from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Ten wishes for Education in 2006 

(crossposted at dailykos, myleftwing, teacherken.blogspot.com)

A few days ago I received on one of my educational lists an email with the author’s Ten Wishes for Education in 2006. I decided for today’s diary to go through the suggestions, one at a time, offering some commentary of my own where appropriate. I have the permission of the author Peter Majoy, to do this, so I will begin by introducing him, using his own words, where appropriate.

Peter is both an English teacher and a published author. As he informed me,
(1) Been teaching since 1965 with a few years in there of related work but not directly teaching in a school system, so I guess I have somewhere around 35 years direct teaching experience; (2) I have written and had two books published through Zephyr Press (a. Doorways to Learning, and (b) Riding the Crocodile, Flying the Peach Pit. Both are about what is phrased "whole brain learning". (3) I am an English Teacher
at Nashua High South in Nashua, New Hampshire.

I will offer some more of his remarks about himself later, after we go through the wishes. You will want to know more, and he is an interesting guy.

10 Wishes for Education in 2006
1. That the trap of "either-or" thinking about educational reform be consciously trimmed. Where there is something of worth on either side of the aisle, so to speak, it ought to be acknowledged. For example, the charter school discussions sink too quickly into this form of rhetorical dis-ease. Many charter schools and their proponents have made wonderful strides in serving student and community needs. Many have just taken advantage of the failures of public schools and like neo-liberal globalists have tried to appear interested in the "indigenous" local populations only to suck the life out of those communities to serve ulterior capitalist interests.

Peter raises an important point. There are, s he notes, charters and then there are charters. it can be the difference between something founded and run by Deb Meier, or a school that provided means of continuing Hmong culture in Milwaukee, or it can be some of the atrocities I have seen, such as the afrocentric school in DC whose founder claimed a doctorate from a “university” she had founded, or it can be the corporate profit-making places run by various organizations about which you may have read. If we wish to make a difference in education, not everything can be viewed through a lens that provides only dichotomous thinking. I have been keeping an eye on a new public charter high school that is dedicated to peace, and later you will read about Peter’s own involvement with charters, part of the reason for this first point.
2. That data be treated with enormous skepticism from wherever it originates. The reductionistic temptation to come to simplistic conclusions about educational phenomena poisons and roadblocks conversation about the vision and practice of reform. Those visions and their accompanying practices are either destroyed or romanticized by data. For example, the "data driven" nature of NCLB both destroys the much larger context in which education takes place as well as romanticizes its salvific effect on those very  students whose lives it has ignored in the first place. Surfing its concern to lift all children and teens to a level of achievement equity, proponents of NCLB have had to obsess on their romance with NCLB without having to address all the attendant issues that crush, maim, ignore, and repress whole classes and segments of society. NCLB data is ironically racist, sexist, and classist. On the other hand, opponents of NCLB do the same thing from their side of the sword fight. Public schools somehow become sacred cows and "public school education" is cast as victimized by pressures to privatize. From this back against the wall position, data is spit out along with anecdotal stories of the anxiety producing effect NCLB has on kids via standardized and high stakes testing. Such proofs become scandalously manipulated to support an equal dose of denial regarding open and authentic dialogue on "what is best for kids?"

Data by itself is not necessarily meaningful, and usually requires understanding, analysis and interpretation. How was the data gathered? Why was this data gathered and not other data? Is there anything in the measurement or data gathering process that can provide a misleading or distorted portrayal of the phenomenon the data purports to represent? These are only a few of the questions that one might consider. After all, I could provide, as I once noted to my students, a group of people with an average net worth of 40 billion. That would be a group that consisted of Bill Gates and a street person.
3. That more conversationalists/debaters/ideologues should put their money where their mouth is: act.  In the end, all the delicacies, both scrumptious and distasteful depending on which banquet one prefers to attend, have to ultimately incarnate themselves in what goes on in schools. If you bark and bellow or howl and hawk from wherever you (and me) proselytize your gospel of educational redemption, you ought to put your money where your mouth is and do it in the schools. The problem is that so much hot air fills so many of these discussions by people, good intentioned or otherwise, who don't do any of it. This reality was most recently brought  home to me at a November 17, 2005 presentation by Jonathan Kozol who spoke of the many days he has spent in classrooms and understood how utterly removed so many politicians and educational rhetoricians are from what real life is like in classrooms and how incredibly intelligent kids are and how responsive they can be when intelligence and love are present in their schools and in their teachers.

This is a key point. Meaningful educational reform will have to include more than it has the voices of those who are responsible ultimately for the implementation of such reform, and whose lives will be affected. I think it somewhat embarrassing then when Governors gathered for a session on education each brought a businessman, but none brought a classroom teacher, or even better, a student whose life is affected by the decisions theorists and politicians think should be imposed. To Kozol’s credit, he hs spent significant time in the schools about which he writes. And although I do read fairly widely in research literature and general publications about educational policy matters, much of what informs my understanding is shaped by my experience as a classroom teacher.
4.  That one's opinion about what is best in education pass the personal test: would you like to go to the school where the practices you prescribe take place? Sometimes I wonder about this. I imagine that should this be the litmus test, many of the differences would dissolve into simple truths. School should be a place where I am known, where I am challenged, where I am safe, where I am not cookie cuttered into easily manipulated data bits where I disappear into the void, and where I can explore and experience as much of the universe so that I mature and develop a confidence to be both an individual as well as a vital part of the community.

