I spotted this television advertisement for GM the other evening. It occurred to me that watching the demise of the American Auto Industry, is tragically analogous to what is happening in public education.
The blog post Daily Finance’s writer Peter Cohan cites five reasons why GM failed. Read and draw analogies to public schools in the United States.
1. Bad financial policies. You might be surprised to learn that GM has been bankrupt since 2006 and has avoided a filing for years thanks to the graces of the banks and bondholders. But for years it has used cars as razors to sell consumers a monthly package of razor blades — in the form of highly profitable car loans.
And the two Harvard MBAs who drove GM to bankruptcy — Rick Wagoner and Fritz Henderson — both rose up from GM’s finance division, rather than its vehicle design operation. (Read more about GM’s bad financial policies here.)
2. Uncompetitive vehicles. Compared to its toughest competitors — like Toyota Motor Co. (TM) — GM’s cars were poorly designed and built, took too long to manufacture at costs that were too high, and as a result, fewer people bought them, leaving GM with excess production capacity. (Read more about GM’s uncompetitive vehicles here.)
3. Ignoring competition. GM has been ignoring competition — with a brief interruption (Saturn in the 1980s) — for about 50 years. At its peak, in 1954, GM controlled 54 percent of the North American vehicle market. Last year, that figure had tumbled to 19 percent. Toyota and its peers took over that market share. (Read more about GM ignoring the competition here.)
4. Failure to innovate. Since GM was focused on profiting from finance, it did not really care that much about building better vehicles. GM’s management failed to adapt GM to changes in customer needs, upstart competitors, and new technologies. (Read more about GM’s failure to innovate here.)
5. Managing in the bubble. GM managers got promoted by toeing the CEO’s line and ignoring external changes. What looked stupid from the perspective of customer and competitors was smart for those bucking for promotions. (Read more about GM’s managing in the bubble here.)
GM has now produced this mea culpa, promising a new organization with new products and a new attitude. The answer is to reinvent itself.
It is not hard to draw analogies to public schools. Poor financing and financial management. Management (administrative bubbles), inflated salaries for administrators, ignoring the competition…..the list goes on. The list does not mention the tortuous negotiations and battles with organized labor – but that analogy fits as well.
Interesting that the public sector (federal government) has to be in the unbelievable position of having to bail out this failing industry. The act has people from the private sector incredulous. Even the President himself seems uncomfortable with the fact that the government has had to take this unprecedented action.
Public Schools in too many urban districts are a failing industry. Too many administrators, public officials and even some private philanthropists ignore the competition (i.e. charter schools, successful faith-based schools and even advances made in independent schools). These entities are seen not as competition, but as the enemy. In an effort to preserve themselves and guarantee job security, those in the bunker form the bubble.
Too many are afraid of adapting to new technologies that are likely to guarantee, smarter, leaner administrative budgets and more likely than not to improve students learning outcomes. Good administrators will report up to the “management” that revises standards and tests to juke the stats and have the public believe their inferior product is actually working.
Far too many individual school “districts” makes no sense anymore. I live in a county of 280,000 but there are 14 individual school districts each with high-paid administrators including superintendents, principals, curriculum directors. The cost to the public every year exceeds $4 million dollars. Much of that work can be done online through more effective use of management technologies.
Too many public dollars are wasted paying for textbooks. Innovations in online texts are occurring every day, yet too many school administrators are slow to adapt them. Many philanthropists have funded organizations that provide solutions to this unnecessary expense. cK-12 is a private non-profit foundation that is just one example. Another is Currwiki. Schools and school districts – not to mention the multimillion dollar textbook industry has an interest in keeping these innovations out of schools. Too many foundation officers and school administrators – fearful of change, block innovation with the appeal to waiting for results from “evidence-based practice” before they do anything. Where are the “practices” taking place and who is collecting the “evidence?” I know than many foundations have a lot of evidence of what is working, especially in charter, faith-based and indepdendent schools, but this evidence is ignored unless it has imprimatur from “the academy.”
It just seems to me that the time is ripe for foundations across the country to sponsor one or a series of local symposia that will bring together leaders from the field of educational technology, business, K-12 systems, and higher edcuation to re-imagine doing schools. These symposia should be public – coordinated with local newspapers, and newsmedia. Public television stations typically have local afficilates that could foster regularly scheduled converesations about re-inventing school and invite public policy officials to be part of the conversation. Together, these entities can help to reinvent public schools just as the auto industries are about to embark on reinventing themselves.
