get, out there in the big standardized world; Man, I love thinking about stuff like this, it’s so standard, not confusing, like art; what the hell was Ms. O.P. talkin’ about today, anyway. Something about Pick-asso and Africa, and the way that some artist dudes appropriated ideas but didn’t tell anybody and… I didn’t get it. Glad I won’t have to take any art classes in college.

A.B: Yeah Man, agreed; standards are totally awesome, why didn’t they have them when our parents were kids? They had it rough; my mom was tellin’ me about how they had to learn all kinds of different stuff, depending on what the teacher thought they should learn, how lame. How did they even get jobs?

C.D: I don’t know man, seems like they did what they wanted and didn’t worry about standards, weird. Oh, hey man, it’s Q.R.

Autumn colors
Autumn colors that exceed excellence, way above proficient

 

Of course we had standards before NCLB (both written and unwritten); but we, as students, didn’t know much, if anything, about them. We knew that we were supposed to be learning but we weren’t made to feel as though the future of the school depended on our ability to pass a test (because it didn’t). Our jobs were to learn the subject matter that was presented and if the class we were in had a quiz or a test, we did our best on it. In this way, we spent all of our time (or at least a good portion of it) learning about a wide variety of subjects.

At the end of the day, the one question that we need to answer is this: How does each individual student define success? This question should drive any new education policy. And don’t think this equates to a free-for-all in our schools. Students learn best when they are engaged/interested in the material that is being presented. Most students aren’t interested in math. And why would they be? It is rarely presented in a manner that equates to anything considered cool. Many kids associate math with being a math teacher, or a scientist, neither of which are appealing to the typical adolescent. But if we integrate math into a curriculum that relates to students’ areas of interest: music/arts, sports, health & wellness, design of all types, media (traditional print, t.v., radio, online) transportation, food and other service  industries, it is more likely that students will become proactive in the learning process. AND, we can focus more time on those areas that will truly be relevant to their future.

Side-bar: This idea definitely requires smaller class sizes, more teachers, more community volunteers, and more money. Those are all details that can be worked out.

The model of student/self directed learning (SDL) (or, my own variation, Individual Project Based Learning, (IPBL) which would be undertaken in the final two years of high school and be preceded by small team PBL (8th-10th) and whole group/small group PBL (K-7th)), is not spreading like wild-fire—yet. SDL is however, being explored and it has advocates around the country. These models have the potential to completely reshape the learning environment. Additionally, they will allow the students to dictate what success looks like to them (which means they are more likely to be invested in the daily grind of achieving that success). Furthermore, this type of pedagogy has the potential to integrate the larger community into the school community. Business owners, employees, and retirees from myriad sectors could act as champions for, and mentors to, the students. In these ways (smaller class sizes and community interaction with the schools/students) relationships can be built and enriched and the social fabric of the community will have an opportunity to expand while strengthening the ties that bind.

Collecting test scores and compiling the data for analysis in any number of multivariate regressions does not help the student determine what success looks like for her. By imposing a definition that does not align with the student’s vision for the future, we are telling them that THEY, the student’s, are not the most important piece of the education equation. They are simply here to provide data for the adults to analyze. Then, post analysis, some new plan will be hatched, money will be spent on the materials and the training, and “we” will try yet again to increase the number of proficient students and close the “all-important” achievement gap.

That policy has been tried too many times, It Is Tired, and everyone is tired of it (except the corporations that are reaping the financial rewards). We need to think in new ways; the way that George Pullman did when thinking about how to save Chicago or the way Mary Wollstonecraft thought about Women’s Rights, we need an entirely new blueprint that can fit within the basic parameters of public ed. The educational system needs to do a better job of thinking about why It exists; it is not to employ adults who are wanting to work in education circles (amazing as they are & necessary though they may be), nor does it exist as a location in which we warehouse youngsters until they are old enough to go out and earn a living; but rather, our education policies must be student-centric.

Students, as we know, will be in charge of moving our nation and economy forward in the coming decades. Let’s prepare them to be successful in the ways that they see their future selves achieving success; because the number of jobs that require filling in bubbles on a scantron are about the same number that hire people to soak up U.V. rays. Moreover, by equipping them with the skills, cognitive, and all the rest, that will serve them best, we will be doing our part to promote the common good and guide our nation into the 22nd century.

