If such a thing existed, education as a profession and discipline would easily take Gold, Silver, and Bronze in the Low Self-Esteem Olympics.
Historically viewed as a woman’s profession—and thus a “second” salary—and as merely a professional discipline, education has labored under a secondary status in both the professional and academic worlds.
As a result, education chose early to be a scientific profession and discipline to counter the perception of softness—and thus, as Kliebard details, the heart and soul of education (child-centered commitments and social activism) were marginalized for the more conservative and “hard” elements (efficiency and core curriculum).
In the early decades of the twentieth century, then, a paradox developed: while many who demonized and championed education associated U.S. public schools with John Dewey, the reality was that very little progressivism was practiced but that standardized testing was established as the engine driving the education machine.
Throughout the twentieth century, IQ testing and then the SAT and similar gate-keeping standardized tests (such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) significantly influenced how students were labeled and then what courses students were assigned—and even if they had real access to higher education. By the early 1980s, a new era of hyper-accountability was established within which the locus of power shifted entirely to standards and high-stakes tests.
In short, teachers have been reduced to implementing the standards prescribed for them and to conducting test-prep—while the discipline of education has been almost entirely bureaucratized since education courses serve as vehicles for fulfilling certification and accreditation mandates.
In the Preface to Regenerating the Philosophy of Education (edited by Kincheloe and Hewitt, Peter Lang USA, 2011), Hewitt confesses:
Seriously. I never thought I would ever have to justify the moral importance of social foundations courses—particularly philosophy of education courses—in Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs to a committee of colleagues, all holding Ph.Ds. (p. ix)
What Hewitt and the volume are addressing, however, is the new reality about teacher education: education philosophy and foundations courses are disappearing (are gone) because more and more course work in education degrees has to fulfill demands of certification and accreditation.
Teacher educators, teacher candidates, and practitioners—all are now not in the business of investigating and building/re-building the profession and discipline of education, but are soldiers taking marching orders from bureaucrats and technocrats.
No more “What is the purpose of universal public education in a free society?” but instead “How do we raise test scores among poor and black/brown students?”
And as I have pointed out before, among those of us in teacher education—who work in higher education where many of us have tenure and are full professors—“we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Teacher education has continued the most self-defeating aspects of being a low self-esteem profession and discipline by trying way too hard to prove we are like “hard” disciplines—scrambling to be like psychology while sacrificing our sociological roots, battering our majors and candidates with statistics and measurement while reducing educational philosophy to surveys at best and eliminating it entirely at worst.
And to drift a bit into irony, philosophy is extremely illustrative of the problem facing education. Gilles Deleuze explains:
We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family. The family is an “interior,” in crisis like all other interiors—scholarly, professional, etc. The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms [emphasis added]: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….
In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again [emphasis added] (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)
Education, then, as bureaucratic and technocratic has characteristics of both societies of control and disciplinary societies—”always starting again” and “never finished with anything” as characteristics of the accountability paradigm driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests.
But for all the bluster about being “scientific” and the relentless mantra of “crisis,” bureaucratic and technocratic education has failed to examine the data and re-evaluate the process: after nearly a century of standardized testing and over three decades of accountability, most “problems” all of that has been fashioned to address remain the same: poverty and inequity, racism, sexism, and homophobia still plague society and the schools designed to serve and even change that society.
The short version is that bureaucratic and technocratic education has not worked—except to destroy the heart and soul of education as a profession and discipline.
At both the K-12 and higher education levels, the school year is beginning all across the U.S. We in teacher education are spending much if not most of our time as soldiers in the certification and accreditation wars—recalibrating syllabi to standards and rewriting our rubrics to meet those new standards as well.
We in teacher education are so busy complying to bureaucratic and technocratic mandates, and so-long beaten down by the demand that we avoid being political (and thus remain compliant and silent), that we are embodying the very caricature of what educators and education professors are, paradoxically, as we rush to prove our profession and discipline are “hard,” scientific: rarely scholarly, superficial, and simplistic.
