16 Proposals for Radically Changing Schools (for the better)

I was finally able to finish Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity yesterday. (What else was I supposed to do the day after graduating?) That I’d made it so long without encountering this text baffled me, but I’m willing to chalk it up to the right books coming into our lives at the right time.

Toward the end of the book, Postman and Weingartner list a group of proposals “that attempt to change radically the existing school system.”

I should like to learn and teach in a school that honors these proposals. In the case of a few of them, I’ve already done just that.

  1. Declare a five-year moratorium on the use of all textbooks.
  2. Have “English” teachers “teach” Math, Math teachers English, Social Studies teachers Science, Science teachers Art, and so on.
  3. Transfer all the elementary-school teachers to high school and vice versa.
  4. Require every teacher who thinks he knows his “subject” to write a book on it.
  5. Dissolve all “subjects,” “courses,” and especially “course requirements.”
  6. Limit each teacher to three declarative sentences per class, and 15 interrogative.
  7. Prohibit teachers from asking any questions they already know the answers to.
  8. Declare a moratorium on all tests and grades.
  9. Require all teachers to undergo some form of psycho-therapy as part of their in-service training.
  10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public.
  11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by students on what the students know.
  12. Make every class an elective and withhold a teacher’s monthly check if his students do not show any interest in going to next month’s classes.
  13. Require every teacher to take a one-year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some “field” other than education.
  14. Require each teacher to provide some sort of evidence that he or she has had a loving relationship with at least one human being.
  15. Require that all the graffiti accumulated in the school toilets be reproduced on large paper and be hung in the school halls.
  16. There should be a general prohibition against the use of the following words and phrases: teach, syllabus, covering ground, I.Q., makeup, text, disadvantaged, gifted, accelerated, enhanced, course, grade, score, human nature, dumb, college material, and administrative necessity.
I’ve not stopped thinking about how much the teachers in schools adopting this list of proposals would learn and how much more effectively they would begin to teach.
What else deserves to be on this list?
Citation: Postman, Neil, and Charles Weingartner. Teaching As a Subversive Activity. Delta, 1971.

‘College and Career-Ready’ shoots too low

If you graduate from high school in America, you can find a college that will admit you. I’m not limiting my stance to for-profit, online colleges and universities. Some of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the country, faced with diminished federal funding (see Anya Kamenetz’s DIYU for more on this), are lowering the barriers to admission in order to increase the supply of tuition dollars.

It’s not all a money grab.

We’re sending record numbers of students to college, and we’re telling them it is the correct path (read the only path to success/happiness/money). Many of these students are the first in their families to attend institutions of higher education, and they’re showing up in numbers colleges and universities have never seen before. While much of the literature speaks to the need to help shift the cultures within k-12 schools and their students/families, very little is written about how higher ed needs to think about what it means to be educating shifting populations (see Mike Rose’s thoughts here or in Why School?). It’s what worries me when I see things like the graph on p. 4 of this Achieve report.

If we said the goal of schools was to have kids “life-ready” by the time they left, how would we shift how we look at the work being done in classrooms and schools?

The conversation about “college and career-ready” is an interesting one in that it cleverly makes it sound as though it doesn’t lead to schools forking their curricula to generate two separate tracks for students. If you are to be college-ready, you will be in academic classes. If you are to be career-ready, you will be in vocational classes with the bare-bones academic programs. Vocational programs and academic programs should not be an either/or proposition. College and or career-ready has that as its possibly unintended result and students internalize the distinction. Moreover, teachers internalize the two-track faculty mindset, which erodes internal cohesiveness for faculties.

The idea of a tiered graduation system such as those at work in many European countries is an interesting proposition. I wonder if it doesn’t work to further institutionalize class separations currently at play in the system. Does it say, “We expect all students to meet high standards (and some students to meet higher standards)?” A slippery slope.

If we said, build classrooms and schools to make students life-ready, it would be a messy proposition. I doubt it any messier than college and career-ready. Are we talking all students should be Yale-ready or Phoenix-ready? Are we saying minimum-wage ready or 1% ready? Maybe we’re hoping the language doesn’t raise any questions of whether or not it’s raising the bar.

Things I Know 250 of 365: This school almost made me cry

One of the nation’s highest priorities should be to learn from the best practices of these high-performing schools and to insist that all schools serving low-income children aspire to the No Excuses standard of excellence.

– Adam Meyerson

The students are lined up outside the school doors. In matching navy blue sweat suits, sleepiness hangs over them like a morning haze. I attribute their silence to the same tiredness I remember my own students wearing as they entered my eighth grade classroom.

