21 January 2012

Changing Gears 2012: why we fight

(1) ending required sameness     (2) rejecting the flipped classroom     (3) re-thinking rigor     (4) its not about 1:1      (5) start to dream again     (6) learning to be a society (again)     (7) reconsidering what literature means     (8) maths are creative, maths are not arithmetic     (9) changing rooms     (10) undoing academic time     (11) social networks beyond Zuckerbergism     (12) knowing less about students, seeing more

This is the last of these "Changing Gears" posts. I began this to get myself to think about where I was right now on a bunch of issues in education. Now Matt Richtel, a reporter with a Pulitzer Prize in misusing data, and his New York Times employers, think blogs have little value, but in my mind they beat the "essay" or even the "dissertation" on almost every level of communication. So, I'm happy I've taken this journey, and if you've ridden along, I hope its been interesting for you as well.

I end this way because, all of our changed thinking means little without action, and so each of us has to decide what we will fight for, and how we will fight...

My father never had a good word for World War II. He might have. He might have mentioned a rather glorious if wholly unauthorized flight in a captured German glider over Plzeň, or a few supposedly amazing weeks in north London, or marrying my Ma, but, those were separated in his mind. He never had a good word for World War II, but be thought it was undeniably necessary. He saw this necessity in no other wars. His only involvement with any veterans' organization was with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and he refused any acclimations of heroic service. But he had been among the very first Americans to see a Concentration Camp, rushing his tanks to the aid of the infantry troops who had discovered Dachau. He had seen great evil. And so he had seen his nightmare in Europe as something required.

(above) Band of Brothers: Why we fight
(below) liberating Dachau, April 1945

I do not make spurious comparisons of various evils to Nazism. When those comparisons are due - from Cambodia to Bosnia to Rwanda - they are obvious. But we all know that, whoever we are, there are things we will fight for, things we will take risks for, and things which do not rise to that level of importance for us. My father found his "line," it is up to us to find ours.

There is a crisis in America today, and in England, and in Ireland, and in Australia, and many other places, and I believe it is a crisis caused by an evil, an evil I believe that we must fight. It is a crisis of the future, because it is a crisis of our commitment to our children. And our children are, or are supposed to be, the most important things in our lives.

There are many attacks on our children these days, and those attacks are stripping away our chances to radically improve the lives of all of our children. We live in a moment when global wealth, and technological capabilities, make it possible to give every kid a real opportunity to make the the most of themselves, but greed, pure greed, is ensuring that this will not happen.

US Republicans don't just favor "open marriage," they like the
idea of using poor children as slave labor.

My good friend David Britten - @colonelb - has put together a brilliant manifesto on the concept of educational opportunity - a concept everyone in the leadership of the United States, from Barack Obama on down - refuses to engage with:
"Equity of opportunity is the missing key ingredient to improving public education in Michigan and across the U.S. “…the key driver of education-development policy in Finland has been providing equal and positive learning opportunities for all children (emphasis added) and securing their well-being, including their nutrition, health, safety, and overall happiness.” (Pasi Sahlberg, Finland’s Success is No Miracle, Education Week Quality Counts 2012)"
Equity, not equality. Equality of opportunity, especially in educational institution terms, is not only impossible, it is probably not desirable. Here's The Colonel on the situation in Michigan...
"[E]conomists, elected officials, and policy wonks gathered in Lansing, Michigan to update revenue projections of the past and forecast revenue for the future. Before the ink was even dry on their predictions, legislators and educators started positioning themselves on what to do with large unexpected projected surpluses. My inbox was exploding with news and recommendations from associations (MASA, MASB, and the like) and the mainstream media began reporting out interviews of anyone and everyone running to the bright lights.

"None discussed the need to address the growing funding gap between rich and poor school districts, and the resulting lack of equitable opportunities for disadvantaged kids to achieve the same goals as every other child in Michigan. Of course not, since that would not be self-serving panning to their respective constituencies.

