Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Backwards School

One of my regrets as a parent is that I did not advocate more strongly for my son when he was in kindergarten. We had several go-rounds about his behavior, and the problem boiled down to this-- in the morning, before the official start of school, she wanted to have peace and quiet to get her materials organized for the day, and so these five-year-olds were expected to come in from the bus and sit quietly at their desks waiting for the start bell to ring. It would have been almost comical except that this power struggle got every day off to a lousy start, and in the end the biggest lesson my son took away from kindergarten was that school was awful and that he was a bad boy. His mother and I pushed back, but I should have pushed back much harder. I had some funny ideas about professional respect between fellow teachers in the district. I don't have those ideas any more.

The classroom was backwards. In that classroom, the students were there to meet the needs of the teacher, not the other way around.

This was almost twenty-five years ago, and there was no school reform agenda to blame it on. Unfortunately, we have always had classrooms, schools, even entire districts that get turned around backwards. We start with a list of things that we need the students to do for us, instead of an honest inquiry into what the students need us to do for them.

The newest ed reform wave did not create this issue, and it's not the first time we've faced it. Public schools in America have always struggled with a balance between what students need in order to become educated adults and the imperative to mold each child into a round peg to fit into society's round holes.

But the newest ed reform wave has done its best to hardwire backwards schooling into the system. The emphasis on testing and test scores means that schools and teachers need students to make the right numbers. Reformsters talk about personalizing or individualizing education, but what they mean is calibrating the one-size-fits-all program to get students to cough up the desired numbers. They will tell students what "success" means, and they will tell the student when he's met that goal; what he needs or wants is nothing more than an obstacle to be overcome in the process of getting him to produce the proper numbers.

I believe that some reformsters, some high stakes testing boosters, actually believe that their approach addresses the very issues I'm talking about. They are wrong. When you say to a teacher, "This kid better get an 85% on this test or you're in big trouble," the teacher is not going to be motivated to listen to the student or look at the student's needs and desires as anything other than an obstacle to getting that score out of that student. The testing mandate is a sure way of pushing that teacher to finally say, "Look! What you want and feel and need don't matter. Just shut up, sit down, and get these questions right!"

The testing mandate turns every student into the real-life equivalent of a videogame boss that the teacher must defeat in order to get a good score. The teacher need only understand the boss well enough to defeat it.

In some urban and charter schools, the backwards schooling extends to every aspect of the student. Not only do we need him to produce the right numbers, but we require him to behave "properly," to line up, to speak. These schools will tell him how to to dress, how to speak, how to sit, how to walk through the halls-- and there will be no excuses when he fails to produce what is demanded of him. And when he fails to produce, that failure is not seen as the school's failure to meet him where he is or adapt to who he is as a human being; instead, it will be seen as his failure to be the person the school demands. In fact, if he's from a particular neighborhood, his failure to meet the school's demands may be seen as defiance, a willful noon-compliance that means he must be stamped down harder, branded as a troublemaker, moved from the school track to the prison track.

When a school system tightens up, it results in the miraculous "discovery" of "defective" students. after all, if my state-approved teaching program is being properly implemented by the classroom content delivery specialist and Chris is still getting poor grades, then Chris must be defective. Have a specialist check Chris for learning disabilities. And if five-year-old Pat is won't sit still in the endurance-development exercises necessary to prepare for the Big Test, perhaps Pat had better be checked for ADHD so we can administer the proper drugs.

I am not advocating that we hand students the keys to the building and let them set up a land of Do As You Please. But when a school stops listening to students, it loses its way.  When we pay attention to students, it can throw off carefully sculpted lesson plans and create momentary confusion and even (gasp) lead to situations where we are the Absolute Rulers in our own classrooms. Tough noogies.

Listening to our students, listening to what they need and want, giving them the chance to grow into the people that they, through aspiration, inclination or accident, are going to be-- that's all Job One.

Our students are not here to serve us. They are not here to take tests for us, to make our jobs easy for us, to be the kind of compliant people we would find most convenient to work with. They are not obstacles to our success (regardless of what regulations and evaluations tell us). They are our purpose for being here.


  1. Not only do we need him to produce the right numbers, but we require him to behave "properly," to line up, to speak. These schools will tell him how to to dress, how to speak, how to sit, how to walk through the halls-- and there will be no excuses when he fails to produce what is demanded of him.

    And yet, not only is actual learning of "hard skills" lost in all of this test preparation, but acquisition of so called "soft skills", including how to behave in professional settings and how to listen in class and how to take notes and such, are lost in all of this enforced good behavior.

  2. Yes, on the one hand students are supposed to develop critical thinking skills so they can become informed participants in a democratic society; on the other hand, and really, in opposition to this, they're supposed to learn to be compliant, conforming, unquestioning, and obedient to what society expects of them, round pegs to fit in round holes. And if you deviate from the norm, the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders can label you as having "oppositional defiance disorder", or ODD.

    I too believe the school is there to meet the needs of the students, not the other way around. I thought all teachers thought that way until a grad class I took. It was specifically for foreign language teachers. As a foreign language teacher, I believe learning foreign language is important because it helps you to better understand how language works, it enables you to talk to people you wouldn't be able to otherwise, and it helps you see that people from different cultures have different customs and beliefs, but everyone everywhere has the same needs and wants. We read an article in which the author posited that the purpose of high school was to decide which students were worthy enough to go to college. I commented on how wrong that was, because I believed school was to help each student figure out where their aptitudes and interests lay and to help each one reach their potential. All the other grad students, veteran foreign language teachers, stared at me as if I had just grown another head. They were all convinced that their sole purpose as teachers was to be "rigorous" in order to "weed out" the kids who shouldn't go to college.