K-12 teachers are increasingly even less powerful than the profession has been forever; therefore, teacher education—where we are tenured and full professors—is the last best hope for reclaiming the heart and soul of universal public education from the bureaucrats and technocrats.
We must reclaim the coursework and the discipline—ripping off our low self-esteem and standing proudly with our philosophy, theory, history, and methodology.
As a profession, education is a human endeavor, guided by our hearts and anchored by our souls. Teaching daily is messy, unpredictable, and chaotic.
None of that is “soft,” or hedging accountability.
As a discipline, education is rich and still in a constant state of becoming.
I cannot stress enough that over a thirty-plus-year career as first a public school English teacher and now a teacher educator, I don’t need standards, I don’t need tests, and I damn well don’t need rubrics to teach.
I do need students, and I do need courses to teach.
But these are trivial matters, irrelevant, as long as teacher educators remain dedicated soldiers in the bureaucratic and technocratic education war.
Now, we do need defectors, conscientious objectors—teacher educators willing to resist, to speak up, and act out.
Especially those of us with tenure and who are full professors, we need not be the enemy—we can and should do better.
We must imagine that if we were able to peak inside the imagination of politicians in the U.S., we would see only one scene on a loop:
Especially when our political leaders are addressing education, they cannot resist the urge to wallow in crisis discourse and to promise Utopian outcomes.
As I have documented before, the rush to declare public schools an abject failure and then offer prescriptions for bureaucratic reforms began at least in the 1890s with the Committee of Ten. Periodically, the exact same scenario repeats itself—not unlike the inevitable rebooting of superheroes that plagues the comic book industry, which can retell only the same origin stories over and over again.
In recent history, education reform experienced a Hulk-like transformation with A Nation at Risk (“We are in CRISIS!!!”) under Ronald Reagan—although it was a lie—spurring the accountability era.
Education reform over the past thirty years has been an endless parade of NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests as well as a silly string of inane names for political policies that appear to have been generated by an Orwellian computer program: Goals 2000: Educate America Act, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds Act.
At their core, however, has been the same-old-same-old: Education is in CRISIS!!! but here is the reform solution (just like the last reform solution).
If politics is anything in the U.S., it is finding yourself in a hole and continuing to dig.
This first report explains why there’s no time to lose in rebuilding state education systems. However NCSL’s study group still has questions—and surely the reader does too—about how to design and implement these systemic changes in the states. Where should legislators begin—teacher recruitment or preparation, standards, assessments, early learning? How should states realign their resources? Do some of these policies fit together better into an actionable package? There is still much to learn and discover.
This report combines the CRISIS!!! we have come to expect with the breezy tone of an NPR story on education.
The opening of the Executive Summary reads like a brilliant parody from The Onion— filled with false but enduring claims:
The bad news is most state education systems are falling dangerously behind the world in a number of international comparisons and on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress, leaving the United States overwhelmingly underprepared to succeed in the 21st century economy.
Fact Check: Decades of evidence have proven that there is NO CORRELATION between measurable educational quality of a state or country and that state/country’ economic status. As well, NAEP data and all standardized testing (notably PISA, which is central to this report’s claims) has been repeatedly proven to reflect mostly socioeconomic status of those students taking the tests—not school, teacher, or standards quality.
Therefore, the grounding CRISIS!!! of this report once again suggests there is little to gain from this report.
This report is fatally flawed by crisis discourse, simplistic international comparisons based on high-stakes test scores, linking measurable education quality to economic health and workforce quality, and remaining trapped in the ignored bitter lessons from chasing better tests.
Like the 87th retelling of the Batman origin, this report is doomed by a total lack of imagination—trapped in a narrative that politicians think will change each time they tell it. But also like those superhero reboots, there are kernels of potential buried under the scrambling feet of movie goers fleeing the (manufactured) Blob as it squeezes into the theater.
So, what about the reform solutions offered here?