The door to the school opens and the flood of students I remember witnessing as a teacher and experiencing as a student doesn’t happen. The students remain in a single-file line. The groggy morning murmurs have ceased. The line has moved from quiet to silent. Just over the threshold, the principal meets each student and asks them to lift their pant legs so she can see their socks. The few students wearing blue jeans are asked to lift their shirts so the principal can see their belts.

The students file down the hall – still silent – and sit in “community circle” and wait to be dismissed to their classrooms. The teacher overseeing community circle this morning is the only voice to be heard in the room, “I’m sorry eighth grade. Seventh grade is so quiet, I’m going to have to dismiss them first.”

Without a word, the seventh graders gather their backpacks and lunch boxes and file past me back down the hallway. One of my host teachers says, “Don’t be surprised when they don’t speak to your or acknowledge your presence. They’re on silent.” If a student were to turn to look at me or say “hello,” she explains, the student would receive a demerit. I later learn the principal’s spot checking of socks and belts also held the potential of demerits. Anything other than plain white socks or jeans without a belt are grounds for a demerit. “They are symbols of status,” the host teacher explains.

I bite my tongue at this. I am a guest, and it is not my place to point out the school’s treatment of its students is a constant reminder of status.

Some Useful Words from Ted Sizer on a Common Curriculum

From Horace’s Compromise:

Some today, with earnest good intentions, urge that a common core of subjects be legislated for high school students. Depending on one’s point of view, much of this certainly is nice. Laudable or not in the abstract, however, if it is mandatory, it is an abuse of state power, an excessive reach of political authority. Again, the state is fully justified in providing it at public expense, if it wishes, and prescribing it for certain certificates and diplomas that citizens may voluntarily choose to earn.

Some others say that an adolescent should have a “high school experience,” something that is inherently a Good Thing, an experience that teaches young people to “get along with others.” Proponents of this view offer no evidence for support of their argument for mandatory “residence” at school. This is prudent on their part: there isn’t any. Most real reasons for enforced attendance actually turn on the need to preserve adults’ jobs. Compulsory attendance in an educational institution should cease when a young citizen demonstrates mastery of the minima, and most young citizens should master those minima before senior high school. As a result, schooling for most adolescents would be voluntary. Few would be compelled to attend high school, though a prudent state would vigorously encourage it. High school would be an opportunity, not an obligation.

Things I Know 231 of 365: Let’s kill school

Kill the mothership.

– Kendall Crolius

In 2006, the former head of San Diego schools Alan Bersin commented on his controversial approach to improving the district’s schools. Not surprisingly, I reacted strongly to much of what Bersin had to say. One comment has remained lodged in my brain since I first read the piece:

In the elementary schools, we moved schools out of the bottom deciles through a common instructional program.  In the secondary schools, the surest way to remove schools from the academic cellar was to shut them down.

I don’t disagree with Bersin, not generally. He’s certainly not the first to suggest hitting the “do over” button as a path to rejuvenating failing schools. I’m sure he won’t be the last.

In Disrupting Class, Christensen, Johnson and Horn tinker around the idea when they suggest fixing ailing schools is akin to repairing an airplane mid-flight.

An apt analogy.

Watching the design teams present today at Reimagine:Ed’s Next Chapter summit, an approach other than powering down and deconstructing occurred to me.

Shut everything down but the library.

Build out from there.

Start a 1:1 laptop program in the school with online and blended classes. Staff the library 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Host study sessions at regular intervals in each discipline. According to student interest, begin pouring money into music, drama and visual arts programs.

Still, no straight physical classes.

Still, a 24-hour library.

During the day, have students design and form student organizations with faculty sponsorship. Technically, these organizations will count as electives. They will range from urban farming to bicycle repair to yoga. At the same time, start up school sports teams with the same eligibility requirements the school had in place before (or more stringent).

In the meantime, students begin repurposing the physical space with funding saved from the reduced overhead of operating the school.

This classroom is a student-run thrift store. The school paper is next door and actually serves as a periodical for the entire neighborhood.

Across the hall, what was a long-neglected home economics room transitions to a coffee shop.

As students determine their interests, they use the library to find the resources they need to draft the business plan the school requires of any student-led venture. Most of these initiatives feature parent volunteers who have parallel careers acting as community advisors.

At night, through a partnership with the local community college, students take college-level courses with local community members. The courses are joint-funded by the school and the college. They are taught by the school’s faculty.

Students comment the spaces make them owners of the school and provide them with the flexibility and support they need while expecting high levels of learning. Teachers comment they able to design more dynamic curricula, build close relationships with their students and  emphasize knowledge, skills and understandings in ways that are authentic and deep. The parents, at first resistant, are amazed how involved their kids are in the school community. They admit life is easier now that their kids have class schedules that fit with their natural internal clocks.

