Friday, August 5, 2011

Want to read my full remarks to CNN regarding the SOS March?

Today, my perspective (as well as those of Sabrina Stevens Shupe and Amy Valens) on the SOS March & National Call to Action was featured in a article by Sam Chaltain. I'm famous! (hahaha)

I was honored when he told me about the project and asked if I would answer some questions. Of course, he couldn't possibly include my responses in their entirety, especially since as you've probably noticed, brevity isn't exactly one of my talents.

Sam did a fantastic job of editing and consolidating my remarks, but in case anyone's interested in any elaboration, I wanted to share here my remarks in their entirety:

1.  What were the main reasons that brought you to DC?

As a former (and hopefully future) public school teacher and current public school parent, I am disillusioned with most of the education policies that are part of NCLB and RTTT. These policies encourage and incentivize poor practice and they narrow curricula. These policies have failed to improve the quality of education, to meaningfully reform systems in need of reform. Dysfunction and inconsistent practice in schools and systems targeted by these policies has been replaced by dysfunctional and ideological rigidity and consistency of poor practice (or what I like to call a McDonald’s-alization of public education)—that’s not progress, it’s just another version of bad.

I grew up in DC proper with activist parents who were both civil rights lawyers. We regularly went to marches, parades, and protests and talked about politics and social justice issues. My mother spent her law career involved in civil rights as it relates to public education. My parents both attended public schools and universities. My sister and I attended the DC Public Schools.  Both of my parents have intellectual leanings. I guess you could say I was born into a religion of civic activism and public education.

As such, I also deeply value our American public democratic institutions and don’t see evidence right now that President Obama and Arne Duncan share that. I believe that right now we have a real crisis, perhaps the largest issue of this era, of democracy. A healthy, vibrant American democracy cannot exist alongside the plutocracy that is rapidly developing in our country. In order to maintain our democracy, we have an obligation to participate in it. A patriotic citizen is a critical, informed, and active citizen who holds their political leaders accountable and pushes them to be responsive to the people they represent and lead. I was marching because I care about our country and I care about our public institutions, especially about public schools. (In case you didn’t guess, I was a Social Studies teacher.)

2.  Did the march fulfill your expectations?

I thought it was a powerful, inspiring event. I was glad to hear of the SOS protests and events in state capitols, but I would have liked to have seen more people at the main event in DC, especially from nearby states. I live relatively close to DC and close to my state capitol. That means I have an obligation as a citizen to take advantage of my proximity to political power and to decision makers. Why were there not more public education stakeholders there from DC, Maryland, and Virginia? This goes back to the concept that a strong American democracy requires an informed, active, and critical citizenry (I’d also add educated!).

3. What needs to happen next?

I think we all need to look at the SOS March & National Call to Action’s “Guiding Principles” and then think about how we can work to maintain and promote those principles given the educational systems and political realities that exist in our individual states and local communities. Some of us may even find we need to re-consider or add to some of those principles. We’re all affected by NCLB, but beyond that we need to act locally and partner with our local decision makers, educators, and community members.  Quality public education isn’t an ideological concept; it’s an American and democratic concept.

While continuing the political activism, we also really need to focus on policy critiques and on advocating for concrete and viable policy alternatives--I can't stress enough the importance of this.

4. Based on your experiences, what does the ideal learning environment look like—and require?

Honestly, I try to avoid thinking in terms of “ideal” worlds, as there’s a thin line between ideal and fantasy, but I’ll take a stab at talking about what I think are the important aspects of a healthy but realistic learning environment. 

I think we have to start with what we value in education, what we think the goals of education should be.  What does it mean to be an educated American? I define an educated American as: having a broad and meaningful base of content knowledge, including currently neglected subjects of social studies, science, the arts, and foreign language; having competency in basic skills, complemented eventually by the beginnings of mastery in some chosen subjects; and as having a curiosity and a love of learning.

How do we design our learning environments to reflect those goals? First, encourage rich and broad curricula. Second, encourage dedicated practice. Third, give teachers enough freedom and independence to cultivate curiosity and love of learning in their own classrooms. Fourth, optimize or improve teaching and learning conditions for teachers and students.

Such an environment should be knowledge-based, pedagogically sound and appropriate, as well as evidence-based. This means having a varied, content-rich curriculum, using the best but also the most appropriate teaching practices, and at least considering the social-emotional development of children as well as their intellectual development. The environment should be orderly and ethical, but completely free of rigidity.

A fruitful learning environment also depends on strong and caring, but professional and appropriate, relationships between educators and students. A good teacher-student relationship can fit many molds, but there should be a connection and the student should be able to trust and respect their teachers and vice-versa. Furthermore, knowledge of students' educational background, aspirations, and family situation (without, of course, overstepping boundaries or violating students' privacy) can really help to inform teaching. In turn, educators should be well-educated, supported, and trusted by their colleagues and their supervisors. While I did mention “evidence-based” before, I also think that both teachers and students need some room to experiment, to make mistakes, to fail, even. It is from mistakes and failure as well as from successes that we learn and grow. 

I think some education leaders have done a real disservice to the improvement of teaching and learning by trying to quantify it to the extent they have. At the same time, I don’t agree that teaching is entirely an art. Rather, it’s a craft that one gets better at with practice, consideration of evidence, further learning, and experience. A healthy learning environment is led by such practitioners.

Finally, while standardized tests can give us useful information, a fertile leaning environment is one that does not equate quality teaching and student achievement with standardized test scores. When people do that, they set the bar way too low for too many of our students. In focusing on standardized-test expressed “achievement” our decision and policy makers have forgotten the significance of curiosity and have forgotten the human drive to explore, build, create, and interrogate. Certainly, most knowledge is not innate and must be taught, but curiosity, creativity, and inquiry are all part of the human spirit. Such qualities are key to learning and teaching. Unfortunately, our current education policies and education reform strategies do little to promote acquisition of meaningful knowledge or to nurture those qualities and arguably do much to hamper them.

5. Why did you leave teaching?

I wouldn't say I left teaching, but I did take a break from K-12 public school teaching for two reasons: 

1) I was wasting far too much of my and my students' time trying to please the testing and data collection gods rather than providing the education I describe above. 

2) I had young children and eventually felt I wasn't being the teacher or parent I wanted or needed to be.


  1. Great comments! I was so excited to see you in CNN. I especially like what you have to say about a "healthy but realistic learning environment."

    I've long thought the root of the debate over public ed policy has been our inability to agree on what schools should do. It's funny though, because you almost never hear people argue over that. Instead they argue about ten layers above that, always seeming not to realize their disagreements are far more fundamental - if that makes any sense....

  2. Thanks, James. I agree with you that many of us get too bogged down in the theoretical, without considering reality or practicality enough.

  3. Ironic! The learning you describe is what my children's schools offered before NCLB!

  4. Great comments Rachel. I always say that learning doesn't always take place only within the 4 walls of a school. Teaching is the same way. I expect my son to learn everywhere even when schools out. I know that you will teach wherever you are. You are not taking a break from teaching, you are taking a break from the chaos so called ed reform has created in our schools. Keep up the good work.

  5. Rachel, Excellent comments. I was also wondering why there weren't more teachers from the D.C. metro area. It seemed like there were more teachers from Wisconsin and Boston than almost all three of the metro region areas put together. Just imagine if only even a half of the DCPS workforce made a show. Still, I was very inspired by the event and I hope it is something to build on.

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