for Dr. Jennifer Cook who held the hand of so many new teachers. We will never forget you.
I was in my car listening to Spotify, the streaming music service with over 20 million songs. At a stoplight I had typed in Beatles and waited for the music to start as I sped up the road. It started with an oldie, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, the song I first heard when I was in third grade. “Oh yeah, I’ll tell you something I think you’ll under stand . When I say that something, I wanna hold your hand…” For second or two, I had a sweet memory of me and my two friends Mark Veillux and John Kenney and I singing the song in front of the class to start the morning in third grade. I was Paul, Mark was John and John was George. Ringo was the imaginary guy behind us that we would nod to occasionally. We closed our eyes and shook are heads on the “ I want to hold your Haaaaaaannnd” line to get the full Beatle excitement. I’m not sure the girls were that impressed , but for just a brief moment, we were the Beatles. And our teacher, in a moment of spontaneous wisdom, had granted it be so.
As I listened now, driving down the interstate, something was terribly wrong. The chords were the same , the arrangements the same, and the voices the same , but something indescribable was missing. I glanced at my smart phone and instantly saw the problem. This was not the Beatles, (whose music is so heavily licensed it only made it to Itunes a few years ago). This was a Beatles tribute band, a group of four men whose sole purpose is to replicate Beatles music note for note, word for word, to adoring Beatles fans. They were a live band pretending to be a dead band. They were a group with a past, but no present, and no future. They were a Xerox machine with instruments.
I started to meditate on what was missing in a tribute’s band performing a Beatles song compared to real artist like Stevie Wonder covering We Can Work it Out on his Sign, Sealed , Delivered album. Wonder interpreted the song, he brought his unique spirit and voice to the Beatles words. The Beatles tribute band was not allowed to interpret or reimagine the song. Their performance was measured on how well they could imitate and duplicate the Beatles standard performance. In a flash, I had an uncomfortable realization on what is really wrong with our mandated Common Core Standards approach to education and the high stakes assessments to which they are so tightly bound. We are turning our students, teachers and administrators into tribute bands whose goal is to replicate past approaches to learning to meet basic measurable test requirements. Creativity passion and interpretation, along with the magical yearning you hear in the real Lennon or McCartney’s voice has been put aside in favor of the basic skills which can be measured , standardized and rewarded or punished.
This bureaucratic understanding of what learning is, and how it should be measured has not always been a part of the American Public Education but gained great prominence in the early 20th century. In his book , Education and the Cult of Efficiency, Raymond Callahan documented the profound influence corporations imposed on public schools in the early 20th century and how little resistance they faced from bewildered educators. The scientific management ideas of Fredrick Taylor which improved Pittsburgh steel mill production and Model T production at Ford plants, seemed ripe for public schools. Progressive educators like John Dewey, who had notions of teaching children to think for themselves, were seen as dreamy eyed idealists, or messy impractical thinkers . The education reformers of 1912 believed that children, like perfect widgets, must be sent through a system that insured they would be complete. Our modern curriculum and documents like the Common Core State Standards are like an assembly line where each grade level adds new doodads to the car before passing them on to the next. Our public perception of failing schools begins with a politician saying that children are being passed through the system and not learning enough. We need to retain them to make sure the hubcaps are secured tightly, never mind the decades of educational research that clearly shows retention is damaging to a child’s psychological well being and their ability to learn.
This mechanistic model of learning is supported by the false assumption that the most important things about education can be tested regularly and tell us exactly what is being learned at any given moment. The Gates foundation and certain educational think tanks, including the United States Department of Education, measure all their success for schools on these standardized test scores that pretty much ignore what happens in a classroom in favor of a narrow slice of iknowledge conceived by test makers miles away from the class. Even the highest scoring countries like China are questioning this myopic approach because their children are not creative enough to drive a modern economy forward. “Real” education goes beyond the “workplace literacy”touted by the Common Core State Standards. Real education , like real art, challenges the status quo. Real teachers , teach students that they have something to say , that their voice matters. They have a song to sing that no one has sung it before in quite the same way. I am not always convinced these students would be college and career ready, but they would be “life ready.” They would be citizens. They would be problem solvers not drones. This may sound a bit romantic, but it is this wild ,absurd, solipsistic, entrepreneurial , romanticism that built America and spills from the voices as diverse as of Sojourner Truth, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Gloria Steinham, Henry Ford, Martin Luther King, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Thomas Jefferson, Cheryl Sandburg, Steve Jobs, Elvis Presley.
