by: Andrew Freeman
(appeared in Arcata Eye Newspaper, 8/30/2011
Last week I wrote about my experience at two major education conferences that I attended this summer – the Save Our Schools Conference in Washington, D.C. and the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Conference in Portland. Drawing on experiences at these two very different gatherings of educators, I summarized what I feel are three major obstacles facing education in the United States today – Bureaucracy, Divisiveness and Fear.
Again you can refer to last week’s article to read my discussion on the stifling effect bureaucratization, and specifically standardization of curriculum and its subsequent high stakes testing to determine school funding and staffing, has had on schools across the nation.
Before addressing the problems in education and working towards better meeting the needs of children, educators need to move beyond patterns of divisiveness and fear and towards courage and partnership.
To begin the discussion of divisiveness and how it plagues education today, let’s consider a parallel with the movement to protect forests here in Humboldt County. Over the years we have seen dozens of heated confrontations between local environmentalists and loggers. Yet the truth is that nobody cares more deeply and passionately about forests, albeit for possibly different reasons, than an environmentalist and a logger. An opportunity for true partnership to create change was missed and a Texas-based corporation orchestrated the raping of our forests for over two decades.
Currently in education, there is too much bickering, fighting over territory and playing the victim. Traditional public school teachers blame charter schools for taking their students away; charter schools claim they are the best way forward; private schools are labeled as elitist. This is the kind of poisonous banter found in many a staff lunchroom throughout America’s schools today. Pointing fingers at each other will not move us forward in any meaningful way.
Even at national conferences that brought educators together, divisiveness was present. In Washington D.C., I found many urban-based public school educators identifying charters and independent schools as the wrong way to go. In Portland I found a number of alternative school educators standing in a place of self-righteousness, believing that their model of education is the right way to go. In both cases, the conversation was about one way or the other, excluding the possibility that there are numerous ways in which we can provide quality education for our kids.
Just as the logger and environmentalist both care deeply about the forest, the traditional public school educator, the charter school educator, and the independent private school educator all hold the same core belief that our children deserve a high quality education. We share a common ground where the roots go deep.
International business consultant Carl Zaiss teaches that to achieve true partnership we must move beyond “either-or” and into a “both-and” mentality. Under this premise we can still be passionate advocates of our viewpoint while also “communicating powerfully and not creating the resistance that occurs when we make others wrong.”
It is time for educators to stop blaming one another and look at the larger bureaucratic forces at work that are holding our children’s education hostage. We need to recognize that there is not a one size fits all approach to educating our children. There is no panacea. There is only us, and we need to come out of our corners and engage in meaningful dialogue. We all have stories and perspectives, we can learn a lot from one another, and we can be the change.
However, many educators understandingly are afraid to rustle feathers in their schools, districts and communities. Young public school teachers without tenure can be fired without any stated cause. When teachers speak out or take a stance on education they are often branded as working in their own self-interest. Mainstream media puts a lot of energy into coverage of embarrassing stories like the Atlanta cheating scandal, painting images of teachers in back rooms shading in test bubbles late at night, without asking the deeper questions of why they came to such a point of desperation. Most educators are afraid to rock the boat, even though if you speak with them privately they will tell you that the boat is sinking.
To my fellow educators I say we cannot allow fear to hold us back from untangling the bureaucratic noose that is strangling our schools. None of us ever entered this profession to get rich. We entered into this work because we want to make a positive difference in the lives of children. To be bold, I will say that as educators we undertake a sacred obligation to humanity and generations to come. We must not allow fear to obstruct our work.
To parents, students and other supporters of education I say your involvement is critical to effecting real change. While a teacher’s motive for taking a stance can be questioned as in their self-interest, nobody can question the motive of a parent to seek a quality education for their child and nobody can question a student who chooses to take ownership over their own education.
Therefore I encourage all educators, parents and students to begin a dialogue. Let’s embrace our common visions and our differences and work together to positively transform our schools into enlightened centers of learning that reflect our greatest attributes, hopes and vision.
I invite local educators, parents, students and community members interested in solutions for improving education to begin a local dialogue. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Freeman teaches Social Studies at Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy (NPA), an Arcata based publicly funded charter school.