I’m sorry. I lied…


Pogo the Possum’s quote for Earth Day, April 1970 – Walt Kelly

I shared in my last post that this post would be dedicated to looking at the process of leadership, followership, self –reflection and the first steps to beginning a leadership self-assessment. I lied. At the time I didn’t know I would be lying but…


I find the times unsettling.

I suspect it is fair to conclude that most of us have found the election and post-election activities exciting… exciting in the sense that they generate emotion. Whether these emotions are hope or fear based, it is hard to escape the reality that we may be in for a time of significant change.

I thought I wanted to write about it. I started a piece which quickly became three pieces. I couldn’t make sense of them. I certainly couldn’t expect you to. I looked for connections. Connections were elusive. I watched the president’s farewell address. I was inspired. I was moved to tears. I watched the president-elect’s news conference. I felt like sticking needles in my eye. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the person who inspired me is remembered for ineffectiveness and the person whose thoughts scare me turns out to be effective.

What I want to write is challenging. It’s challenging because it’s critical of the culture of the system in which that I’ve spent almost my entire professional my life. It may be perceived as insulting. I don’t want it to be.

There are lots of things I don’t know about. I don’t know much about international trade deals. I don’t know much about national security. Or quantum physics for that matter. I know less about building walls. But I do know about education. I know this from angles that most folks haven’t had the chance to enjoy.   And here’s what’s challenging. I know that we, as educators, have earned much of the criticism that we are receiving and which threatens now to upend our world.

borowitz-img_0291No, it’s not all our fault. We’ve had the real life version of “A Confederacy of Dunces” telling us what was wrong and what to do and how to do it. Whoever thought that the National Governors’ Association would be a good group to determine what should be learned in our schools? Why would anyone think that a group who could come up with names like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top or, as a sign of decreasing creativity, Every Student Succeeds could actually develop policies that made sense. No, it’s not all our fault.

But we’re complicit, far too complicit.

It’s why I pulled up the Pogo cartoon. Not because we are greedy, lazy, selfish, fat and happy as too many so-called “reformers” assert. I chose the cartoon to ease into the possibility that we may have spent so much time preserving the comfort, the familiarity, the efficiency of schooling that we have failed to respond to reality that schools designed to meet the needs of the 19th and 20th centuries are not suited to meet the demands of this time.

In an earlier post, I referenced a recent Gallup poll which revealed that student engagement levels in our schools drops from near 80% in early elementary grades to around 40% by a student’s senior year. I noted at that time, that if Walmart or Amazon experienced a similar drop in customer satisfaction, their response would not be to continue business as usual.

This morning I had the chance to read the latest post by a young teacher, Jay Armstrong. He writes on a variety of topics and I highly recommend his work. In this piece, he describes an encounter he had with a young graduate who dropped by to see him during the winter break from the college he was attending.   He describes a young man (“M”) who was considered an excellent student in an excellent school system. He was not doing as well in college and he was confused. He asked Jay…

“So what’s the point of school? Because I always thought it was to get good grades. Follow directions. Get a diploma. A means to an end, you know. That’s what my dad always says. But after twelve and a half years of schooling I’m really confused.  I mean really, what’s the point of school?”…

Jay continues…

“See, M was a “good student”. He was respectful, compliant, met deadlines and studied all his notes. And the system rewarded him for with a diploma for his obedience.

Unfortunately, the system never challenged him how to think on his own, to problem solve beyond rudimentary worksheets or to provide himself the audacity to question.

M was lead to believe that a grade of an A meant perfection. It meant there was nothing else to learn.

M admitted he was scared to death to be wrong, to make a mistake. For years he equated his self-worth with his grades. He believed success in school meant success in life.”