 

Platteville Limestone along the Mississippi
Platteville Limestone along the Mississippi, non-standard color combination in natural setting

 

 

Rugged Individualism: It’s Not Really So Real

There is a myth that persists in our society, a myth that the rugged individual (RI)(read: male, usually White, tough, rough, “self-made man“, does it “his way”; think – John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Indiana Jones, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, and the Marlboro Man) is the one who gets things done and makes our country the military, economic, and “moral” superpower it is. He explores new places or ideas, fights the “good fight”, goes his own way & finds success, and usually saves the day—in one way or another. He is the reason, some believe, that America is great. He is also the role model for those who wish to remake America in his image (that is to say, without government policies that intervene in social or economic affairs—for the most part). They say that this RI personality trait lies within the social fabric of American society, it’s part of “our” DNA. The only problem with this kind of thinking, is that it’s leaving out 95% of the story, and anyone who is not of the male gender.

The other 95% of the story tells of how these tough guys were often raised by families that cared about their physical, mental, and likely spiritual, well being. Additionally, they were raised in communities (be it rural, urban, or the netherworld that lies between) where neighbors helped neighbors, believing in the notion that the whole is greater than any individual part. Without this solid foundation upon which they were raised (that the well-being of the local polity and its constituents take precedent over any one individual), it is doubtful that the more interesting 5% of their story would ever occur.

It should also be pointed out that rugged individualism, the American type, is not exclusively practiced by the male species nor dominated by the descendants of European Americans; men & women of all ethnicities have practiced some form or another of this character trait ever since our continent was first inhabited by Native Peoples more than 10,000 years ago.

Whether the communities that raise these RIs chose to act in a collective manner because of the biblical teachings they heard on Sunday’s, or because they knew that their community was stronger if every person was healthy, educated (in whatever professions were important to the continued existence of their inhabitants) and engaged in furthering the group’s well being, they worked together for the common good. This fraternal style of living arrangement does not preclude any RI from performing heroic acts, or spending long, lonely, hours developing a plan/model for a new venture; but at the end of the day, the solo acts are only one small part of the lived experience of every individual’s greater existence. The ongoing support from friends, family, neighbors, teachers, community, et al. is far more important in any success achieved by “The Great One”, and in the telling of the full story. And this is where some of Americas’ Great Divides have their beginnings.

The real history of our great country is not one of solo actors daring to be great, but rather communal actors being supported in their not truly individual endeavors. While the period of the Columbian Exchange and beyond was filled with the efforts of many capable sailors and crew, we only know the names of the ships’ Captains; they are given all the credit for traversing the oceans and seas.  Similarly, those brave souls who took their wagons Westward are only remembered by their family, or towns for which they are a namesake (the Donner Party exempted), yet the first Governor of each state is prominently displayed on public schools and other buildings/parks/etc. Civil War buffs remember that General George Pickett showed extreme bravery when he led his men into certain slaughter on day 3 at Gettysburg, but those thousands of men who followed Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble, also showed extreme bravery by marching into an open field— knowing the Union Army waited 3/4 of a mile ahead. Certainly, we cannot hope to remember the names of every person who has aided in every successful venture, but neither should we fail to recognize the importance of all those hands that helped to make events possible.

On the one side, the pro RI side, we have people arguing that individuals, not the government, are responsible for taking care of themselves. Whether “care” entails work, medical needs, 2nd amendment rights, education, or basic needs (food, shelter, safety), they argue that individuals should bear the burden of providing for themselves. These folks are more prone to argue for policies that decrease: government oversight generally, business & banking regulations, and taxes.

The other extreme is the far left-end of a socialist-style system (which is very different from a liberal progressive form of gov’t.). Governance of this sort provides many, if not all, of the necessities that people need to survive, though not necessarily thrive; from free or subsidized food and shelter, to healthcare, education, and employment. This extreme doesn’t find much support in the U.S. Neither of these systems, as is, are particularly useful in a modern economy, but they both offer ideas that could, through skillful compromise and some tweaking, be used for the greater good. Compromise, however, according to Cadillac (ads by Publicis Worldwide) and Elbert Hubbard, is for weak men. I would disagree with this premise, as would any wise politician hoping to gain passage of a controversial piece of legislation.

In between the far left and the far right are a wide variety of political ideologies, belief systems, and traditions that dictate, to some extent, regional and personal mores, values, and norms. While it is likely that we (our collective society) agree on far more than we disagree on, some “choose” (aided by various forms of media) to focus on those issues that divide us. The divisive list includes: Roe -v- Wade, 2nd Amendment, proper role of government(s), social insurance & social welfare programs, military spending, role of Christianity in schools/society/gov’t, immigration, minimum wage and the wealth gap (ideal and actual), social justice, and marriage equality. This seems like a big list of very important issues, and it is. But it’s not bigger than the list of items that we accomplish every day.

Work (paid and unpaid), caring for family, keeping up our homes, preparing meals, supporting others (mentally, physically, emotionally), taking care of the self, remembering to be nice to people (because one never knows what another is going through), volunteering, and learning, are accomplishments that many people successfully conquer, daily. So why do we insist on arguing about topics that are not of great enough import to get a majority of us to the polls on election day? (I believe they are important enough, but our national voting record tells me I am in the minority).

