“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.
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.
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.