The End of the Line, 2020-21

“You never change things by fighting existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”   Buckminster Fuller

School’s out, for the summer. Or almost out, a few torrid days left.

But it ain’t like it used to be, all popsicles and playground lanyard-making, a break from routine.

This year, ed reformers are using the Buckminster Fuller principle in a post-pandemic attempt to make traditional schooling—180 days, face to face, the existing reality—die, once and for all. Drown it, in a bathtub full of unvaccinated kids, dispirited teachers and mandated-but-meaningless test data.

If I were excited about the new model, it would be different. But I think we—and by we, I mean veteran public school educators and public education supporters—have missed the opportunity boat, that crisis-opportunity thing the pandemic put in motion.

Not surprising, given what teachers, school leaders and public districts have been dealing with for the past 15 months. Folks are exhausted. Whipped. They desperately need a re-charge (and some are seeking a new job). Even the most articulate and positive thinkers (shout-out to the new MI Teacher of the Year, Leah Porter) admit that this year was a whole new level of challenging.

Meanwhile, in their air-conditioned homes and cubicles, grant-funded reformers (whose updated computers, broadband and tech support are provided by their non-profit, not their own modest household budget) are planning the Next Big Thing: Universal Online Schooling (with class loads of 300 kids). More charters. Vouchers with creative, obfuscating names. Hybrid this and alternative that.

The more imaginative disruptive initiatives they can come up with, the better—each one chips away at good old outmoded public education. The pandemic conveniently paved their way, too, seeding parent mistrust and frustration, and further dividing communities, politically.

Public school teachers are left hoping that vaccines will be approved for second graders, sometime soon, and parents will maybe take their kids to the library this summer.

Education historian Jack Schneider recently posted a can’t-miss Twitter thread, articulately pointing out that we really do have lots of solid information about teaching and learning, as well as school leadership and climate. We know how to build a good school, in context. But we’ve been pretending that schools with high test scores are the One True Way.

We know how to tweak existing reality, in Bucky’s words, and don’t necessarily have to dump the apple cart, make neighborhood schools obsolete and move on to some Big Sexy reform idea rooted in private profit.

Schneider says:
Our measures of “good” schools are so impoverished. Our current measures fall short in three ways: they lack the necessary validity, they are woefully undemocratic, and they fail to advance equity. The result is that we have valorized schools with high test scores and engaged in dangerously wishful thinking about “replication” and “scale.” Meanwhile we have blown one opportunity after another to actually invest in strengthening our schools (which, by the way, are better than we give them credit for).

We can’t look to the Biden administration, stuck in Obama-era thinking, to bail out public education. The federal money will help, but lots of it has gone to charters and other anti-public ed measures. If fully public, community-based education can be saved, it’s up to the people who love it best and see its long-term value to the nation.

When it comes to public education, I have been a glass half-full kind of advocate for a long, long time.

But this feels like the beginning of the end.

3 Comments

  1. You sound dispirited and exhausted. Are the people in it for profit going to win because of their deep pockets? It is hard to understand how good people can be so captured by scores on a test as the true measure of the success or failure of a school. How do we separate out those people from the grifters who only see dollar signs when they look at education?

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  2. One of the main problems with the standards based reform movement is that it so limiting and such a constraint on what teachers were forced to focus on which allowed school choice options to flourish simply because they had to offer so little. Not only were schools compelled to emphasize math and ELA, but the Common Core standards have constrained how these subjects were taught. It’s time for public schools to take the lead in moving forward by firmly establishing a goal for students that moves well beyond test scores in only two subjects, two!.

    It’s time to move away from vague and subjective standards that push soft (and unteachable) thinking skills, offering little of substance for students. It’s time to pursue a new way forward.

    That goal should be a vibrant and rich, knowledge based, core academic curriculum, opportunities for enrichment in the arts and humanities, selected topics, the full range of extra-curriculars, and multiple pathways for school success.

    One of the ways to accomplish this is by eliminating what is truly an obsolete aspect of secondary public school education: the 180 day, 40 week, “school year” that forces students to wait 10 calendar months for the determination of academic success (passing classes, grade level promotion, graduation). This traditional schedule does a major disservice to marginal students who often give up by mid year, it forces limitations on curricular variety for all, it promotes a harmful level of familiarity between teachers and students, provides zero chances for student re-set their chances for success, eliminates any and all sense of urgency in students, and it is the main reason that school has become “boring” for so many.

    The solution lies in a new model for the secondary “school year” and a new approach to earning credits for grade level promotion and ultimately, high school graduation.

    Here is just one possible model:

    Two, 20 week, independent, credit bearing semesters, each consisting of two, independent 10 week credit bearing periods. The second semester would involve a complete rescheduling of classes and teachers, as if it was the start of a new year. It would allow for subject specific classes that run on 10 or 20 a week schedule, opening up a wide variety of curricular options and multiple chances for marginal students to re-set their credit opportunities.

    Each school year would include four, independent, 10 week credit bearing periods.

    Here is an example for what 9th grade biology could look like:

    Semester I
    Credit Period 1: Biological Classification, Bio-Diversity, Adaptations
    Credit Period 2: Cells, Genetics, Reproduction, Photosynthesis/Respiration

    Semester II
    Credit Period 3: Ecology/Ecosystems, Natural Selection/Evolution
    Credit Period 4: Human Body Systems, Human Disease

    All of this would essentially be FREE!

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  3. I think one of the most damning facts about our education “reform” process, currently being pounded out as if it were a typewriter by a furious pack of ed-reformist monkeys, is that the Finns, whose system we laud, got all of their research from . . . wait for it . . . the US . . . because everybody knows the US education research is the best. Except, well, all of the current reformers who couldn’t pick an education out of a police line up.

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