College admissions offices confide they’re amazed to have applicants with diverse interests and college credit. Secretly they worry their universities’ lack of entrepreneurial options might make it difficult to attract the students of the school. Community members – frequent guests and participants at the school – feel a sense of ownership and protectiveness for the space. They take credit for the reduced crime rate around the school since their neighborhood patrol has started guarding what many of them see as the center of their communities.

no straight classes.

24-hour library

robust arts programs

student-led organizations

student entrepreneurship

community involvement/ownership

college preparation/credit

I’d want to teach there.

I’d want to learn there.

Things I Know 227 of 365: You can’t sell accountability, we already own it

Teaching is not a lost art, but the regard for it is a lost tradition.

– Jacques Barzun

In 2006, then-chancellor of NYC schools Joel Klein delivered some remarks tot he Academy of Management in Atlanta, GA outlining the changes Klein and Mayor Bloomberg set in motion in New York.

Klein claimed the aim of the changes was to accomplish “three fundamental cultural shifts”:

  1. To move from a culture of excuses to a culture of accountability.
  2. To move from a culture of compliance to a culture of performance.
  3. To move from a culture of uniformity to a culture of differentiation.

Ignoring for a moment the semantic argument to be made that compliance and performance are not mutually exclusive ideas, I’m interested in Klein’s case that he was moving to true accountability through his policies.

“These principals,” Klein said in reference to the principals who signed documents against their union’s advice, “accepted the challenge and signed performance agreements, explicitly taking responsibility for student performance outcomes.”

The agreement “also specifically spells out the ways we will leave them alone to do their work.”

Klein went on to say the principals had put their “tails on the line” with the agreements, committing to their accountability to student learning.

They bought in to Klein’s accountability measures and they’d signed contracts to that effect in the same way they would have agreed to a car loan or mortgage.

And in the same way as either of those examples, the principals didn’t really own what they’d signed on for.

It was closer than most efforts had likely come to giving principals ownership of their schools, but it wasn’t the same thing.

When Klein stepped down in late 2010, I wonder how many of the principals pulled their contracts out of their filing cabinets to see if they were still accountable for their students’ learning.

My guess would be none.

My guess would be that the principals who signed on to Klein’s initiatives held themselves just as accountable for learning in their schools as they did before Klein took over the chancellorship.

They already owned that responsibility. They showed up everyday to live it and it probably consumed their thoughts before they drifted off to sleep at night.

What Klein was selling wasn’t acceptability for learning. You can’t sell someone what they already own.

He was attempting to sell principals on changing the way schools, principals and teachers go about helping students learn.

That’s an impossible sell.

To make it work, to get Klein’s initiatives off the ground, they couldn’t be his.

The only way to move, to make change, is to share the ownership, not sell it.

Things I Know 187 of 365: Be nice and we’ll work hard

Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping him up.

– Jesse Jackson

A friend recently planted himself firmly behind the idea that effective teachers are the most important factors in student success. In the same breath he said he wasn’t one of those guys to praise teachers and call them the salt of the earth. He works to support kids, he said, not teachers.

It doesn’t work like that.

The two aren’t separate.

If we want healthy schools, places of learning enlivened by vibrant and curious people dedicated to being the best versions of themselves, the systems must support and value all members of those systems.

My morning cup of coffee is better when my barista and the coffee bean farmers in the fields are treated with decency and respect.

I cannot be surprised by a reticence to praise and support teachers when the rhetoric of education paints them so largely as deficient, lazy, undereducated hacks.

Who would dare praise teachers?

Sure, you praise the teacher you know, the cousin or friend of the family who is going into the classroom. They are great. But teachers, in the general sense? No thank you.

Tell teachers the majority are performing poorly and you can’t be surprised when students are performing poorly. I wonder sometimes how many teachers are doing worse right now because they’ve read or heard the rhetoric of education leaders bemoaning the poor quality of teachers.

My friend told me he’d visited a number of classrooms on a single day, to check up on good teaching. Of the 50+ classrooms he visited, not a one held good teaching. Not a one held a teacher at the time. His evaluation was based on whether standards were posted and other measures of the classroom walkthrough. Choosing not to challenge the evaluation, I asked a question I’ve asked here before.

“So, you can name at least 50 bad teachers. Can you name 20 good ones?”

He liked the question and thought I was making his point for him.

I was not.

My point was something else. Too many people are doing well for there to be fewer than 20 effective teachers for every 50 or 60 ineffective teachers.

“All students can learn,” is a popular bumper sticker of regressive education reformers. Pronounced as though a new idea that, once realized, solves so much.

I don’t disagree with it. I question the next ten words.

So long as we’re putting out truisms and bumper stickers to rally behind, let me try one. Let me try one that, coupled with the idea that all students can learn, would mean a sadly revolutionary way of thinking in education.

All teachers can teach.

And, yes, I’ve got my next ten words.