Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Predicament of Innocents

IF YOU CARE ABOUT AMERICAN EDUCATION, I’ve just finished a thought-provoking book on the subject. Odd as this may sound, it made me want to start drinking.

I mean that as a compliment.

A Predicament of Innocents by George S. Stranahan (People’s Press) is filled with good sense if we want to improve schools. Stranahan also highlights critical dangers we face moving forward.

First, let me note that the author has worked with students. I’ve been working on a book about education, myself, and it has been amazing to see how many people write about fixing schools and yet know nothing about:

a) schools—or how to fix them
b) children
c) learning

That’s what made reading the book and talking to Mr. Stranahan later both pleasant and painful. This is a gentleman who has excellent ideas about how to improve the learning experience of children and almost every one of those ideas flies in the face of accepted wisdom.

I was curious, when I spoke to him over the phone, about his background. Did he always know he wanted to be a teacher? No, the “bug bit him” during the Korean War after he was drafted into the U. S. Army. He helped train others in the use of radar systems and he’s been hanging around students now for half a century.

He knows what he’s saying. 

(Once I understood that I poured my first glass of whiskey.)

We don’t agree on every topic (he’s far more pessimistic about regular public schools and I would argue that I worked at an excellent regular public school) but his focus is clear. He cares about children. He cares about helping them become life-long learners. He knows, for example, that you don’t develop skilled learners by feeding them a diet of standardized tests. Stranahan, himself, has a PhD in physics and he’s an award-winning photographer. His wonderful photos of former students provide the skeleton for the book and his ideas give it flesh. 

The focus: students and learning.
(Photograph by George Stranahan.)

I asked him to comment on a variety of issues. Did he think that current reform efforts were helping? No, he replied. “I don’t see any reform…I see a lot more damaging use of test scores.”

(I drain my whiskey and wait a moment to clear the burning in my throat before continuing.)

As head of the Aspen Community School for twenty years, he put his ideas to the test. He hasn’t been buried in the bowels of bureaucracy, hasn’t worked for some think tank. He’s been teaching. I ask what ideas he has for improving learning in our schools. He knows education is a complex business, but if he had one magic bullet he’d push for a “democratic classroom model.”

“If a decision affects students,” he says, “then they participate in the decision-making process.”

WHAT ABOUT THE IDEA—CURRENTLY ACCEPTED by reformers, backed by political figures, and gaining traction with the general public—that we need more standardized tests to “measure” what teachers are doing? He scoffs at the notion, warning that we are “turning schools into assembly lines for kids and making assembly line workers out of teachers.”

(I pause a moment to pour a second shot. This one I down in a gulp.)

Then, is there some way we can recognized good teaching? Stranahan believes the answer is yes, that in his experience it was an “instantaneous read” whether or not a classroom was “healthy.” He says that at Aspen teachers were expected to leave classroom doors open. He could look into a room, he believed, and “read the emotional content” in the faces of students. The quality he looked for in teachers—and here I totally agree—was the ability to make a classroom “a joyful place.”

The words “standardized testing” and “joyful place” will probably never again be used in the same sentence after I finish this one.

Aspen Community School serves the needs of 113 students, with emphasis on “community.” The focus was on “learning to learn,” not learning hemmed in by Common Core Standards. As Stranahan sees it these new standards are designed to force young people to travel a single road, with no exits and one destination:  training for job/college. 

Citing the report of the “Committee of Ten,” which helped set U. S. school policy in 1892, that a college-prep education, including multiple years of Greek and Latin, was appropriate for all students, Stranahan challenges us to consider this possibility: Perhaps not all students need two years of algebra to function in adulthood.

I suppose the answer is obvious enough, since I am not writing my sentences in Greek.

(I polish off another whiskey. At this point I hope I’m not slurring my words; but George is talking sense and I know none of the Big Fixers in education reform have anywhere near as much experience with kids as he does. I just hope drink isn’t making me sound maudlin.)

Meanwhile, Stranahan has studied the Common Core Standards. Ironically, these standards are intended to clean up the mess created by the last round of reforms triggered by passage of No Child Left Behind. He notes one particular requirement—that students learn to:  “Represent addition, subtraction, multiplication and conjugation of complex numbers geometrically on the complex plane; use properties of this representation for computation. For example, (-1 + √3 i)³ = 8 because (-1 + √3 i)³ has modulus 2 and argument 120.°”

(Let’s all pause a moment to finish our computations.)

He cites a second example in A Predicament of Innocents, this time from the eighth grade math standards: “Understand that the patterns of association can also be seen as bivariate categorical data by displaying frequencies and relative frequencies in a two-way table.” He “asked our town mayor, who is also an architect, if he found this essential; he said he didn’t understand a word I said.”

(I pour my fourth whiskey. I am thinking about “mercantilism,” which is a long, sad, story, covered elsewhere.)

THERE ARE A HUNDRED TOPICS I’D LIKE TO ASK about, because here we have a gentleman who understands children, a man with learning in his marrow. I ask about the idea that we have an “achievement gap” in our poorest schools and must punish teachers who fail to close it. He sums up the dilemma in what I think is the funniest line in the entire book: “It is well-known that teaching in have-not schools is very hard work, and now you can be fired for trying.”

Unfortunately, No Child Left Behind has made what goes on in our poorest schools worse. Now education is reduced to this:  “It’s about how to correctly eliminate three out of four bubbles.”

(Down the hatch goes drink #4. I am tempted to start chugging straight from the bottle.)

I know Stranahan is making sense. That’s what troubles me to my core. I explain my theory that almost everything important educators do happens at the classroom level. “Could you ‘decapitate’ the educational system, at the level of school principal, and not do any lasting damage?” Stranahan says he believes you could. The key players are the teachers and school leaders who interact with students, the students themselves, and parents.

“Home is the hidden partner in the education of our young,” he explains. So, at Aspen they involve parents directly in the decision making processes. When they had an influx of Hispanic students they held meetings in Spanish. Often they sent out cars to pick up low-income parents and help them get to school functions.

In his book he argues that the word “teach” must be broadly defined. To “teach” should mean “any practice that causes others to develop skill or knowledge.” A good teacher in a good school is a shepherd, a minister, a nurse (“to look after carefully so as to promote growth.”). George describes the ideal relationship between student and teacher: “I take you seriously because you take me seriously.”

No reader will agree with everything Mr. Stranahan has to say; but here we have a veteran educator talking sense so often lacking in current education debate. He knows that good teachers make a difference. He also knows, “There’s just no easy answer to evaluating teachers, and if good teaching is important to us, we must be willing to look at difficult answers.”

THAT’S HOW THE BOOK ENDS, which may frustrate those who prefer definitive answers. What makes A Predicament of Innocents worth reading, however, is not that Stranahan provides answers so much as that he poses fundamental questions for our consideration. 

“What do you hope readers get out of your book?” I finally ask.

He responds: “I hope it scares them. I hope they see it as a call to action. If we don’t wake up and pay attention to what’s going on in schools, nobody else will. Childhood is a special estate. We must learn to honor that for what it is, a strong and willful beingness, playful, irreverent, spontaneous, direct and honest, representing many behaviors that we might wish to reclaim as adults. I talk about innocence, and being around children helps me to reclaim my own innocence.

“I want to get a whole school district to charter itself into a progressive school system and challenge a bit of authority on the way.”

I thank him for his time and push a button and end the call.

Maybe the whiskey is clouding my judgment; but I feel I’ve just talked to someone who has insights into the heart and soul of education. 

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