We have always been a country that believed we could change the status quo, we could do it better, make it safer, fairer, freer, wilder, insanely greater. Today our educational leaders have betrayed our children’s futures by investing a trillion dollars since 1990 in the NCLB law, which even by their own questionable measurements, had no impact. And now to pay for the dubious Common Core assessments, schools are laying off teachers and librarians .The result will be larger class size and less books into the hands of children. Test companies and curriculum canning factories are the only winners here.
Meanwhile, private profit and non-profit corporations are moving in to create privately run public schools under the charter school movement. Well documented research shows that these charter schools have no better results than public schools, even though they are often funded better, end up with better students and are held to a lower standard. This broad ranging, systematic attack on our public schools is motivated, by profit, not the welfare and education of our children ,and the only thing we have going for us is that we still live in a democracy, our vote counts, and we have the right to speak up and organize.
In the recent Hollywood fiction movie Wont Back Down as in the popular documentary Waiting for Superman this was portrayed as parents and corporate leaders like Michelle Rhee rebelling against a hopelessly bureaucratic public school system. The enemy was seen as teachers unions, and the simplistic solution, fire bad teachers, start your own private school. This is the message of the corporate reformers, skillfully crafted to pin the blame on teachers, and unions who are unable to defend themselves without sounding full of self interest. Well I am here to tell you that the real problem with American is not “bad teachers” but all the great ones who are leaving the profession because their best work is ignored in favor of scripted curriculum and constant meaningless assessments which attempt to micro-manage every aspect of learning without adding to instruction.
Real teacher assessment should involve observation by a skilled team of teachers who know what good teaching looks like. Real teacher evaluation would see teaching that sounded and looked like a Beatles tribute band for what is is, a flat, uninspired effort. The test scores in such a class could even be very high, as proven by conformity schools like KIPP academy, (which often hire 5 week– trained, Teach For America teachers to administer test prep curriculum.) Are these students getting a real education or just an indoctrination? Are these students learning to think for themselves or are they just learning to think for the test which all the newspapers report diligently to praise and shame? Don’t children of poverty deserve schools that promote curiosity and love of learning?
I have been traveling down the education road for 20 years now working with teachers and students. I am still in awe of the amazing teachers I see, often struggling to excel in a system that just ignores their best work. In the past 10 years, since NCLB we have lionized mundane education through high stakes testing and the foolish notion that schools must be punished and rewarded based on these test scores. The music in American education died, the day No Child Left Behind law was passed. The only way to get it back is to repeal the punitive No Child Left Behind law, and invite real teachers, parents and students into a real conversation on how to improve schools. We need to stop Racing to the Top and start honoring and respecting those who work on the bottom.
Some of you are reading this and hearing the word’s of Oklahoma daddy of Rock n roll Buddy Holly, “That’ll be the day,” and I hope you’re not right for the sake of our future. Our children will be the ones to solve all the problems we have created. Our children are not empty vessels that we fill with facts and then teach to dispense when required on test. Our children have a voice, raspy and raucus as John Lennon, sweet and bell-like as Paul McCartney, a voice that rises up like a mountain from the sea of life , a voice that is unstoppable if we only would encourage it to start.
Together parents and teachers can take back the public school system.
Step one: Opt your children out of all “high stakes” meaningless state testing. This includes the coming PAARC and Smarter Balance Assessments. These tests tell very little of what a child is learning . (The writing portion is scored by robots. Can you get more meaningless than that?) If more than 5% of parents opt out in a district the test results lose their value and schools will have to find a better and far cheaper way to assess learning. Find information about your right to opt out at www.unitedoptout.com .
Step two: As a parent, insist on better information from your child’s school. Instead of what did he get, move to what can she do. This discussion puts professional teachers and children in charge of their education not politicians and testing companies.
Step three: Find other parents who think the same as you on this topic and organize. Democracy only works when an informed citizenship rises up to reclaim what was theirs to start with. It may take a village to raise a child, but it only takes a few villagers to convince the village to do it. visit http://www.saveourschoolsmarch.org