The poor get poorer, and more get poorer. Meanwhile college tuitions keep rising. Meanwhile the media declare that no one who hasn’t got a BA can possibly qualify for a living wage. Something’s rotten in this proposition. It’s a catch-22. And it doesn’t have to be that way. It isn’t that way in Finland, for example.
Finland didn’t do it overnight, but they built it around critical democratic habits: competence and trust. They didn’t trade off one for the other. They joined competence and trust—just as we do when we hire a baby-sitter. I often go back to this metaphor because it seems so odd that we understand trust when it comes to a babysitter (even when our children are so young that we can’t really get “their side” of the story) but keep looking for a trust-proof solution to system-wide public schooling.
Trust and skepticism go fine together. The leap of faith we make is always temporary—whether it’s a question of when to lock one’s car doors, leave chairs out on the lawn, etc,
It’s another reason why I like both small class and small school size. It’s easier to learn the culture: what’s reasonable to expect. It’s also easier to verify; there’s a chance that the school and family can keep in direct touch and build trust on the basis of repeated experiences.
But looking for trust-proof “systems” is always both penny wise and pound foolish—and endless. These trust proof systems have to be based on external measures. We start looking at the indirect evidence as a substitute for the “real thing.” The higher the stakes for any “indicator,” the indicator lower its validity. (That’s why test published used to forbid schools from engaging in test prep—it invalidated scores.)
And yes yes yes, race complicates the creation of trust—and acknowledging that is critical. It’s why we must all read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Anderson (MacMillan, 2012). Economic class counts too. Some children have good reason to come to school with distrust—passed down from generation to generation. I do not expect that my good intentions will alone overcome this distrust. But how much easier it is to successfully teach once family and school trust each other’s intentions, at the very least.
In short, we should not be surprised that none of the systems that we are putting in place to “catch” the weak teachers and kids will work. So nearly 25 years of ever intensifying use of external—presumably indirect measures—have not produced results, at least not in terms of improved learning, or even improved test scored! Madness. In fact they have served to increase distrust. Some get caught. Some don’t. But, as the testing manual used to remind us, everyone is getting cheated.
Visiting Denver was a reminder of the above. I visited four schools with very different assumptions about trust. They were all definitely above average. Kids looked pretty happy and I think the staff were glad to be there. One, a 35 year-old K-12 public school called Jefferson Open School was a remarkable example of what it was that folks said “didn’t work” but does. They’ve kept track of their graduates and reconfirmed the results of the 8-Year Study (done during the 1930s) that the more adults and students are trusted the better and tougher work they take on. I saw another public elementary school in “inner city” Denver that has been designed along similar principles and appears to be a great success. I also saw two high schools that serve very similar populations—one of which has adopted many of the “no excuses” behavioral norms and one of which didn’t at all. The latter was sponsored by the Asia Society, and the former is one several new schools built around STEM subjects—with high technology. They are even similar in size. The kids in the “no excuses” school felt that the requirements for silence were reasonable as a way to avoid bullying, fighting, etc and the latter had equally few problems with bullying and fighting—despite “noisy” hallways. In general I was uplifted, even though I saw some of their best examples perhaps.
Three of the schools—while worrying about test scores—also have built in other time-consuming ways to make assessment part of learning. They have developed “systems” similar to those we used at Mission Hill and Central Park East (CPE). The habits that were the foundation of CPE and Mission Hill included not only learning to collaborate, but also learning to resist: in short exercising judgment based on as many forms of direct evidence as we had available. We measured reading by bi-annual “standardized” and individually administered interviews—and audio or video recorded them to share with students, family and external evaluators. Ditto for graduation requirements which rested on a series of “rigorous” presentations—designed to bring different perspectives together on the work and the presentation, a model that several of the schools I visited have also invented.
The purpose of education is precisely to help novices develop judgment. The use of “advisories” that last several years are an example now widely copied. One of the schools purposely has multi-age advisories so that expertise could rest not only with adults but older peers.
Sometimes I get a clue from the language used by staff. “Those kids” is a show-stopper for me. So is “rigor” which according to my dictionary means rigid, inflexible and harsh. But I need to get over this perhaps? While “accountability” has some positive meanings, it’s a poor substitute for taking responsibility. When talking about actual human beings I hate short-cuts—like calling a kid a SPED, or “at risk,” or worse yet a 1,2,3, or 4! I abandoned using “grade level” once I realized no one knew what it meant—including me. I began to share truly direct hard evidence—and listen carefully to the feedback. I was thrilled to hear so little of this jargon in the schools I visited.
My friend from the Educational Testing Service—Ted Chittenden—used to remind us that test scores are indirect evidence—at best! If we have access to the child, why not use direct evidence, he said?
Sometimes we have to “see like the state” (title of a great book by James Scott), but let’s not make it a habit!
Ditto for teachers.
Which brings me to the issue of on tenure. Actually it has nothing to do, historically, with unions. But it fit together with insistence by unions on “due process.” That’s all it is. And it requires more “due process” for senior staff than new staff. That too seems reasonable. And it works best in a society which offers substantial security to all its citizens—so that losing one’s job is not sudden death. We know that the children of secure families have an easier time coping with life, statistically speaking. Why? Because they can exert their energies where their curiosity and interests lie if these are not undermined by fear, rage and sadness.. This goes for students and adults. What’s bad for kids is bad therefore for adults.
This goes incidentally for police as well. Until our cities have police they largely trust, cities will be more dangerous than they need be. What we need, in both cases, is a rethinking of governance so that we will come closer to having trustworthy cops and trustworthy teachers. Distrust produces fear and secrecy—the two most potent enemies of democracy. Discussing what “acting as if we trust each other” would look like and what it takes to make it a reasonable idea should be something we talk about..
And it surely matters when one speaks of living joyously and lovingly. While schools have a special obligation to concern themselves with societal needs—democracy and the economy (how people make a living – if they do), we also have a legitimate concern for the “pursuit of happiness”. I think, on the whole, the three go well together. And we know as a fact, that inequality and unfairness undermine all three. That’s why I know I cannot as successfully teach children who view me as unfair. That’s why due process is so critical. Incidentally, so too for seniority! More on that another time
It fits neatly with last month’s blog—displaying our ignorance requires trust.
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