by: Andrew Freeman
(appeared in Arcata Eye Newspaper, 8/23/11)
For seven years I have taught in our public education system. I consider myself and all teachers to be activists. Our work is important for we are helping to shape the lives of what we as a society hold most precious – our children. With this in mind I recognize that my work as a teacher goes beyond what I do in my own classroom and school. There are forces at work shaping our nation’s education policy, which in turn will craft what we will be as a society in the years, decades and centuries to come.
This summer I embarked on a journey to find the pulse among the currents of education philosophy and policy in America. My travels first took me to the Save Our Schools National Conference and March in Washington D.C. and later to the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Conference in Portland, Oregon.
In this and next week’s column I will provide a report of what I observed and learned at these events. I will then outline what I found to be the three biggest issues facing education in America today and what people are doing about them.
Save Our Schools (SOS) is a grassroots coalition of public school advocates who have the goals of equitable funding for all public schools, an end to high stakes standardized testing, and teacher, family, and community leadership in forming public education policies and curriculum. However, the way forward to reach these goals was heavily debated at the conference.
Often I felt that we were having the wrong conversations at SOS. For example, while we all could agree that public schools should receive equitable funding, there was a lot of time spent lambasting alternative schools, private schools, and the ever emerging quasi private/public charter schools. While the concerns about privatization in public education are real – we must not allow private corporations to use their contributions to influence curriculum – we also have examples of non-profit organizations, like Bill Gates’ Foundation, giving money to fund innovative charter programs. Karran Harper Royal, co-founder of Parents Across America, takes a strong stand against charters which she claims in New Orleans screen admissions, push out “underperforming” students, and neglect traditional neighborhood schools. This is certainly unfair and problematic. However taking unwavering stands against charters is not going to deliver equity; we must instead demand more equal funding for all schools.
This is one example of the many conversations that took place at SOS. Despite our differences, 3,000 of us marched together around the White House sharing a belief in the importance of quality education and a love for our children.
I left my experience with the rank and file public school people to enter the world of alternative education at AERO in Portland. Here was an eccentric gathering of those working on the fringes of and outside the system. I was inspired hearing about the work of those in Free Schools, Montessori, Sudsbury, Waldorf, Democracy Schools, Peace Schools, Farm Schools and even Un-Schools! After being in DC learning about the major problems facing our nation’s public schools, it was refreshing to be among those who by and large have avoided stifling standardization and top-down regulations and instead have manifested thriving models of what education can be when school creation is up to parents, students, educators and local communities.
Based on my experiences at both conferences, I summarized what I found to be the three most pressing issues facing education today: Bureaucratization, Divisiveness and Fear.
Bureaucratization of education is the major factor that pulls educators away from providing the best service they can for our children. While there are many facets to the bureaucratization issue, the aspect I wish to focus on is standardization of curriculum and the subsequent high stakes standardized tests.
One area we all had common ground on at SOS and AERO was a call for an end to high stakes standardized testing. The testing mania, which links funding to school wide performance, was unleashed by the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. Phil and Joan Harris, education researchers and authors of The Myths of Standardized Tests, claim that student knowledge, achievement, and learning cannot be assessed by a measurement of correct and incorrect responses to a limited number of questions on a standardized test. Consequently, test scores do not provide citizens with the information they need to know about public schools and their teachers. The Harris’, use quantitative analysis to prove false the assumptions behind testing. However, most educators know instinctively that student achievement and learning must be assessed using both quantitative and qualitative measures. Even then, there is no absolute value that can be placed on something as profound, complex and cosmic as a human being’s knowledge.
The testing regimen has resulted in school administrators pushing teachers to prepare students for the test, it has caused teachers to narrow the curriculum to cover test-relevant information, or “teach to the test”. Finally, it has short-changed our children from receiving the holistic, creative, enlightening, and empowering education they all deserve.
There is a clear majority opposed to standardized testing and it’s time to exercise our democratic rights and put an end to it. I encourage readers to explore the work of Angela Engel, author of Seeds of Tomorrow , who is lobbying at high levels of government to end standardized testing; the Bartleby Project, a grassroots effort encouraging students to take a stand; and Students Against Testing.
Finally, I invite local educators, parents, students and community members interested in solutions for improving our children’s education to begin a local dialogue. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next week I will discuss what I found to be the two other major problems in education today – divisiveness and fear – and how we need to shift towards finding common ground, respecting differences and moving forward towards positive change.
Andrew Freeman teaches Social Studies at Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy (NPA), an Arcata based publicly funded charter school