Elizabeth Merritt Has Seen Our Future… and it doesn’t work

compassAs many of you have been deeply engaged in the process of opening school and avoiding the ever-present fears of a major disaster…. Busses that miss stops, multiple classes scheduled for the same room, last minutes teacher replacements, etc., some of us retired folks have been sitting around, sipping adult beverages and pondering different kinds of school related questions… questions like “What will school look like for the next generation of kids?” “Will it look like it does now?” “Why do we keep doing things that we know don’t work?” “Why the heck do we have school anyway?” “Do we even need a system of public education?” “Is Betsy DeVos real or is she a character created by Monty Python?”

This somewhat lengthy intro is by way of saying that I, too, have been busy.  I’ve been bombarded with thoughts and conversations (both physical and virtual) that I’ll call “compass” musings.  I recall reading someplace a statement by Stephen Covey in which he noted that, as nation, we had confused the value of the clock with that of the compass… that we had created a huge market for planners, Day-Timers, schedulers, etc…. emphasizing/reinforcing the value we attached to how we organize our time while, at the same time, largely ignoring matters of the compass – i.e., are we heading in the right direction, are we on course, what is that course?  He added that when there is no clear destination, anyplace we get to is as good as any other.

The past week, filled as it was with the passing of Senator McCain, highlighted “compass” type question. But regardless of my/our assessment of the direction of our current leadership, it seems clear that it has done one thing very well.  It has begged us to assess/reassess the direction of our nation, its cultural norms, and its values.

So the next few posts will be loosely organized around the compass theme.  As usual they will be a combination of me seeking clarity through writing and the offering of some things for your reflection.

Note: Some parts of these posts have already appeared as responses to discussions that I’ve been involved with as a part of my participation in the Modern Learners Community that I’ve referred to previously.

 In a recent piece entitled Fragmentation, Elizabeth Merritt writing for the American Museum Alliance offers a very stark picture of a potential future.  In her scenario, she offers that, based on the continuation of current trends and direction, the nation’s system of public education will no longer exist.

It was in response to this assertion that I shared the following in the Modern Learners Community forum.

I believe the threat to our system of public education is very real.  I also see it as a part of a larger problem.  As I’ve reflected on this (both as a result of the piece that Will (Richardson) shared and in connection with work we’ve been doing for several years now around redefining the vocabulary that’s become a part of our conversations and policy planning), I find certain words recurring: separation, fragmentation, choice, learning, location, culture, and equity… By the time I’ve finished thinking/writing my thoughts, this list is likely to expand.

Here’s a bit of context as seen through my lens.

– During the past 40+ years we have internalized the notion that our system of education is failing.

– During the latter part of that same timeframe, we have been exposed to (and largely accepted) the notion that taxation is bad. We see a growing number of horror stories evolving which report the deplorable conditions of schools in states which have committed to serious tax reductions (see recent articles reporting the increase in school systems choosing a 4 day school week).  The reduction in resources has affected both urban centers and rural areas.

– This change in willingness to provide resources is in conflict with a system that relies heavily on human resources as its delivery system… producing a predictable growth in costs associated with such human resource dependent systems.  More importantly, this trend of declining resources and increasing costs is not sustainable. It adds credibility to Merritt’s predicted demise of our system of public education.

The recent events in the national political stage have highlighted an additional change in our culture… the increasing sense of separation and the reality of fragmentation by political ideology, race, income level, living conditions, etc.

Let me state my thinking more clearly. This is only partially a school issue.  It applies to our thinking about learning and to something much larger.  This is culture issue.  It is about a change in our culture… a belief in scarcity rather than abundance; a sense that every gain for one is a loss for another; a focus on blame and a belief in the efficacy of punishment as a behavior modification strategy; and, yes, a deeply rooted sense of white supremacy.

Is all of this new? I don’t believe so.  What is new is the confluence of feelings of fragmentation, separation, fear, tribalism that suddenly live (and are accepted) in the light rather than remain hidden as they have been for most of my lifetime.

What is also new, however, is the awakening awareness that this direction does not have a good end… in the learning lives of our children or in the future of our country.

As I’ve reflected on the word culture and its importance both for our land and for our children in their learning I realize that most of the conditions that I see now were there to be seen much earlier.  I was too busy to really notice the changes. I was busy trying to do my best as a parent, as a teacher, as a spouse.  I didn’t pay enough attention.  It wasn’t really affecting me, or so I thought.  I wasn’t looking at the compass.  This process for me is still incomplete.  It is this realization that makes me appreciate even more the good work of the Modern Learners team as they try to help us both find a better compass heading and support our efforts to redirect our work.  Be well

Why am I starting this short series with this piece?

Because I don’t believe my experiences were all that unusual.  I certainly didn’t intend to ignore the inaccurate pictures being painted of our schools.  I certainly didn’t intend to ignore the various hearings on the implementation of NCLB or the later hearing on the implementation of its successor, ESSA.  I didn’t intend to ignore the problems caused for students and teachers by the use of large-scale assessment data as the determiners of student achievement and teacher quality. I didn’t mean to ignore any of these things anymore than I intended to ignore the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, than I intended to ignore the efforts of the “Freedom Riders” to end the shame and violence of segregation, than I intended to ignore the rise in civilian casualties resulting from our use of high tech weaponry in our “peace actions”,  or than I intended ignore the separation of children from their families as a solution to an immigration crisis.

What are my “take-aways” from this experience?

  • I failed to fully understand the isolating downside of being the master of my own classroom.  By electing to work within a school, I inadvertently enrolled in a culture of isolation and separation that did not encourage collaboration or even discussions with colleagues about our professional practice.  Even more importantly, my isolation within the school extended to a separation, both physically and intellectually, from what was happening around me on a larger scale… in my community, in my state, in my country.
  • Like many of my peers and colleagues I had spent more than 16 years in schools prior to ever setting foot in a school as a teacher.  I had internalized the value of compliance. I had learned compartmentalization.  What happened in the world beyond my classroom and my family was beyond my reach or, embarrassingly, beyond my interest.
  • In each of these instances, I let the tyranny of the clock mask the importance of keeping my eye on the compass and of taking an active role to insure that the heading was correct and clearly being followed.

I don’t know if Elizabeth Merritt is right and if by 2040 we will no longer have a system of free public education for all children.  But as much work as there is to do to move the compass needle away from “education as schooling” to “education as learning”, there is equally important work to be done to write a story in which a system of free public education exists for each and every child in our nation.  I am convinced that to prevent such a loss we must move beyond the isolation of schools and classrooms and become active in engaging our communities in these compass-setting conversations.

Suggestion: Take 10 minutes and list the things that you believe about public education.  Do any of these beliefs seem to be a call to action for you?

Be well.

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