Many of my previous posts have chronicled my involvement in the Ohio Grantmakers Forum’s efforts to gather input from “multi-stakeholders” who, in some way, influence education in the State of Ohio. The result is a publication for the Governor which I have talked about. Several weeks since the publication the blow-back has begun to be felt. The Governor received input from several other constituency groups but none as diverse as OGF’s. In my opinion, the most promising recommendations from our report were not included, but more on that later. I would like to post a few thoughts on this interesting process. The experience revealed many interesting interactions between politics, philanthropy and school-think.
First, it is now very evident to me that dealing with public school is analogous to dealing with institutional religion. The good comes with the bad. The battles are as intense and based in “belief” systems that, at times defy rational thought – and data. Discussion can be stopped by strong convictions by the faithful who are convinced they have a corner on truth. Such is the case in religion, and so it is -(I find) with devotees of public schooling. People I have met who defend public schools defend their belief with the zeal of converts. And as Shakespeare once said, “An overflow of converts – to bad.” It is my experience that when I or anyone else offers a critique of “the public school system” the comments are tolerated at best but received with a low growl making me feel as if I an uttering heresy against the tenants of “public schooling.” In Lorain County, where I live, my questioning of public schooling was met with the ultimate salvo – “Union-buster!” uttered by a university professor who teaches “education.” Given the permissions that power and control offer, criticism of public schooling as we know it are often met with undertones of threat that can only be launched by those who are certain that what they are defending is true. Such people make it very difficult for political leaders and for foundations to make any real impact on changing education. I often think this is what it must be like for a neutral politician having to introduce political reform with mullahs in Iran. So, I have come to learn that one must take small steps when trying to influence education policy – especially when representing an institution that has a large endowment and which, has the ability to exercise some political influence as well. It is an intricate dance.
It is probably no surprise to discover that foundation personnel can bring their own beliefs about public schooling to the table when providing advice to political leaders. In my opinion foundations should try very hard to base their policies on evidence and knowledge drawn from evaluation of projects they have funded. That is the only authority by which they can contribute to political discourse.
In the field of philanthropy, there is no consensus as to how to support public schooling in the United States. There are people and organizations that can tend to attract people of similar mind-set and experience. Grantmakers for Education is a great organization that supports foundations that support a variety of projects. GFE tends to attract foundations that are sincerely interested in reforming public education as we know it. There have few sessions addressing the future of education and influence in alternative ways of learning – although that is changing. Philanthropy Roundtable is a fantastic organization that attracts a more conservative group of funders. Roundtable hosts regional programs and site visits to innovative schools that tend to be charter and sometime voucher schools. It would be fair to say that the Roundtable members would be more likely to support alternative educational business models that demonstrate success in learning.
In many ways, philanthropy and those who work in it, reflect the diversity of opinion held by the general public. Personal belief can influence objectivity when philanthropy begins to take on policy as an organized front. There, we need to exercise supreme caution. As alluded to above, I have come to the realization that offering critique of public education is as dangerous as critiquing a person or group’s religious beliefs. There is a strong cultural aesthetic that if pushed too far, could have negative repercussions for the sector. So again, caution is offered and here’s why.
The American public generally believes in the universal access to education espoused by the founders of this Republic. It should – universal education in the U.S. is the reason why the democratic experience has worked for 250 years. Over the years, that concept has been institutionalized in a public schooling system which is as much a part of the American aesthetic experience as churches. The variety of ways in which education is expressed has been the “public school” – typically a brick building with a flag on the front lawn, run by principals who lord over the function of the teachers in classrooms. There is equal diversity about how the actual curriculum should be conducted and assessed. The storm around the barrage of testing NCLB has produced is only one example of what and how assessment can take place. That’s the way it has been for years and that is the way many people would like it to remain. Public schools have a romanticized aesthetic to it that includes yearbooks, proms and most importantly sport’s teams. Films like like Hoosiers, and Television shows like Friday Night Lights celebrate the American aesthetic experience of high school by romanticizing stories of public schools and the role they play in the civic life of the community. This is American public schools as believers see it, much like Bing Crosby’s role as Father O’Malley in The Bells of Saint Mary’s romanticized but served as the iconic representation of the ideal of the Catholic Church in the 1940’s. Hoosiers does not capture the agony of union disputes nor does the Bells of St. Mary’s capture alcohol or sex abuse that ran parallel to the aesthetic. Probably one of the most relevant films on the role of public schools and their place in the community was the recent series by NOVA on the battle over intelligent design. (A must see).