Let’s consider the report’s primary focus on Elements of a World-Class Education System:
- “Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.” As linked above, and since this report highlights Ontario, Canada, this element is extremely important because the socioeconomic status of any child’s home, especially in the first years of that child’s life, powerfully predicts educational outcomes. The appropriate response to this element is calling for social reform addressing equity and then exploring education reform driven by equity and not accountability.
- “A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.” The real problem in the U.S. regarding teacher quality is equitable access by all children to experienced and certified teachers. Poor and black/brown students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to un-/under-certified and inexperienced/new teachers (see here). But we must acknowledge, even if we address (and we must) equitable student access to experienced and certified teachers, the likelihood we will see dramatic changes in test scores is very low since teacher quality accounts for only about 10-15% of measurable student learning.
- “A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.” While a credible concern, the tension between academic and technical (career-oriented) education has a long and complex history (see Kliebard). Regretfully, playing the academic/technical card by political leaders and embedding that in education policy has never worked—and likely never will. This remains a tired and recycled (and renamed) part of the lack of imagination when politicians address education reform.
- “Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.” By this fourth element, we see the gradually erosion toward superficial political/business thought: empty change-speak. But more troubling is that the political/bureaucratic/business response to education is always driven by prescriptions and structures that ignore the essentially unpredictable and complex act of one teacher teaching a classroom of unique students.
Before returning yet again to a new round of international comparisons (o, precious Finland, Ontario, and Singapore!!! ), the report ends with more crisis and hyperbole:
As state legislators, it is our responsibility to provide our citizens with a world-class education. We cannot let another generation settle for anything less. Our future workforce, national defense, economic vitality and democratic foundation depend on our ability and willingness to get this done.
If we assemble the best minds in policy and practice, implement what we know works, and commit ourselves to the time, effort and resources needed to make monumental changes, we can once again be among the best education systems in the world. If they can do it, so can we. But there’s no time to lose.
No Time to Lose is yet another round of the political crisis machine—perpetually trapped in Utopian promises that have never and will never result from our blind faith in NEW!!! standards and NEW!!! high-stakes tests.
Two of the four Elements highlighted in the report offer a small promise—but I fear they cannot survive the trampling of perpetual crisis.
 In the early 1960s, it was the powerhouse threat of Swiss schools!!!
No, it’s all nonsense, believe me. I had no idea how much nonsense it was, but nonsense it all is.
Anna Scott, Notting Hill
Everything that is wrong with edujournalism and the teaching of writing in the accountability era can be found in Education Week: the anemic examination of the five-paragraph essay (or when edujournalists discover a field in the same way Columbus discovered America) and Lucy Calkin’s interview about the state of teaching writing (or when edugurus package and promote educommerce).
Both of these pieces frame how the teaching of writing now faces greater demands from (you guessed it) the Common Core. But neither piece admits that the Common Core is at best on life support or that this puts the cart before the horse.
You see, the teaching of writing should be driven by the field of composition—the decades of expertise that can be found in the scholarship of writers and teachers of writing as well as foundational and powerful organizations such as the National Writing Project and the National Council of Teachers of English.
The Common Core is no more than bureaucratic nonsense; these standards serve the needs of educommerce, but do not reflect the field of literacy, do not meet the needs of teachers or students.
And thus, these standards, the high-stakes tests inevitably linked to all standards, and the coverage of writing in EdWeek, as Anna Scott opined, it’s all nonsense.
A little history here: Zip back to 2005 when Thomas Newkirk detailed in English Journal that the “new” SAT writing section had already resulted in “students [being] coached to invent evidence if they were stuck.”
In other words, writing was reduced to conforming to the 25-minute, one-draft prompted assessment in one high-stakes test.
Newkirk confirmed what George Hillocks found about the accountability movement’s negative impact on writing:
[W]hen students have been subjected to this instruction for eight to ten years, they come to see the five paragraph theme and the shoddy thinking that goes with it as the solution to any writing problem. Directors of freshman English at three Illinois state universities have complained about the extent of the problem. The English department at Illinois State University publishes a manual advising their incoming freshmen that while the five para- graph essay may have been appropriate in high school, it is not appropriate in college and should be studiously avoided. It shuts down thinking.