I would add another question to Peter’s and that would be much more pointed -- would you be willing to send your child to such a school? If not, why would you propose imposing on the children of other people?
5. That Santayana's statement that "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it" becomes a daily mantra for all those truly committed to the education of all our children. What has succeeded and what has failed? Is NCLB just another apparition of a hydra headed monster come back to divert our attention from the real work of education? Does NCLB have its roots in anything at all successful in the history of education?

Here I think I can answer -- the supposed basis of NCLB was the Texas “miracle” - the experience of supposed success in educational reform under Bush as Governor. Only there was no such miracle, and competent scholars attempted to point it out at the time. Unfortunately, some Democratic politicians who are strongly supportive of public education signed on to the program because they thought it would mean more funding for schools from the Federal Government. We are now seeing the results.
6. That  educational demogoguery, clothed in the language of whatever,  be exposed more often by the following question: Would you please tell me a story from your life or from the life of someone that you know that will prove your point?  When that story is told, discuss it, investigate it critically and with an open mind. Then return the favor with a story of your own......and so on.

Here I offer a caution. I first acknowledge that when Joe Thomas and I had our conference call with Tom Vilsack and he asked for how to help Governors and others communicate about education, we said to tell stories. I am a firm believer in the power of the illustrative anecdote or even extended story. The danger is that one can often find an example that is not representative, thus the risk for partisans of any point of view, including those which I support, could unfortunately be acting here as those in this administration who cherry-picked data in order to make a case for war in Iraq. I do not object, but I do offer these cautionary words.
7. That assumptions which dull true listening be placed on hold and that the sign of true listening replace it as early as possible in the dialogue, i.e., ask questions that clarify another's opinion so that the wheat of another's position be separated from the chaff. Education is of such utter importance that our disputes ought to be quickly focused on what each of us is really saying. This can only be done by asking questions so that the disputes clarify rather than run the vicious circle of stubborn, willful deafness.

We all need to avoid MEGO syndrome (my eyes glaze over) lest we lose our audience when we are the speakers, or our focus when we are the listeners.
8. That each of us become socially engaged with the suffering of those around us. I don't know one teacher or administrator who has become committed in this way for whom this commitment does not temper in some way his/her take on educational issues.

I will limit my remarks to this - as a classroom teacher there are many things going on in the lives of my students that outweigh the importance of my rules and deadlines. Unless I am willing to engage my students on this level, I risk the probability that I will lose the ability to keep them interested and focused on what I can offer them academically.

9. That we realize that education is a political issue and cannot/must not be separated from our views on capitalism and democracy. Those who stress democratic principles favor progressive ideas about educational reform. Those who stress capitalism favor privatization and elitist survival of the fittest  educational structures and practices.  These are the extremes. Everyone mixes their own drink here.

Please, before you criticize Peter for falling into the trap of the dichotomous thinking about which he warned us above, note the last two sentences. This point provides a lens through which to analyze how people -- including ourselves -- approach educational issues.
10. That we not forget our own childhoods and teen years as we fashion our educational agendas.

Ah, if only!! But besides not forgetting, I would add that we need to be humble enough not to attempt to universalize our own experiences and memories, but rather use them as a starting point to try to understand the possible impact of what we would propose as policy upon those who we claim we are trying to help.


If you do not already realize how dedicated and thoughtful Peter is as a teacher, I will conclude this piece by quoting without comment most of the rest of his biographical explanation to me. I do so because it is an example of story telling. And were more policy makers willing to take the time, they would find the lives of teachers are full of such stories. Since I offered so much of Peter’s insights above, let me share with you what he has to say about the life from which they stem.


In June of 2003, a program, about which I had been the prime mover, ended. It was called NESA, Nashua Essential School Academy. We were affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools and were a school-within-a-school non-tracked program which survived for 7 years until a huge 150 million dollar re-building effort peripheralized us and we decided to end it. It was, in many ways traumatic, but we ended it with great dignity, peace, and self respect. We had over 200 students, a team of 10 teachers, and were recognized for all the reform structures we brought to local education. In our final year, we organized "NESA in November" during which time (a) our incredibly forward looking drama program put on "The Laramie Project", (b) we brought 20 panels of the Aids Memorial Quilt which we displayed for 10 days and which was visited by over 2000 people, and (c) we brought in the Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Drepung Gomang and under the rubric of exposure to world cultures through our social studies program, the monks constructed the Mandala of Compassion in the foyer/entrance of one of our new high schools at which locus one witnessed one of the most incredible displays of silence, wonder and respect on the part of thousands of students and adults. (4) Currently, I continue to teach in Nashua, but am part of the Ashuelot Valley Academy Planning Committee which is trying to bring a progressive charter high school to the Monadnock Region. Because we are progressive, we have chosen what is called the local route in our process of bringing the school into being. It involves grassroots political work and bringing two warrant articles up for a vote. Our first article will be subject to our Town Meeting ballot this March 14. A year later, assuming we get a "yes" vote this March and we get two more approvals, we present a second warrant in March of 2007. If we get a yes at that time, we hope to open our school in the Fall of '07. It is a long journey but it is the essence of the democratic process and if we open, we will truly be a public school. Much more to say about this, as you might imagine. (5) I am married to T...., also a great teacher of a mixed 5/6 grade classroom, and like myself has been doing it her whole life. We have 4 adopted children whom we first fostered. One is now 23 and the others are 18, 17, and 16. So, we fully experience the drama of adolescence here at home, believe me. From a first marriage that ended many years ago, I have two sons. One is a teacher and one is finishing Veterinary School at Tufts.....
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