My frustration withGovernor Strickland’s plan to change public schooling in Ohio is that he seems to be bowing to the romanticized notion of what public schools should be. I mentioned that he got advice from many constituencies with huge influence from leaders in the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Federation of Teachers . Let us not forget that these two entities represent strong voting blocks and as such, a group any political leader does not necessarily want to alienate. The problem is the ODE and the OFT are entrenched entities that have an interest in maintaining power and control over the way the educational system is run. Much like the Roman curia or a Houses of Bishops, mullahs or any other gathering of “elders,” this organization will not only justify but its reason to control how public schooling is shaped but it will also fight if need be. Retribution can be fierce and good lawyers can be hired to contest any opposition. Much like a religious hierarchy, the structure needs to maintain strong vertical reporting structures. Control is easily maintained with a unified understanding and approach to the religious teaching. Organizations of this type cannot handle diversity of opinion and clearly have no room for experimentation.
I have found that the ODE, the OFT and even some program officers in philanthropy can thwart innovative programming by making appeals to what I call the god of research. Clearly there is a need to have solid research around quality programming. In fact there is too little research funded by philanthropy as indicated in the last chapter of Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Class. The problem I see however is that too much of the education research suffers from what Ellen Gondfliffe Langemann writes in her book An Elusive Science – The Troubling History of Education Research
I believe it would not be inaccurate to say that the most powerful forces to have shaped educational scholarship over the last century have tended to push the field in unfortunate directions – away from close interactions with policy and practice and toward excessive quantification and scientism. p ix.
The Governor had an opportunity to implement some truly innovative programs that could launch education in Ohio into the 21st century appears to have caved to the zealots of public schools who are more comfortable with 19th century schooling because they know it and can control it. His policies to shut down on charter schools, eliminate “early-college” programs and to focus on improved testing looks to me like a reactive attempt by the State to clamp down on opposition and innovation and demand conformity to thought and ultimately this idea of public schools. Much of this is fueled by an important voting block – the Ohio Teacher Union. Some of it supported by program officers who tend to favor quantified educational data before making a move. I think that is an easy out allowing people to hold back support for innovative programs that diverge from the public school norm. In reality hiding behind data can be interpreted as an attempt to appeal to the power brokers like School Superintendents of large metropolitan areas, State Superintendents of Schools and ultimately Governors.
To me, the action from the Governor’s mansion looks like the Vatican and its need to control uniformity of thinking with little tolerance for oppositional thinking. (Women’s ordination, liberation theology,contraception, even teaching faculty at catholic universities are only a few of the issues that have met with little tolerance on the part of the curia). This administration cannot tolerate any innovative change in education that takes place outside the paradigm and control of the State Department of Education and the Board of Regents.
Just as theists accept the proposition that God exists, so too public school devotees posit that public schools (which is different from public schooling), should and must exist for the benefit of the community. How that concept of public schools is expressed is as varied as they way Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims and all other religions develop aesthetic. Each has an aesthetic and iconography based on their respective interpretations of what the word of god means to them and their followers. The analogy can easily flip to the area of education where there is certainly no unanimity of thought about how learning can and should take place. Just read my previous post called “Philanthropy, Education and Class -what are we thinking?” which discusses the work of. Dr. Kusserow on how class affects parents educational expectations for their childrens education and the people who teach them.
Elected officials have an ostensible allegiance to the voting constituency who put them in office but politicians must also appeal to general consensus if they want to be reelected. They must also figure out how to raise the general public to act out of virtue and pursue what which is wise. Just like people in philanthropy, elected officials are stewards of that form of public money. Often, what is thought to be general consensus, especially in highly emotional issues such as schooling, might not be grounded in practical wisdom. Too often, irrational belief trumps rational judgement resulting in decisions that might be politically expedient but fundamentally unwise. The challenge for any elected leader is how to manage truly innovative and imaginative education policy dealing with a strong political force that is poised to destroy you if you diverge too far from their own interest.
Unlike politics, foundations do not have to appeal to voters. Their constituency is smaller – i.e. the trustees that serve on the boards and the communities they serve. A community foundation is comprised of members of that community and more often than not, has purview to restrict grants within a geographic area. The board is typically comprised of people who live in the community and experience the rhythm of daily life in places like Cleveland. The director of a community foundation must appeal to current donors who also advise officers on how and where to direct distributions. He or she must also try to find new donors who will be comfortable with making financial contributions that will increase the size of the foundation’s endowment, and thereby increase the amount of funds for charity.
