Thursday, November 17, 2011

Basic Ideas of Education...I mean democracy

Once upon a time before NCLB, I actually taught government. Then I was told I didn't.  Just that simple(in a related twist Turner was told he did).  The details of why are lost among the recesses of my mind but I was  reassigned and not because of anything I did.  It was a result of NCLB language.   As a younger teacher it takes time to build a library of resources. Thus I relied heavily on the textbook in those days.  So maybe I didn't meet the term "highly qualified" by my degree when I started but what new teacher ever does?   I thought 6 years would have earned me that label.  I was wrong.

Cleaning out the room last summer I came across some of the materials I used teaching government once upon a time.  I recalled working hard to convey to all my senior students key ideas about our great nation.    Liberty, Freedom, Opportunity and all the other cool stuff that makes us who we are as a country.  It reminded me that I struggled with the constantly changing landscape of the politics.  Elections made it hard to keep up with the faces and names.  I learned quickly to steer the focus of my students to the bigger ideas of our democracy.

One thing I constantly stressed with my kids back then was that they mattered.  Once they turned 18, and even before, they could make a difference.  Their voice, their wallet, their time and of course their vote were all ways to make an impact.  I tried very hard to instill in them a sense of political efficacy.  Beyond that I tried to convey that there is a common set of beliefs that somehow weaves us all together as Americans.   As I examined an old notebook of mine and weighed its fate, some of the materials caught me eye.

One section I had written said:
Basic ideas of Democracy
    1. Worth of the individual(respect all people, make sacrifices for group: like taxes)
    2. Equality of all persons(does not mean all have same abilities, all should have an equal chance      and same under law)
   3. Majority rule, minority rights(usually make correct decisions, must listen to minority)
   4. Need for compromise(blending of different views, important to freely express ideas)
   5. Individual Freedom(everyone given freedoms but they must be limited, complete freedom would result in anarchy, democracy balances freedom and authority)

That pretty much sums up a great deal of what this country is about.  Oh and the fact that we are awesome...that part I left out.  As I sat my mind wandered to how I would deal with today's political climate if still teaching government.  What a challenge I thought.  Or is it?  Politics certainly enters my classroom discussion from time to time.  With 9th graders you have to tread a little lighter than with 12th graders.  I'd describe the grasp of politics for most of them as knowing just enough to be confused or dangerous.  But I sense they also share a love of our nation coupled with a growing dislike of the political tensions within the government running it.  Left or Right it doesn't seem to matter. 

These thoughts of our government segway nicely to thoughts about education.  We live in a nation that sees fit to place the important choices in the hands of those farthest from the classroom, farthest from the students, farthest from the parents and farthest from the impact of those decisions.  To paraphrase JFK "the very word secrecy in a free and open society is repugnant."  This approach has come to symbolize our country’s educational management in many ways.  Small numbers of people with a great deal of influence.  Dissent is dismissed or silenced not welcomed.  The idea of questioning things and being able to ask questions and get answer is intertwined with independence is the seed that made this nation strong. Within our many of our nations school systems that idea has been stifled and confined by a desire to control or micromanage, much to the detriment of our children, our schools, our profession and our future.   Top down decision have become the norm.   Nationally there has always been concern about ceding too much control to those at the top and the practice is reserved for extreme crisis.  Existing or manufactured that seems to have been the case in education. 

There are a handful of professional endeavors as noble as to teach the young.  That is not to say teachers are in any way better than any other member of our society.  But is an acknowledgment that they perhaps best understand how to educate. Why is it then the financing, structure, and curriculum of our schools is controlled by those who no longer work in a school?  As flawed a model as there ever  was.  

Our democracy allows for each of us to find his or her own path and pursue it as we see fit.   Pity it does not allow some of these same freedoms within our schools. I guess there's good reasons for this.  But it could be argued that schools are now operated by the ill informed who do not visit, ask or experience before making decisions. Who follow the reform of the hour with no accountability as to the result.  Who make decisions without enough concern or understanding.  Subject to be  misinformed either intentionally or out of ignorance . 

Our schools are not political capital..  They are not an intellectual laboratory.  They are not static.  They are not perfect. They are not all truly failing.  And most certain of all most people in them think they are not currently being well led from the top.   Failure here lies with anyone who does not recognize the value of allowing our schools to create their own identity, community and pursue it to best serve their own kids.  

What all that venting reveals is I have a low sense of educational efficacy.   Surely I make a difference with my kids.  But it grows increasingly more difficult to do so as well as I used to. 
Whether it be new testing, curriculum, value added, compensation practices, treatment of longtime employees, resource allocation, over-reliance on technology, a disconnected leadership structure, poor evaluation systems, promotional practices, privatization of public school funds, reform policies in general, they are woeful when compared to what could and should be done. In short it just seems a lot going on here is contrary to much of what is on the list above.

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