This is a crucial time in American democracy. We are faced with problems that demand critical thinking of all citizens. We need to help students examine specious arguments and know them for what they are. Our tests encourage the opposite. They encourage blurry thinking and obfuscation. As a society, we cannot afford to spend valuable classroom time on vacuous thinking and writing. (p. 70)
So let’s consider the state of writing instruction in K-12 public schools—and let’s try looking at the overwhelming evidence as detailed by Applebee and Langer’s 2013 Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms.
In my review of this research, I detail both what we know about the state of teaching writing and what the roadblocks are to effective writing pedagogy:
In Chapter Two (Writing Instruction in Schools Today), Applebee and Langer (2013) lay the foundation for what becomes the refrain of the book:
“Overall, in comparison to the 1979–80 study, students in our study were writing more in all subjects, but that writing tended to be short and often did not provide students with opportunities to use composing as a way to think through the issues, to show the depth or breadth of their knowledge, or to make new connections or raise new issues…. The responses make it clear that relatively little writing was required even in English…. [W]riting on average mattered less than multiple-choice or short-answer questions in assessing performance in English…. Some teachers and administrators, in fact, were quite explicit about aligning their own testing with the high-stakes exams their students would face” (pp. 15-17)….
And those concerned about or in charge of education reform policy should use this study and analysis as a cautionary tale about the unintended and negative consequences of the current thirty-year accountability era that has failed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its call for scientifically based education policy (Thomas, 2013). Since the central message about the gap between best practice and the day-to-day reality of writing in U.S. middle and high schools is consistent in Applebee and Langer’s work, I want to highlight several key points and then conclude with a couple caveats that help inform teachers and policy makers:
- Across disciplines, students are being asked to write briefly and rarely, with most writing falling within narrow templates that are unlike discipline-based or real-world writing.
- Teachers tend to know about and embrace the value of writing to learn content, but rarely implement writing to achieve rich and complex examinations of prior or new learning.
- Student technology savvy is high (notably related to social media), while teacher technology savvy remains low. Technology’s role in teaching and learning is detailed as, again, narrowed by high-stakes testing demands and “primarily…used to reinforce a presentational mode of teaching” (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 116). These findings call into question advocacy for greater investments in technology absent concern for how it is implemented as well as raising yet another caution about ignoring research showing that technology (especially word processing) has the potential to impact writing positively if implemented well.
- While English language learners (ELLs) tend to be one category of students targeted by education reform and efforts to close achievement gaps, high-stakes testing and accountability stand between those students and the potential effectiveness of extended process writing in writing workshop experiences.
- Like ELL students, students in poverty suffer the same fate of disproportionately experiencing narrow learning experiences that focus on test-prep and not best practice in writing instruction:
“By far the greatest difference between the high poverty and lower poverty schools we studied stemmed from the importance that teachers placed and administrators placed on high-stakes tests that students faced. In the higher poverty schools, fully 83% of teachers across subject areas reported state exams were important in shaping curriculum and instruction, compared with 64% of their colleagues in lower poverty schools” (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 149).
- One important counter-narrative to the education reform focus on identifying top teachers is that Applebee and Langer (2013) note that when teachers have autonomy and implement best practice, high-poverty students outperform comparable high-poverty students in classrooms “with more traditional approaches to curriculum and instruction,” driven by test-prep (p. 148).
The problem with teaching writing is not that teachers lack knowledge of good writing pedagogy (although that certainly is a concern), but that accountability and high-stakes testing (read: Common Core and whatever the next wave is) have supplanted teacher autonomy and the expertise in the field of teaching writing.
The five-paragraph essay was never good writing pedagogy, and abdicating the field of composition to Common Core, any set of standards, any high-stakes testing, and the concurrent educommerce all that nonsense feeds is the problem with teaching writing.
