Education Opinion

Digging Out

By Nancy Flanagan — December 20, 2010 4 min read
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I’m back. Back from an involuntary three-week hiatus from TV, internet and phone--and all the juicy news about education policy--and back into Talking Ed-Head World, days of fretting and snarling in front of a computer instead of shoveling snow (two feet of it in

our first four days here), assembling Swedish furniture and waiting for grout sealer to dry, so we could have an operational shower.

During this lengthy break, I’ve had plenty of time to think. Part of that time I was harboring evil thoughts about our (now former) internet provider, and how alarmingly isolated one can become in a matter of days in this Information Age. Mostly, however, I’ve been considering education in America--the layers and layers of stuff (ideas, machines, materials, practices and beliefs) that get dragged into any incarnation of “school.”

Having moved twice in the past six months, wrestling with hundreds of boxes and plastic tubs, I am now intimately familiar with the concept of questioning the value of every item: Is this worth saving?

Ten years ago, my district was among the fastest-growing in the state. We opened three new buildings in five years, each necessitating a clear-out of the old and a lot of breathless PR about how exciting it would be to learn in a new--inevitable adjective: “cutting-edge"--facility. It may have been exciting but it was also a massive amount of work, packing and unpacking, setting up and debugging technology systems, organizing essential tools and rebuilding staff unity.

That last, often-ignored concept is key to a quality education. No matter how many whiz-bang mini-labs there are in a building, a faculty that hasn’t learned to trust each other and share access to resources isn’t firing on all cylinders. You can’t create new, cutting-edge programming with people who aren’t aiming for the same goals.

In America, we love the idea of breaking new ground, abandoning the old and worn-out and pioneering on to unspoiled places. Making our own mark, unencumbered by the outdated past. Our national fascination with novelty and possibility began before Columbus and has led to some major triumphs--representative democracy, for example--and some gargantuan failures. Driving through the once-beautiful , brick-home neighborhoods in Detroit, abandoned to scavengers, crime and poverty, you have to wonder why the oldest cities in Europe are cherished and reshaped continuously, but “urban” has become a synonym for “poor and dysfunctional” when it comes to American schools.

It’s a truism to say that schools seldom discard useless curricula or practice. We’re all about disrupting class. We believe that our kids need a whole new mind--not to mention dynamic new leaders, bright and shiny teachers and scientifically based learning programs. The key message of Waiting for Superman is the idea that the old schools can’t be fixed; only new, charter schools will address the needs of those eager, worthy students trapped in the wreckage. The critical reality is never mentioned: there are vastly more students whose fortunes must be improved than a set of photogenic and articulate kids (recently named Parade magazine’s “Personalities of the Year”).

Also not mentioned: there are important reasons to preserve open-access public schooling in places where it’s currently failing. In the most derelict and low-performing schools, there are good, experienced teachers--paddling upstream--and pockets of excellent practice. Things worth saving. There’s also the idea that a rich nation ought to be focused on providing an equitable education for all kids, not just those whose parents are savvy enough to pursue multiple options.

In the Parade article, we’re told that only Bianca is still waiting for her academic nirvana. In the meantime, she says, “We have 30 kids in my class and one teacher. She doesn’t have time for each of us.” There’s some distinct cognitive dissonance between this blanket indictment of public schools with their too-large classes and the remarks Arne Duncan recently made, but no matter. We’re on the kryptonite bandwagon now: old public schools bad, “innovative” charter schools good. Action, not reflection.

My middle school opened in a down-to-the-wire rush where teachers were given less than a week to assemble their own furniture, haggle over rolling bookcases and make the place feel like home, blending old and new--not to mention creating those all-important first-week lesson plans. The school board recognized the newly formed staff at their September meeting. Most of us had worked at least an additional, unpaid 40-hour week getting the building ready for the opening of school. The Board President led a round of applause for the teachers--and then presented the superintendent with a $5000 bonus check for his “leadership” in establishing a new school. You can imagine how that felt.

It’s good to be back in the real world--but it’s time to unpack some more boxes. There might be something worth keeping inside.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.