By David Asia
Contentious community talk is how we know spring has finally come to the Methow (it used to be that and the Pinestump). This year, the issues that have lit up the bulletin board and letters to the editor have to do with education — which can be a good thing. We have been asked to fund two levies and chew on the adoption of the International Baccalaureate Program at our local schools. Many of us have been talking to, with, or at one another about these topics now for over a month.
As important as these are, however, this essay is not about them. Rather, it’s about what I think is the essence, the beating heart, of any educational reform initiative.
To begin with, let’s admit that schooling, and talking about schooling, are human endeavors, and, like all human endeavors, they will always be fundamentally flawed. I know this because each of us is fundamentally flawed, and our institutional and civic lives have a way of magnifying these flaws, often making even the simplest and most obvious things seem so much more difficult. Perhaps the most confounding of these flaws results from the fact that most of us have been to school. And we share a tendency to over generalize our individual experiences, free from the constraints of data.
Let me share a story from a closely related field: addiction and recovery. An individual’s recovery experience can be so powerful that each recovering person, with no intended malice, might assume it to be universal, assume that what worked so well for him should work for everyone else (and if it doesn’t, then that person is not truly committed to his recovery). Sometime before I retired, I helped run an adult felony drug court. The prosecuting attorney, pretty much the gatekeeper and master at arms of any adult drug court, was himself a recovering alcoholic and wouldn’t permit any recovery strategies that didn’t look like the ones which were so helpful to him. Mind you, this is 13 years after his last drink, and regardless of whether our participants were recovering from alcohol, opiate, or meth addiction (or all three at once), and regardless of a whole lot of new science and medicine regarding addiction and recovery.
The here and now
I mention this because our approach to education is a lot like this PA’s approach to recovery: We all have a tendency to think teaching and learning should be like it was for us, and, when it comes to that, we are all experts. It is, after all, what we know — homeport in a complicated storm.
As much as I appreciate my own education, and the culture, family, and economics that made it possible, my life and work after school has taught me that what worked so well for me then and there would be unsuccessful, even unjust, if applied universally to the here and now.
So let me get back to where my life and work have led me.
School reform initiatives generally zero in on one of two pieces of a big puzzle. You can change the curriculum (what gets taught) or you can change the pedagogy (how it gets taught). I think curriculum reform alone is way over rated, bringing with it an unfortunate armada of superficial assessments, gobbling up huge swaths of instructional time and bearing little relevance to any real world measurement of learning. It’s a red herring besides. We spend a lot of time and spill a lot of blood arguing over “what our kids should know,” but, in the end, the what is really just an invitation — what actually happens at the ball is up to Cinderella and the prince.
Besides, what we choose to teach, and however honestly we choose to teach it, says far more about us than it will ever say about our students. Each generation miraculously survives the faults of the previous one. This system, too, is flawed. Human progress will be slowed, and there can be some deep scarring, but it is just the way it is.
Almost everything else that is truly meaningful and transformative comes later, through relationships. This is the how part of teaching and learning, and, in my opinion, it is what we should be talking about.
In order for a reform initiative to be effective, it has to start with absolutely and irrevocably changing the relationships among the adults in the school by tenaciously funding and supporting shared planning periods (preps) for staff (and not just teachers). This means staff meets regularly and frequently to collaborate on developing curriculum, school-wide discipline, instructional strategies, lesson plans, and problem solving the ups and downs of students and the institution itself.
This is a lot harder than it sounds. It goes without saying that effective leadership flips the switch, but there are four other problems to solve before the lights can actually go on:
First, shared preps cost a lot of money. (We shouldn’t expect staff to volunteer these hours after school or on Saturdays, and you can’t just do it in the summer and call it quits.)
Second, it raises hell with the schedule. (You’re taking an interdisciplinary team out of the schedule regularly and all at once.)
Third, you have to create meaningful programming for students while these meetings happen.
Fourth, staff has to feel safe taking risks in front of their colleagues. This is often surprisingly difficult. (We have to talk to one another about why we teach a certain way and be ready to let it go in light of something better.)
These are formidable challenges, and our unsuccessful history in overcoming them explains why so many good reform ideas come and go with very little lasting impact.
A transformation of relationships like this among adults in our schools makes everything else possible. It is the social science equivalent of E=mc2. Without it, the most inspired and cherished hopes of those educators who could truly lead us out of the woods may excite a few of us for a while, but lead to little real change in the way we teach our children.
If we are unable to rise to the occasion, we are doomed to remain in the archaic institutional culture we’ve all come to know so well — an individual educator alone in her classroom with her subject and her students, sharing very little with her colleagues save for the administrative trivia discussed at monthly staff meetings, only now with laptops and computerized student records.
On the other hand, a staff committed to the kind of collaboration I am suggesting (and in no way originating with me) electrifies the school or organization and creates a learning culture that can be just short of miraculous. (I have been fortunate to have had maybe nine out of my 35 years as a participant with such teams.)
With this in mind, then, I encourage any conversation about school reform to explore answers to these questions:
How does your initiative propose to fund and support system-wide, common prep periods for teachers and specific support staff for a minimum of five years?
What, specifically, will teachers and staff be talking about during those common preps?
How do you to propose to engage students in meaningful learning during those times?
How do you intend for this transformation in adult relationships in the school to reach students in order to improve their schooling and better prepare them for lives as engaged, informed participants in civil society?
The late Seymore Sarason, a prolific scholar on school reform initiatives, once characterized schools as the “fastest changing status quo.” This is less of an oxymoron than it seems. No matter how many or how good the ideas, no matter how hard we try, and no matter how much money we spend, the powerful, deeper structures of our schools remain largely unchanged. The demographics of our students change dramatically, research in science and medicine, learning and the brain, all explode, and yet, in spite of this changed and changing world, teaching remains very much an isolated and solitary profession.
Hundreds of thousands of laptops and a million gigabytes later, we still seem to be unable to get there from here.
David Asia lives in Twisp.