Wednesday, November 13, 2013

An Education System is like Oakland...there is no there there.

The school year is well under way.  That means students and staff are settled in, and embarking on the long drive toward the year-end tests.  This also initiates the predictable discussions and debates about the fixes to schools that will save American education.  Whether it’s Finland or Shanghai (the international education champions), the Common Core or better standardized tests, the quest for some sort of system by which to reform schools has been practically endless.
That’s because there is, in fact, no system or program.  Rather, at the heart of good performance in education lies a commitment to teacher development (especially peer to peer collaboration and support) and parent engagement.  Further, success is achieved on a school by school basis—the only thing programmatic is a commitment to hard work, expressed by all participants in the process.  
The revelation of this “secret” has important implications for education in the United States, as what’s true of Finland and Shanghai holds true across the US.  This fact is both daunting and encouraging for education in Washington.
We should be inspired by the fact that local commitment to the hard work of building the relationships that sustain and support education is more important—much more important—than national standards, “balanced” assessments, elaborate teacher evaluation processes, or union seniority structures.
Washingtonians could just as easily be discouraged, though, because achievement gaps are politicized, teacher contracts are arranged by gubernatorial intervention, and relationships built on the shifting sands of cultural awareness trump curriculum.
Since there is no such thing as a school system in the United States--with more than 10,000 school districts, American schools are established as essentially locally governed institutions--we must build and maintain the necessary and vital relationships among school staff and families, so necessary for effective teaching and learning, locally.
The education bureaucracy (the “educracy,” if you will) seems to miss or ignore the fundamental emphasis of the local, though.  The regulatory and reform efforts, so prevalent in the national conversation about education, are to the pursuing local, specific and sometimes divergent needs of each community’s schools.
Whether No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top or the Common Core State Standards initiative at the national level, or the state level efforts to establish complicated teacher evaluations pegged to narrow measures of student achievement, the plans, programs and restructurings typically undertaken in school come from the top of the political hierarchy, and are sent downward to the local level.
In such a situation, students, parents and local school staff end up with little role in—and, consequently, shaky or variable commitment to—the reform de jour.  Moreover, as regulatory imposition grows, trust diminishes, thereby replacing the impulse to do the hard work of maintaining the educational relationships with a reliance on and resort to external institutional authorities further up the bureaucratic structure and farther away geographically.  Why bother working on a relationship when you can just invoke a state law to win your point?
With this increasing bureaucratization we can’t help but get more standardization.  That’s what bureaucracies do, after all—standardize and routinize those processes that they control.  Education is about relationships, though, so structures that create standard operating procedures out of what really are specific and even idiosyncratic relational circumstances are bound to introduce the sterile, useless and/or mundane into the learning environment. The briefest evaluation of practically any standardized test will reveal this.
Building and sustaining those local relationships is what will truly transform schools.  Unfortunately, regulatory policies handed down from state and national Departments of Education simply won’t make that happen.  Engagement in your local school will.  Now there’s a learning target at which we should all aim.

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