Read Julian Vasquez Heilig’s What other universities should learn from UT, and note especially this:
Not discussed in the current ruling, but I believe relevant, is that Fisher did not fall below a bright line by which whites were rejected and minorities admitted. As reported in The Nation, UT-Austin offered admission “to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were Black or Latino. Forty-two were white.” Additionally, “168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year.”
It is unfortunate that Fisher believed wrongly, in spite of factual evidence and data to the contrary, that she was discriminated against because she was white. In fact, by pursuing a case where the data was very clear on this point, she continued the insecurity and insidiousness of racial prejudice that has unfortunately permeated our society for centuries.
There may be many cracks in Maintaining the Charter Mirage: Progressive Racism, including Paul Hewitt’s A modest proposal for charter schools; consider this:
Now that I have established myself as an opponent of charter schools I have a proposal for the Walton family and charter school proponents everywhere. I propose that you go against my friend’s admonition that we need public schools for charters to succeed. If charter schools are so good, let’s make every school in the current school district a charter school. Let’s dissolve the traditional school board and have them become trustees of school facilities. Let’s take all the existing school facilities and have charter school groups nationwide bid through proposals to take over and run that school. State law may need to be altered a little for this grand experiment. For example, no student living in the current school boundaries could transfer to a school in another neighboring school district. This would ensure that the charters serve all students in the community including the special education, English language learners, and at-risk children to ensure that no child could be “pushed out.”
Just imagine, every school would be a charter school and parents could have their choice of schools for their child. The traditional lottery system would be used at each school, and if the parent wasn’t lucky enough to get their first choice they could go to their second or third. Because the population of the entire school district would be involved there could be no discrimination and all students, even the at-risk, would be served. The traditional creaming of top students that is the major criticism of charters would be eliminated. This would be a completely free-market school choice system.
The double irony to this confrontation as (mostly) satire is that transforming all public schools into charter schools has already occurred—in New Orleans; see Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam.
And while edureformers continue to mislead political leaders and the public about such turnover/turnarounds, New Orleans is but one example of how these market-based reforms have proven to be utter failures.
In 1949, former NCTE president and English teacher/educator Lou LaBrant argued: “Our language programs have been set up as costume parties and not anything more basic than that” (p. 16).
In 2016, former NCTE president and esteemed educator and activist Joanne Yatvin confronts the same disturbing dynamic in her Too Little and Too Late.
Regretfully, Yatvin’s powerful refuting of the National Reading Panel, at the base of No Child Left Behind, was mostly ignored by political leaders and the public. Yet, she is once again ringing a bell that must be heard:
To the Editor:
As a retired educator, still deeply involved with the teaching of reading and writing, I was dismayed to read that the Portland Public schools are still tied to one-size-fit all commercial materials for teaching reading and considering combining pieces from several of them to make a new program. By this time experienced teachers should have learned that each child learns to read in his own time frame and in his own way, and that real literature and non-fiction are far better tools than anything concocted by commercial publishers.
Learning to read is not all that difficult when children are given interesting and well-written books for group activities and allowed to choose books that appeal to them to read on their own. It also helps when adults read aloud interesting books with illustrations on a regular basis. That is how children learn vocabulary and begin to understand the world outside their own homes and neighborhoods. Reading poetry helps too, because of the repeated word sounds and lines.
Over all, we should remember that reading and writing have been around for many centuries, and that the people who wanted and needed to use those skills found them easy to learn– often without a teacher, and certainly without any breakdown into separate skills, workbook exercises, or tests.
The entire accountability reform movement driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests benefits mostly the education market—not students, not teachers.
In fact, as my current graduate literacy course has revealed to me, teachers both recognize the negative impact of required reading programs and materials and feel powerless to set those materials aside in order to implement what their children actually need.
I entered the field of education fueled by the belief that traditional schooling needed to be reformed. I am a public school advocate, but I also recognize that traditional public schools have served white middle-class and affluent children well (even though, as I can attest, that population often excels in spite of traditional schooling) while mostly failing vulnerable populations of students, specifically black, brown, and poor children.