'“The hierarchy of bureaucracy and the power of the status quo are such that, in our country, poor children and communities are treated differently compared to those children and communities from upper class backgrounds.” (Orfield, 2005, as cited in Rios, Bath, Foster et. al., Inequities in Public Education, Institute for Educational Inquiry, Aug 2009)"
So this is why we fight. We fight because every child deserves, not the f-ing chance to President, but the opportunity to do anything that they can do. Not just because without that opportunity the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom (et al) are no more "democracies" than China is, and not just because we are supposed to be ethical societies, but because our future on this planet of eight, nine, ten billion people trying to share our resources depends on our ability to best use the talents of everyone. Not just the kids who now inherit wealth and position.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder: Here, his daughter's private school explains why $21,000 per year
tuition just can't cover the costs of educating rich kids. Snyder cut Michigan  public school per
student/per year funding to $6,846.

And creating that equity of opportunity requires that we not just change funding so that kids who need more, get more, but that we change our schools so that we do not insist that kids from the homes of the "not traditionally successful" begin far behind, and stay far behind.

I talk a lot about "colonialism" in education and the need to embrace a "postcolonial" ethic, and I understand that - especially in North America where "colonialism" usually means funny hats and kind of chalky paint colors - these are sometimes difficult ideas, but the essence is that, in simple terms, we either expect all children to behave and operate as if they are white, protestant, upper middle class, English-speaking, heterosexual, passive, and externally motivated (bribery/punishment), or we do not. And if we do - under the claim that this is what makes people "employable" - that there is simply no way that children who are not all of that can ever catch up.

They will begin school "behind," and - unless all those rich, "normal" kids stop dead in their tracks - they will remain "behind" no matter what they do.

It doesn't take an accredited scholar to know the "bullsh**" spouted by those trying to keep
the colonial educational apparatus in place. Above, John Wittle on YouTube, below,
Rashaun Williams of the Science Leadership Academy.
Thus, along with funding solutions, our classrooms and schools must transform, so that the culture of our educational spaces becomes inclusive in real terms, accepting that we will not all be the same and that we should not all be the same, which includes rejecting the structures of "learning" which limit who we are and how we communicate.
"[M]y students always write more than they think they are writing because the context is so urgent, compelling, and interactive that they enjoy it and it doesn't seem like drudgery.  They work so hard to articulate and defend ideas about which they have strong convictions that it does not feel to them like the exercise of "writing a term paper."   When I put their semester's work into a data hopper, even I was shocked to find out that they were averaging around 1000 words per week, in a course about neuroscience, collaborative thinking, the technological and ideological architecture of the World Wide Web, and the "collaboration by difference" method that I prescribe as an anecdote to attention blindness, the way our own expertise, cultural values, and attention to a specific task illuminates some things and makes us blind to others.   I argue that the open architecture of the Web is built on the principle of diversity and maximum participation--feedback and editing--that gives us a great tool for compensating for our own shortcomings." - Cathy N. Davidson
What came before this post in this series are my ideas about how to transform schools into places of universal opportunity, but this is neither a comprehensive nor authoritative list, we all keep thinking together, and the list will build, grow, and improve. But - to use a phrase I use far too often when I speak - my version of "ummm" - "Here's the thing": I was at my friendly local Ford dealer last week getting my oil changed and talking to the chief salesperson who has become a valued friend. He told me a story about a "severely" autistic boy in his wife's classroom. He cannot handle the classroom, but he told me about how the parents described to her that he is a remarkable skier, who loves the sport and becomes - well - entirely different on the slopes. I said, I know. I hated classrooms, I still hate most classrooms. "Back then" my escape was in swimming ("a great sport, you can't even hear the coach"), now it is other things. The "disability" is not with the child, it is with the system and the environment.

This is what I fight for.
This is what I ask you to fight for. Fighting, of course, involves risk - not the fake risk of Wall Street or people who begin corporations (the corporation itself is designed as a means of avoiding actual risk) - but the facing of true danger. There are the dangers of losing your job, of not being promoted, of exclusion from certain communities and honors, there are real dangers in terms of time involved (and thus costs to families and in terms of other life opportunities), there are real dangers to comfort. I will not minimize any of this. Yet, I ask you to fight anyway.

We will not change the future of our children through passivity or by waiting. But if it was not this important, the forces arrayed against us would not be either so powerful or relentless. They would not include both American political parties (both Australian political parties), the richest guys on the planet, the biggest banks, the biggest corporations, and they would not have the capabilities to co-opt and bribe seemingly anyone.

