“Self-determination” is such a powerful word. Like all hybrids, it blends two components into one, and here the result outshines its parts. With the outbursts of freedom and “people power” still resonating over the Tunisian and Egyptian sands, it is impossible not to recall our own American moments of seismic correction, particularly in the realm of civic and civil rights. Too often, we ignore the transformative rush inherent in our own swing from a nation governed, in effect, by the propertied few to the one we uphold today, despite our occasional bouts of misguided, nostalgic yearnings.
As a nation, we have never been so diverse, and our cities and towns bustle with activity, even in these hard times. Our young people explode with a creativity beyond their years, and many of us adults must struggle to keep pace. In our schools, the challenge now rests in harnessing that youthful energy—the same energy that helped topple legalized segregation and sexism here, and Mubarak abroad–without extinguishing its unbridled power.
But the tools we use to measure the worth of our young people seem to suggest they are inadequate and losing ground, especially in our urban settings. In an effort to halt this decline, we turn and point our fingers primarily at the schools and teachers which produced them. Poverty and class culture play a role in this story, of course, but not as much as teacher unions would have us believe. Besides, we cannot fire parents or end poverty, but we can hold educators accountable for their craft.
To that end, we now have a juggernaut of educrats, reformers, philanthropes, consultants, test manufacturers, researchers, politicians, consultants, publishers, and activists clamoring for radical reform in the way we teach our children (incidentally ensuring a nice stream of cash to reward all these thinkers for their brilliance). Some have gone so far as to decry anything connected with the teaching profession we have known, including education schools, unions, tenure, and public school systems in general.
As observers of former Chancellor Michelle Rhee learned first-hand here in DC, the new dogma places data at the epicenter of education. Unlike in most professions, educators with experience have become a handicap, the symbol of a failed formula. Today’s teachers should be newly-minted, inexperienced, and naive. Armed with a crash summer course in instruction and a healthy respect for standardized results, this moving flotilla is all we need to take our schools back, one classroom at a time.
It matters little if many of these inspired recruits abandon their posts after a few years. We can always harvest a new crop. Stability equals stagnation in this brave, new world. The numbers alone will tell us who learned and who did not, who can teach and who can not. The numbers will tell us what schools to close and which to consolidate. Data will reveal which principals should be fired and what public schools should be privatized and chartered.
Statistical analysis will determine how teachers (instruction providers) should be paid, based on the value each contributes to the end product, formerly known as the student. Classrooms are now learning laboratories, and curriculum only matters if the assessment says it did Art, music, and physical education are expendable, and no subject should be offered that does not have a standardized test to which teacher performance can be tied. It is the total reliance on measurable accountability which makes this latest model so tidy and enticing.
It reminds me of a similar breakthrough in the 1970s. Once again, DC Public Schools became eager recipients of cutting edge policy. I can just imagine the meeting when the innovation was first introduced. I see a man in a gray suit and dark tie pointing to a slew of colorful charts encapsulating the findings of an army of highly paid researchers.
“What we have discovered,” he states, “is a remarkable twist on an old problem–how best to prepare our students for the demands of a workplace that is very much in flux. For too long, we have isolated our students in small pockets, force feeding them facts whether they liked it or not.”
His voice rises slightly now, betraying just a hint of emotion. “Just as we have done with the introduction of whole language and the new math, we must now decompartmentalize our schools and take education to the student, rather than the other way around. We must start with that most venerable symbol of our past mistakes–namely the building itself. We must take the “room” out of classroom. We must tear down the walls!”
I am sure it made for extraordinary theater. Why hadn’t anyone thought of it before? By freeing students from the confines of a single room, thoughts could float and soar throughout the entire building. Removing walls would force teachers to “meet their students where they were”–whether on the floor, or in desks arranged in a circle. Without “artificial barriers,” learning would occur not as the product of regimen, but rather as the natural outgrowth of trial and error. Teachers would merely serve as guides. Students would teach themselves.
While it might only be pure speculation, I would like to think that at least one teacher sat in the room during the presentation to District officials and administrators. I picture a woman in a dark blue skirt and a pale blue collared top. She clears her throat while the others feed on the possibilities of a school without walls. She politely asks,”But what about the noise? It seems to me it would be nearly impossible to teach without something separating the children by grade or subject.”
The gentleman in the suit curtly gives her one of those I-can’t-believe-you-can’t-see-it looks and then speaks to her as though she were a child. “Don’t you see? We do not need to separate children. What you see as noise, we see as discovery. Imagine an entire school buzzing with the sound of students bouncing ideas off one another. No, what you hear is not noise, but a symphony of learners practicing their instruments. Of course, teachers will need some additional training on steering the children to meaningful discussions. But we are confident that will be the easy part. We just need to shift the way we see things. We need to prepare these children for the 21st century. We need to trust their natural instincts. We need to see walls as obstructions and tear them down.”
And so it was. The District spent millions constructing new schools with no classrooms at every level of instruction. A rebuilt Takoma Elementary School received color-coded flooring to facilitate transit and exchange. A newly-erected Dunbar Senior High School showcased a narrow, towering, windowless maze of gathering spaces with no limits, or sound barriers, or walls. Teachers who objected to boundaryless instruction were promptly labeled tainted and out-of-touch. Reformers hailed DC for its foresight and initiative. Consultants worked overtime trying to make it work. But it failed; the experiment failed.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. I predict this latest model of teacher-as-assembly-part will meet the same fate as the open classroom movement, now discredited as yet another horse turd from the feel-good ’70s.
I know there is much room for improvement in the present system. Too many children are being left behind, especially the ones who look like me. A better way must be found. I just do not have a great deal of faith in the construct that a room full of policy makers light years removed from the classroom can produce a magic bean. We need parents, students, and teachers also involved in formulating solutions to a complex problem. Until then, I intend to watch my step lest I step in something unintended while keeping my eyes on the prize.
P.S. During last summer, the system finally relented and erected walls at Dunbar. In December, DC unveiled drawings for a brand new structure to be built on the former site of this historic school. The drawing sparkled with lots of glass, atriums, and walled classrooms. The estimated cost is $100 million, a small price to pay these days for enlightenment.