My fellow pro-public school friends have been proudly sharing Jack Schneider’s America’s Not-So-Broken Education System.
While both Schneider and those sharing his piece are, I am certain, driven by good intentions, I must caution that such defenses of public schools suffer from whitewashing—a not-so-subtle middle-class lens that fails to adequately emphasize the racist and classist policies entrenched in public schools.
Public education as a social reform mechanism has not happened; public schools more often than not reflect and perpetuate the very worst aspects of our society.
If I may, I believe those of us who are adamant about supporting public education are committed to the potential, the promise that public education could be or should be something better, at the very least a model of equity if not a lever for equity.
Related to the above concern, access to experienced and certified teachers is a key aspect of both how our public schools have failed and how we are currently committed to the very worst aspects of education reform (for example, Teach For America and value-added methods for teacher evaluation).
Derek Black has compiled a powerful and important examination of Taking Teacher Quality Seriously.
See the abstract:
Although access to quality teachers is one of the most important aspects of a quality education, explicit concern with teacher quality has been conspicuously absent from past litigation over the right to education. Instead, past litigation has focused almost exclusively on funding. Though that litigation has narrowed gross funding gaps between schools in many states, it has not changed what matters most: access to quality teachers.
This Article proposes a break from the traditional approach to litigating the constitutional right to education. Rather than constitutionalizing adequate or equal funding, courts should constitutionalize quality teaching. The recent success of the constitutional challenge to tenure offers the first step in this direction. But the focus on teacher tenure alone is misplaced. Eliminating tenure, without addressing more important fundamental challenges for the teaching profession, may just make matters worse. Thus, this Article argues for a broader intervention strategy. When evaluating claims that students have been deprived of their constitutional right to education, courts should first ensure that states equally distribute existing quality teachers, regardless of the supply. Courts should then address state policies that affect the supply of teachers, which include far more than just salaries. When those remedies still prove insufficient to ensure access to quality teachers, courts must ensure that the removal of ineffective teachers is possible.
And a perfect companion for your weekend reading comes from 1969: “Bullshit and the Art of Crap -Detection” by Neil Postman.
Here’s just a taste:
Thus, my main purpose this afternoon is to introduce the subject of bullshit to the NCTE. It is a subject, one might say, that needs no introduction to the NCTE, but I want to do it in a way that would allow bullshit to take its place alongside our literary heritage, grammatical theory, the topic sentence, and correct usage as part of the content of English instruction. For this reason, I will have to use 15 minutes or so of your time to discuss the taxonomy of bullshit. It is important for you to pay close attention to this, since I am going to give a quiz at the conclusion.
Cycle has happened often, and now poised to happen again.
For #3 (where we are now before jumping back to #1), see Common Core isn’t preparing students very well for college or career, new report says.
As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself. (Mathis, 2012)
In many regions of this planet, humans are gifted the changing seasons, including the drift into hibernation and then the rebirth of spring.
One of my favorite poems has always been [in Just-] by e.e. cummings—in part because I read the “Just” as both “only” and the root of “justice,” wondering if in fact spring is just in the human sense of that justice or more so in the less ethics-grounded justice of natural dynamics.
As we slip into spring, then, I offer a smattering of varied readings, many of which should help in meditating on our human sense of justice.
- Nina Simone’s Face, Ta-Nehisi Coates
- The Appropriation Of Nina Simone, Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Miles Morales vs. Spider-Man: When You and Your Blackness Disagree
- Inaugural JustSouth Index 2016 (Jesuit Social Research Institute)
- Charter Schools, Civil Rights and School Discipline: A Comprehensive Review, Daniel J. Losen, Michael A. Keith II, Cheri L. Hodson, Tia E. Martinez
- Liberating “Liberatory” Education, or What Do We Mean by “Liberty” Anyway? Jeffrey M. Ringer
- The Physical Manifestations Of Anxiety, Katie Kablusich
- Common Core State Standards Assessments in California: Concerns and Recommendations (California Alliance of Researchers for Equity in Education)
Many years ago, I was sitting in the last class session of the capstone secondary ELA methods course as part of my M.Ed. The guest speaker that day was my high school English teacher, the man responsible for my primary career path, Lynn Harrill.