Part of the problem stems from our lack of understanding each other. We interact with and live amongst people, with whom we share commonalities. This serves to reinforce our beliefs and polarize those who dare to think differently. When we are continually told that our beliefs are right/correct/valid, and we hear the vitriol directed at those with other ideas, it’s natural to assume that “those people” have it wrong. But what if they don’t? Or, what if they do but don’t know it, because no one is willing to engage in civil conversations to understand another perspective. Or, what if the truth lies somewhere in the middle (like the suburbs)? And what about the RIs who claim that all sides have it wrong and that we should rebel against all government action and fend for ourselves (while surrounded by 500 friends and family members, a whole crew of RIs)?

This calls for conversations. Real conversations, one-to-one, face-to-face, “a” to “b”, you get the picture. These conversations take time, and courage, and sometimes cold beer(s). But this is the best way to learn about our differences, our fellow citizens, our brother and sisters, our countrymen/women and those with whom we share so much yet know so little about. Urban and rural people need to connect and learn why each feels the way they do about gun control and gun rights; it’s not as simple as one might think. Republicans and Democrats could learn a lot from talking to each other about the employment, economic, and moral dilemmas that come with income inequality and the pro’s and con’s of unions. Children of privilege could gain new insights into the power of words by talking with Ta’Nehisi Coates. And those Americans in positions of power and/or with greater wealth could speak with folks in middle and lower socio-economic communities and “get in touch” with what it’s like to not be wealthy; possibly giving them pause before spouting off about the minimum wage being one of the Democrats’ lame ideas .

Policies that promote individual risk and reward (such as deregulation of the banking and business sectors or tax cuts that do more for those at the top than those at the bottom) over the needs of the greater society are responsible, by and large, for many of our current economic issues. When more of the wealth (which is finite) is concentrated in the pockets of fewer individuals, it serves to depress an economy. The concept is not complex; if you have less money, you will spend what you have in order to survive and support anyone that depends on you. If you have more money (a lot more), you will invest it, or stash it offshore, or play other sorts of games to keep from paying taxes. Money that is hidden is not helping our economy; money that is spent in local businesses, whether on french fries, fuel, or fixtures for the kitchen, is contributing to the supply and demand cycle that economies rely on.

We have come to this point in our nation’s history (vast economic inequity) in part by crediting individuals with making America what it is today rather than talking about nation-building as an effort undertaken by all of us: enslaved Africans & African Americans; construction, industrial, & agricultural workers; miners; lumberjacks; fishermen/women; teachers; engineers; volunteers; men & women of the Armed Forces; bakers & brewers; salespeople, I.T. professionals, athletes, public servants, thespians & artists of all types, and all the other Americans and immigrants who have taken part in building our country, should be recognized for their substantial efforts in making America the country it is. By placing the elite on a pedestal, we have given them carte blanche to do as they please in all matters financially, legally, and politically; and they have done what is in their best interest, made money for themselves and their friends and left everyone else standing on the far side of the moat.

I don’t begrudge anybody from trying to make money. Money is not the issue; the issue lies in the mindset that those who are the most successful have achieved their goals through nothing more than their own hard work, tenacity, and sheer brilliance, choosing to ignore all the people that have played a role in them reaching their zenith (which tends to lead to less sharing of that created wealth).

While individuals accomplish goals everyday: open businesses, graduate from college, get promoted, win a wrestling tournament, write a book, etc., etc.,;  they don’t do it without the support of their extended family/community. Be it financial, mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual, they are supported by many people from the various contacts they have made. Additionally, they are encouraged/motivated by loved ones; AND, the Local, State, and/or Federal government(s) provided services (e.g. infrastructure, emergency services/first responders, disaster relief, education, possibly tax breaks, grants & loans, and much much more) that allowed them to focus on achieving their goal.

Rugged individualism is not a myth, but neither is it the whole story. Some people have the innate ability to rise up and conquer whatever is thrown at them. This doesn’t happen through DNA alone, it is a skill that is first learned, then honed, and eventually ready to be used. It only exists because s/he had the opportunity to learn and the time to hone, and finally, the access to a place where using it offers the potential of reaping great rewards.

Leif Erikson—Rugged Viking type, got by with a lot of help from his friends
Leif Erikson—Rugged Viking type, got by with a lot of help from his friends

If you’re interested in exploring the political relationship between public and private actors and how policy actions shape societies, read Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox. This book lays out some of the major issues that policy makers have to deal with when considering new policies and the communities they affect.

A few political cartoons about rugged individualism: AlaskaMedia production; RI