Standing for Students, Standing for Change

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“I stand for Elizabeth Kominsky.”
“I stand for Tyrell James.”
“I stand for Teresa Levinson.”

It was the end of a two-day conference on school renewal. The host of the conference had invited us, at this last session, to each stand for a student we knew. This was an opportunity, after talking about whole-school change, to make a personal commitment to one child. It was a public commitment, in that we stood and shared each young person’s name out loud. But it was also private, in that our “stance” was kept to ourselves, the commitment behind our action was not shared.

As I listened to each person speak, I was moved by the power of the moment.

First-year teachers stood for children they had just met at orientation. Veterans spoke up for young adults they had guided through the minefields of high school. Parents stood for their children’s friends, social workers for foster children, foundation leaders for kids across the street, school administrators for their most challenging students.

Watching and listening, it occurred to me that this way of seeing our schools—through the life of a child to whom we commit—is our best hope for renewing those same schools. It might also be the best chance for correcting the current course our country is on when it comes to public education.

A course correction is clearly needed. The talk about our public schools is dominated by an emphasis on standardization over standards, with test scores replacing genuine knowledge of our children and their abilities. When test scores do not rise as dictated we hear saber-rattling from Washington that perhaps a national curriculum and national test is the answer, or maybe privatizing education through a voucher system.

In response, too many of our schools have become test-preparation factories. Recess and nap times are eliminated, the arts are cut, field trips shut down, reading for pleasure is a thing of the past, and hands-on learning experiences are replaced by hands-off worksheets and drill. And for what? A few more points on a test that may or may not measure anything of value.

Attempting to change our schools through this top-down, test-driven agenda has done little to alter the basic structures of schooling. We keep doing more of the same thing in the hope that somehow it will work. It won’t.

What will work is well documented: Schools that have at their heart the mission of preparing every child for a life of democratic citizenship. Schools that are places where every learner is well-known, where the tasks are meaningful and engaging, where the scholars demonstrate through actual performance what they know and can do, and where a tone of respect and equity dominates the work. Schools such as these exist today—and yet they find their work marginalized and their existence threatened by the one-size-fits-all agenda of official school reformers.

When we think of schooling through the lens of one child, our vision of what schools could and should be is transformed.

But there is hope—and I found it again in that simple but moving “I stand for” exercise.

Maybe we settle for the one-size-fits-all agenda because thinking about renewing the entire school system is just too large an issue to get one’s head around. After all, schools are everywhere, serving millions and employing millions more. Maybe the only way people can imagine changing something of such scale is through mandating test scores and standardizing schools’ behavior.

Yet, if instead we each thought of one child and that child’s experience, we might have a different vision for the future of our schools. If every American stood up for the education of a kid down the street, or even across town, how might we then imagine our schools? Choose a child yourself and try it right now. My experience tells me that when we think of schooling through the lens of one child, our vision of what schools could and should be is transformed.

Begin by imagining that young person at age 18, and describe the type of neighbor you would like him or her to be. Why 18? Because at that age most Americans graduate from high school, with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that citizenship brings with it. They can vote, sign a contract, serve in the military, go to college, and hold a job. They become “the Future” we often talk about—and describing what you hope for in terms of who these young people are goes a long way to setting up what their shared experience called “school” should be like.

Second, catalog what they need to “know” and be able to “do” to be that person. Every one of them. Sure, some will go beyond what you choose as basic, but what is your bottom line? I promise you, your list will be much shorter than the bound volumes of “state standards” that teachers try to cover today.

Third, how would you want that young person to be treated in school? How well should she be known, what should learning look like, what responsibilities should she shoulder, and how do these things change as the child for whom you stand grows older? Think about the respect and dignity with which you want to be treated; how does that influence your vision of school?

Finally, what would count as evidence that the child you stand with has learned all you want him to know? Does the standardized test he now takes tell you what you need to know? Do you even know what is on it? In this so-called age of accountability, who should be accountable for what when it comes to the child for whom you stand?

Of course, there is more you want for the child for whom you stand. She should live a life that is challenging, but free from want, fear, and insecurity. Affordable educational options or jobs should be available after graduation. Having access to honest political debate and reliable information when decisions are to be made will help her exercise her democratic responsibilities. But for today, let’s just think about schools.

“I stand for Steven ____,” I said as I came to my feet.

Maybe we settle for the one-size-fits-all agenda because thinking about renewing the entire school system is just too large an issue to get one’s head around.

After three years of working with Steven, I knew he could use the help of someone standing with him. His first years of high school were difficult, including being suspended during the first semester of his junior year for possessing alcohol at the homecoming dance. But he had come back after the suspension anxious to make the best of his second chance—and did. He stopped by to see me often to share good grades, and teachers let me know of his outstanding progress. On the last day of school, he told me he wanted to go to college—and I promised that while I was to be on leave this year, I still would help.

So I stood for a Steven, who is able to make his own informed decisions, is able to find out for himself what there is to know, and is able to use his mind well in pursuing his personal goals. I stood for a school experience that challenges him to think hard, helps him use in his community what he learns in school, and gives him the confidence that he is a learner. I stood for his being treated with respect, being given the responsibility for his own learning and time, and being asked to mentor other young men who might lose their way. And I stood for Steven’s being accountable for developing compelling demonstrations of what he knows and is able to do for college-admissions people, and for his school’s being accountable for knowing him well enough to assist him in this task.

As I stood for Steven, I thought about how our democracy requires a much more robust vision of schools than our nation now seems to have. A vision that is about more than test scores, and that encompasses the citizens we hope our children become. Maybe if we all thought of just our own “Stevens,” and worked for schools that would prepare them to take their rightful places alongside us as citizens, we could generate a different vision of school renewal. A vision that could guide us in working for and supporting schools that educate for democratic citizenship, as opposed to training for taking tests.

Vol. 26, Issue 20, Pages 39-40

Published in Print: January 24, 2007, as Standing for Students, Standing for Change
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