I don’t believe that this is an isolated experience. On the contrary, I believe that M’s experience is typical for far too many of our children. The calls for change that we are seeing now and the proposed solutions range from ill-informed to downright stupid. But “M’s” question gets to the heart of the matter. What IS the point of school? This is a question worth asking and it is increasingly apparent that it is one that we, as educators, better answer. For those of us who have devoted substantial portions of our lives to a career in education, the prospect of change and growing acceptance of the need for change is daunting.

We have not responded well to change. Not because we are educators but because we are human. When confronted with change, change which might disrupt the sense of safety and security we have managed to create in our schools, in our classrooms, in our minds, we have too frequently exclaimed “we can’t” when we mean “we won’t”. With the best of intentions we have tried to preserve schooling as we experienced it. We have ignored that ‘schooling as we know it’ has worked best for people like ourselves and far less well for those who aren’t.

As this piece has evolved, I realize that I didn’t really lie. This is precisely about leadership and the need for us to exert the kind of leadership that answers M’s question. To build the followership among colleagues and our communities that will be necessary to reveal sloppy thinking as sloppy thinking, to highlight that trying to do the wrong things right serves neither parents nor students, nor our profession well. This can’t be a time for fixed mindsets.

NOTE: I began to develop this piece after reading an extensive report which detailed the shortcomings of the “free market” approach to school improvement.  I had in mind providing readers with the kind of background that might be helpful in any discussions that might occur as the move to vouchers, choice, and privatization heat up. As you have probably noted, the piece went in a different direction.

Embedded in the report, however, was the story of a man I met quite some time ago and who was instrumental in the development of the voucher system implemented in Milwaukee in the 1990’s. Dr. Fuller, a noted civil rights activist, invested his life in trying to find better opportunities for poor, minority families and their children. As superintendent of schools in Milwaukee and frustrated with his failure to gain community support for his efforts to improve the experiences available to poor, black children, he became the architect Milwaukee’s voucher program.  Last night when I heard John Lewis speak with such deep conviction and quiet dignity, I was reminded of the struggles and courage of Dr. Fuller. In my mind, he picked the wrong solution but I felt it important to highlight the world of difference between the motivation of Howard Fuller and ideologues like Betsy DeVos. I hope you read the report.



2 thoughts on “I’m sorry. I lied…

  1. Rich, you’ve said – others have said – that schools are designed to meet the needs of the 19th & 20th centuries. Did we really need to read the classics or understand algebra to survive in those days? I’m inclined to think the traditional curriculum is really just a societal bargain about which “set of nursery rhymes” every child should learn as part of growing up. When I read your writings, I find myself toggling back and forth between issues of content (what to learn) and delivery (how to learn). In school, I learned many of the “nursery rhymes” to which I was exposed and I learned some specific skills that allow me to earn a living doing something I enjoy. Almost incidentally – perhaps accidentally – I also learned how to think. The “learning to think” consisted of a bunch of “a ha” moments that gave me tools to use to analyze and understand things and to decide what (if anything) to do about them. I don’t think learning the “nursery rhymes” was a waste of time, though I now think they were merely my ticket into our American society. The learning to think part is what made me uniquely me.


    • I think you’ve nailed it!

      My learning tells me that the “curriculum” as we know it comes largely from the “Committee of Ten” (largely higher ed academics convened in the 1890’s) who defined both the content and the structure (both the concept of blocked of discrete time as well as who should attend).

      In spite of challenges by folks like Dewey, the delivery and the content have remained pretty much unchanged and have served as the entry ticket to our society (and frequently, to specific levels in our society).

      Using the concepts that I frequently reference from Clark Aldrich, the nursery rhymes made/make up the things we are supposed to know and are usually mastered (and assessed) via memorization and recall. I think these things have always come up short on Aldrich’s measures – the three critical types of learning: learning how to learn, learning how to do, and learning how to be. I agree that we learned thinking almost accidentally (and because of our Catholic school training maybe even quite a bit more intentionally than most) but my sense is that this is no longer sufficient for finding one’s way in our current world. and we’re spending far too much time trying to perfect a system that has been outdated for several decades (at least).


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