Lynn was friends with the professor, who was then working at the state department of education, I believe.
Toward the end of the class, the professor asked what we wanted our students to know when they left our classes. That question was followed by lingering silence.
Ever the eager student, I said, “I want them to know themselves,” and I caught a glimpse of Lynn smiling widely.
Of course, that is what Lynn had taught me, although most people probably assumed it was reading and writing Lynn had so expertly given his students (which, by the way, was also true).
This moment—one of a very idealistic and naive young teacher, me—comes back to me often, and despite my many failures as a teacher, that grounding goal has always guided me. Not to be simplistic, but I teach students—that’s why I teach.
While reading Four Stories That Homework Tells Children About School, Learning, & Life, I was struck by “STORY #3: School Is More Important Than Other Pursuits/Interests/Activities.”
And now I have to investigate that memory again.
Yes, Lynn Harrill changed my life by being my sophomore and junior English teacher in high school. He was gracious, kind, and encouraging to a deeply insecure and anxious teen (me) who had decided he was a math and science person—because that is what school had told me.
Junior high English classes had been mostly draconian English teachers, grammar book exercises, and diagramming sentences. The “English” content of those classes was easy (I made As), but I loathed it all, even the texts we were assigned to read (much of which we did not read).
Now, before I launch into whining, let me be clear that my story is about how school failed me—but that because of my tremendous privilege (white, male and—according to traditional schooling and standardized tests—high verbal and mathematical intelligence), the consequences of those failures were miniscule. I attended college and continued to make As (easily), leading to an MEd and EdD.
I share this, then, not to bemoan poor pitiful me (or to brag), but to highlight that schools often fail students in ways we do not acknowledge and that the consequences for those students who need schooling most are monumental.
While I was begrudgingly playing school and succeeding, at home I was engaged in a rich array of hobbies and interests that school not only ignored, but also indirectly refuted (even Lynn told me as a 10th grader I needed to stop reading science fiction [SF] and start reading real literature such as Fitzgerald).
I was collecting, reading, and drawing from thousands of Marvel comic books. I was voraciously listening to popular music and studying the lyrics. And I was doing the same with comedy albums, mostly George Carlin and Richard Pryor.
My reading life, as I noted above, was Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Arthur C. Clarke, and whatever works were prompted by my mother’s SF film fascination. I fell in love with The Andromeda Strain because of the film, and much of my formative life was driven by the five Planet of the Apes films and TV’s Star Trek.
My response to the real literature endorsed by Lynn was tepid (but always the mama’s boy, I did as teachers told me to do), but my life was irrevocably changed when he also recommended writers I would never be assigned in the rural South of the 1970s—notably D.H. Lawrence.
Well, damn, I thought. This is literature?
My journey from student to teacher began in my sophomore year of high school as I began to untangle the false narratives school had taught me and came to embrace the authentic narratives of my real life, my real Self, outside of school.
More than a decade into my teaching career (in the position Lynn left at my high school) and in the same doctoral program Lynn had completed, I finally discovered critical pedagogy as the complete vision of student-centered teaching and learning I had been haphazardly practicing.
Regretfully, my entire career as an educator (18 years as a high school ELA teacher and then 14 more years, and counting, as an English educator and first-year writing professor) has occurred under the antithesis of student-centered critical education—the high-stakes accountability movement.
All of which, ironically, I have been prepared for by the very reading material school marginalized, science fiction and dystopian fiction.
Standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability fail students, fail teachers. They conspire to do exactly what homework accomplishes in story #3 above.
I cannot step away form this: I must teach those students placed in my care, and that duty requires me to find out who they are, what they know, and what they want so that we can work together so that they find who they are and who they want to be.
So, I wonder with the new year, and the allure of resolutions—who is with me in 2016? Can we make this about students and not standards, not tests?