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.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Education and Democracy 

A regular part on my internet posting is to make readers aware of useful resources on education. Today I want to make you aware of The Forum for Education and Democracy, which tells us at the top of its home page that it believes in
”Strong Schools for a Strong Democracy”
and goes on to state that it
is devoted to supporting educational policies and practices that prepare the young of a life of active and engaged citizenship

I encourage you to explore their website. In this posting I will introduce you to their effort at school reform, a kickoff event in Chicago on May 20, and some postings on key ideas on education from Deb Meier and Bob Cornett, and add a few remarks of my own.

I want to begin with a quote from an email I just received from the forum. It focuses on what it perceives as a loss of democracy in our school decision making. As George Wood, founder of the forum notes:
Perhaps more than anything else, this loss of democracy in school decision-making sums up what is wrong with the current wave of educational reform. Tests written by experts for profit-making companies outside of public scrutiny determine school ratings and who gets to graduate. Bureaucrats in state capitals and in Washington set arcane formulas to determine if schools are progressing. Consultants are sent to schools to tell teachers and administrators how to do a job the consultants have never done. Our schools are local in name only.

As states work to manage the reporting systems around the federal No Child Left Behind rules there are new calls for even more state and/or federal controls. It is fascinating and a bit frightening to see how, in the face of failure, the official response is to just do more of the same. For example, worried that NCLB might be narrowing the curriculum . . . the Bush Administration is quietly floating a proposal to add science testing in addition to testing in reading and math to determine if schools are making AYP.

Others, surprised that only 27% of the nation's schools are "failing" under NCLB, believe that state standards are set too low. The solution, they say, is to move to a national curriculum with national standards and tests. But such an approach makes the Faustian bargain of supposedly gaining educational equity through paying the price of standardization, uniformity, and external control. Not equity of resources, mind you, but equity of results (all kids average by 2014) which, if not achieved, would lead to punishments for educators and the children they serve.

One key forthcoming educational battle will be the locus of control. I would expect that in the discussions that will occur over the reauthorization of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) next year this issue may be one of the most important, with some arguing that we can no longer afford to have the content and quality of our schools held hostage to local pressures. While many conservatives have traditionally rejected any nationalization of education, arguing that it is not even mentioned in the Constitution and thus through the Tenth Amendment is a state function, we will hear calls about the need for more rigor if our national economy is to remain competitive, and other arguments of a similar nature.

Those behind the forum (which includes some major names in education, such as Ted and Nancy Sizer, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Carl Glickman, are seeking to develop a platform and a program that will
help our nation take seriously the agenda of leaving no child behind. We are looking not only at schools, but at all areas of the lives of children that will provide them with the tools that democratic citizenship requires. Children will learn best when they are healthy, well-fed, and safe, so our platform will include all aspects of a secure childhood. Our goal is to insure a national call to action, with specific proposals at the local, state, and national levels designed to insure that America is genuinely committed to leaving no child behind.
(the complete statement about this effort can be read here). They encourage people to send them their own ideas, and to pass on information about the forum to others. I suggest that you will find the connection they make between budget cuts in things like medical care and environmental protection relevant to the educational success of our children.

To help advance this positive agenda, the Forum has organized a conference in Chicago on May 20th, about which you can read here.

The email offers some ideas from Deb Meier, famous for her own efforts at humane school reform, in which she advocates for different kinds of schools. In a piece entitled Education for what? Meier comments about how so many of our supposed educational reforms seem to do little more than reintroduce ideas from the past. To the concern offered by those who argue that we have to use tests the way we currently do because it is the best measure we have, her answer cuts to the point:
So? Get better stuff, I answer. And in the meantime don’t use test scores as a pseudonym for achievement—it’s not accurate and it's even ludicrous. It's only cheap. But getting better stuff requires thinking about what we are trying to get evidence about? For example, in the schools I like best the answers have something to do with the kind of society we hope kids will help us nourish and support when they get out of school—which is not merely a question of finding their own job market niches, but shaping the way we design the future, including world of work, the "economy" as well as the social fabric of our lives, and even the future of the planet. Nourishing democracy, for example, requires activity not just rhetoric. It requires judgment, weighing pros and cons, trade-offs. It requires assuming responsibility for ones ideas and practices. Do our graduates show signs of engaging in such work--now? In the schools I'd like my own kids to go to they'd align their practices to such ends. There are schools out there like that. And if my ends aren't yours? If you'd put more weight on x instead of y? It's okay as long as you are willing to look kids in the eye and say: these are our expectations, here’s how and why we arrived at them and here's how we'll all know if you've met them. Within a wide range of possibilities, let there then be choice. Let us try and persuade each other not just by arguing in a vacuum but by example.

I am a fan of Meier. Please take the time to read the entire (and brief) passage from which that selection came, because it might well help clarify your own thinking.

Bob Cornett is an organizer of The Grandparent Coalition which announces
This web site is committed to the proposition that both real learning and real democracy require active participation by citizens; and it is further committed to the proposition that young people and older adults are natural partners in the job of life and learning.
. Cornett, who is an old hand at Kentucky Politics, also blogs, which offers the introductory statement that the blog is
to be a kind of letters to the editor component of the new web site, www.grandparentcoalition.org The general idea is that interested persons will read something on the web site, then submit their comments to the blog. We'll be refining what we're doing as we go along.
. The email from George Wood quotes from Bob’s March 19 post entitled Rip Van Winkle. The passage quoted reads
But when equity comes to mean, not equity in opportunity to learn, but equity on test scores, the nobility disappears.
. Part of an argument of the importance of true equity in our schools if it is going to be part of our society, Cornett goes on to state forcefully
What this leaves are efforts to standardize the children by imposing a national standardized curriculum; and, since standardizing obviously won't be done by local communities, governments and their functionaries must assume control. And that's exactly what's happening: we're substituting government for community, elite functionaries for local citizens, people who won't ever know the children for those who know them intimately, test-taking as a substitute for real learning.

I will again strongly suggest that you read the Meier and Cornett pieces in their entireties, and that you thoroughly explore the resources of the website of the Forum.

I am committed to public schools. I acknowledge that reform is absolutely necessary. Those who have read my thoughts also know my strong opposition to the way we have been going about school reform for the past two decades. My experience in the classroom has only confirmed my prior belief that our children will be best served not by a uniform approach to educational reform, but by providing a variety of schools and methods of instruction which can better enable the varied talents of each child to be developed. I am also a firm believer that one purpose of our schools is to help develop our children as future participants in what has been -- and hopefully, despite the varied predations of the current national administration will remain - a democratic republic. For that to occur I believe our approach to education has to be far more democratic, not imposed at a national level.

I believe the approach taken by the forum is consistent with much of what i believe about education. Whether or not you agree, if we are going to have a meaningful exploration of how to fix education, this is one set of voices, one approach, with which you should be familiar. It is for that reason that I am posting this today, at dailykos, myleftwing, and at my own blog.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
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