Friday, August 7, 2020
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American Revolution is like ‘real’ change in schools

Blogger, teacher, and former Illinois Teacher of the Year Josh Stumpenhorst writes that real changes won’t take root in real schools unless they start in the classroom.

Photo of a copy of part of the Declaration of Independence (Roel Smart)

He writes:

Lots of people are talking about the need for change in education. Some people may go so far as to say we need a revolution. 😉 Many people think they know the answer about how education needs to change. …

When decisions about what is best for kids are being made at the classroom level they more closely reflect what is truly best for kids. When decisions about what’s best for kids are made at a system level—either in a district, state or federal level—those decisions are less about what’s best for kids and more about what’s best for the system. The decisions made at the high level are about efficiency and simplicity rather than individualization or student centered. This is not necessarily a criticism but rather an observation. With this in mind, can change be driven from the “top”?

As a classroom teacher can we wait for our district, state, or the DoE in Washington to mandate change? It has been my experience that changes or even full-blown revolutions of ideas do not take place in the state houses or the policy rooms in a country. Revolutions begin by the people. As a history teacher I often teach my students about the many revolutions, which have taken place throughout history. They begin with the common people. The people on the streets and in the trenches. As teachers, we are those people in the streets of education and the trenches of the school system.

To this, I add Ursula K LeGuin’s expression from The Dispossessed: “You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

What the entire standardized testing movement has come to is an attempt by bureaucrats, politicians, and corporations to buy a revolution: to create a need and then sell it to the people. The people themselves may need change, but to package this change as corporations and politicians have done is unlikely to bring about lasting change, simply because it is not a change driven by “the people on the streets and in the trenches.”

Corporations are effectively telling teachers how to teach. They’ve led schools down a road of obsession over data, unhealthy comparisons with other teachers, schools, and states, not a more realistic road of learning or collaboration.

There’s a lot of things teachers could do better, but what started in a spirit of collaboration has turned into a spirit of competition. School A looks better or Teacher B’s methodology looks better if School X looks worse or Teacher Z’s students don’t meet or exceed expectations at a greater rate. That has never made sense to me, and I suspect most real teachers “on the streets and in the trenches” are just as perplexed as I am over how this manufactured “revolution”—charter school networks, standardized tests, state-to-state comparisons—can ever work in a positive way.

A look instead at some of the things happening in classrooms, which we try to report as much as the news can be made available and the clutter of policy change that affects very little doesn’t get in the way of our real reporting, shows that all real change has started in the classroom. The classroom is the beginning and the end of any “revolution” that will happen in education.

I once wrote that “nothing that happens in Washington, in a state house, or even in a principal’s office matters as much as what happens in a single classroom between one teacher and one student.” I have since 2002, when I wrote that to launch Voxitatis in suburban Chicago, come off that position a little, thanks to No Child Left Behind. The law has in fact brought great changes to the classrooms of America, and it originated in Washington.

My view was more idealistic, though, and I was hopeful that teachers would be able to continue educating students even under a somewhat corporation-friendly law that placed no interest on what was happening in classrooms but has instead taken teaching time away from teachers.

By bullying schools into testing, corporations have created an unfriendly relationship with schools and with parents. Parents love their schools and their kids’ teachers but hate what Washington and state houses across the country have done to those teachers and schools, which is to turn them into entities that feel a once-unimaginable need for “data” about how their students are performing.

I now believe that it very much matters what happens in Washington and state houses, and evidence suggests those places have a big impact on education today. Unfortunately, laws haven’t really given kids a better education, and the unfriendly environment they have created around standardized testing, with opt-out movements going strong in many states, is unhealthy and not exactly the most peaceful of situations.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” said President John F Kennedy in March 1962, as he delivered remarks on the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress. Corporations and politicians need to stop making a peaceful revolution impossible, and education reporters need to start reporting on the revolutions in our school communities that have a chance of lasting.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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