These people want the poor and the different to fail, because they have done extremely well with the planet just as it is, with social stratification just as it is, with inequitable opportunity just as it is. They have no real desire for David Britten's kids to be able to compete with Barack Obama's kids or Bill Gates' kids. Those private school kids have, pretty much, a free ride to the top right now, and - parents being parents - they are defending that free ride with everything they've got.

Which means we need to be stronger than they are, better than they are, and take the kind of real risks they do not have to.

We fight for our children.
And unlike Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and friends, when we say "our," we mean it in the most inclusive way imaginable.

- Ira Socol


Bill Genereux said...

Ira, I enjoy your articles and usually agree with you on most things, but saying Republicans favor making poor kids do slave labor is pure hyperbole. Didn't Newt Gingrich offer to pay the kids to do the cleaning work?

If Mr. Gingrich thinks schools fail because of unionized janitors, that's just crazy talk. Schools are failing because there is a huge chasm between education policy makers and those on the front lines doing the actual teaching along with the students and their families.

So on this, I disagree with Gingrich. I think we ought to follow the Japanese model and have kids cleaning their own classrooms in every public school, regardless of zip code or social class, and they should do it without pay. Some would call that slave labor. I would call it character building. I would call it kids taking ownership of their education and their school facility.

When I first heard these remarks by Gingrich, I was reminded of Booker T. Washington's description of founding the Tuskegee Institute.

From the very beginning, at Tuskegee, I was determined to have the students do not only the agricultural and domestic work, but to have them erect their own buildings. My plan was to have them, while performing this service, taught the latest and best methods of labour, so that the school would not only get the benefit of their efforts, but the students themselves would be taught to see not only utility in labour, but beauty and dignity; would be taught, in fact, how to lift labour up from mere drudgery and toil, and would learn to love work for its own sake...

Not a few times, when a new student has been led into the temptation of marring the looks of some building by leadpencil marks or by the cuts of a jack-knife, I have heard an old student remind him: "Don't do that. That is our building. I helped put it up."
-Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery: An Autobiography

Do you think B.T. Washington hated his students because he required them to build their own campus buildings? What a disservice it would have been to hire that original construction work done and steal away that life experience.

I guess I'm saying I get where Gingrich is coming from on this. It's unfortunate that it's only a discussion on poverty. I think even rich kids could stand a good dose of character-building.

irasocol said...


Let me show you how I see this, and do that in context. This is a Republican Party which, on television in the past four months, has been seen booing a gay Iraq veteran but cheering for a guy who suggested "open marriage" to his wife, and which would, later the same evening, cheer wildly when Gingrich called Obama "the food stamp President" while falsely claiming that Obama had created the greatest rise in Food Stamp use (number one: George W. Bush, number two: Ronald Reagan).

Now yes, if Gingrich had suggested that all students had a right to control their schools, and with that control would come certain responsibilities, I'd be right there with you, cheering that. I have suggested this myself.

However, I give Gingrich credit for high intelligence, and very powerful political instincts. I do not think he mis-speaks often. I believe he knew exactly what he was trying to sell to Iowa voters. It is lazy union-member adults who have wrecked education, now, not just going after the teachers, but the janitors who scrub up kids' puke every day.

So I believe "where he is coming from on this" was the political space which blames poverty on laziness, and problems in America on those who dare to earn living wages.

And my school experiences come into play here as well. I see most poor kids happily willing to clean up. It is from wealthy parents that I've heard, "my kid is not going to be trained by you to be a janitor."

- Ira Socol

Greg Pincus said...

I enjoyed the whole series, Ira. Thought provoking and helpful for me in clarifying my own thinking (and opening up lots more areas to think about).

Becky Baker said...

As usual, my only response to your writing is: wow.

Mary Ann Reilly said...

Oh my. The differences between Booker T. Washington and Newt Gingrich are too numerous to name. It seems incredulous to me that one might be used to explain the thinking of the other.

Ira,a moving and right on post. In my last job I arrived to find Ruby Payne books in the office I would occupy. It spoke volumes and I shared articles and positions (anti-Ruby Payne) with all. A post-colonial sensibility would be a massive improvement. I have long said that reading Edward Said ought to be required reading for educators.

I was angered when I heard Mitt Romney explain to the SC audience how he wasn't going to apologize for being a success--as if his earnings weren't tied to the scores of people who have lost their earnings die to his and his company's greed.

Keep writing, Ira. We so need your voice.