A family and/or private foundation is different from community foundations because it is comprised of members who have ties to those who established the foundation (typically a successful ancestor). Members of these foundations may or may not be living in those communities, and by nature of their election to the board, may be one-step removed from the political pressures a community foundation may have. A family and/or private foundation operates from the endowment established by the ancestor. It does not have to raise new money from the community. As an institution, it does not have to dance as much around the politics that come into play with controversial issues. That being said I must qualify that if a private foundation engages in education funding, that organization has a supreme obligation to conduct research on why education programs succeed. It has a duty to support programs that promise to bring new-thinking to how education is conducted. Free from some of the constraints to think with the rest of the community, the private foundations can seek out and support those who are not afraid to go against the grain and raise our sites to that which is virtuous and right in modeling moral skill. It can and should seek out programs and people that demonstrate wisdom but also brilliance.
A family foundation that fund education must have a high tolerance to permit improvisation and allow itself and organizations to fail occasionally. Its staff and trustees need to be mentored by wise teachers, and the staff must learn how to learn how to respond wisely to brilliant and gifted people in the field. As I will reference below, wisdom without brilliance is not enough.
There is a nuanced but important difference here, and nothing is a better illustration of this than foundation involvement in public school education. Similar to the constituency issue our Governor faces, Community Foundations must be careful not to ruffle the feathers too much of the standard concept of public schools. Community Foundation must also guide the lead the larger community with practical wisdom drawn from experience and research. Most, if not all, succeed in doing that. As I mentioned above, concepts of public schooling are based in what I see as a “religion of public schools” which are grounded in the belief that public school is a good thing. In the ideal, public school levels the playing field for all citizens and is an egalitarian solution to the need to educate all children. Teachers unions are strong voting blocks. In the economically ravaged mid-west, teachers and their unions are a solid source of employment. In challenging times, people are scared so any challenge to the unions and their membership will be perceived as a threat to livelihood. The push-back will be fierce. Community foundations must be sensitive to the political factions in the communities it serves and thereby may be more risk-averse to change in school bureaucracies.
Getting back to practical applications of my theorizing, the philanthropic effort by OGF to involve stakeholders in the effort to advise the governor how to prepare Ohio Schools for the 21st Century had its fallout. The document contains recommendations for significant change to the way teachers can be dismissed, and receive tenure.
In a follow-up meeting with the head of the Ohio Teachers Union, the OGF team was informed by the union head that OGF had “misrepresented” the views of the Union leadership. That was a disappointing response. I was in the meeting when the draft of the final document was being discussed. There was no confusion about what was to be put into the document. The representative warned the “multi-stakeholders” this would be a controversial set of recommendations. When I heard the feedback that the union’s felt the recommendations were “missrepresented” we all wondered what happened. One can only assume that when the recommendations were made to the membership, they pushed back vigorously and the leader had to find an “out.” This is a coward’s game, but one that is all part of the cycnical system depicted in the clips I provide in earlier posts from The HBO series “The Wire.”Therein lies the blowback. When pushed to the wall, political interests will claim they were maligned, or misrepresented. It lacks moral will to do the right thing. It lacks virtue.
Governor Strickland and his staff are beginning to take heat for what came out. The results of thousands of dollars and hours of people’s time, is an education “plan” that reads like a document from the Vatican of the Religion of Public Schools. The plan reads like a dogmatic dictum that will assert the State power of public schools across the country. The Governor’s staff calls the plan “Historic Reform” Yet my read is that is incorporates few of the innovative recommendations from the Ohio Grantmakers Forum group. In fact, it ignores the number one recommendation to create innovation districts in the county modeled on Colorado’s Innovative Schools Act of 2008. This idea, if passed would lift the typical barriers to innovation in schools and allow teachers to be creative in addressing student learning styles. Technology would be introduced to support these learning styles and a focused plan for teacher professional development would complement this plan. Instead, we have a plan that extend the school day (with no allowance for new teaching styles), reformed tests for assessment and – most schocking a clamp down on charter schools and early college programs all of which show early signs of true innovation in learning. The Dayton Daily News for Sunday March 8, 2009 ran an editorial voicing a very succinct and clear protest of the Governor’s attempt to take this drastic and unnecessary action.
Foundations can and should continue to fund charter schools as well as initiative such as the early college programs.
I wish all members of the OGF Task Force including the public school bureaucrats could spend time viewing this remarkable talk by Barry Schwartz during the 2009 TED Conference. Listen especially around miniute 9:30 and on.
In my opinion, philanthropy in general, and family philanthropy in particular should constantly question and challenge the educational system in this country. In fidelity to the successful businessmen and women who created companies that account for the wealth, family philanthropy should push public schools to adopt strategies that will increase efficiency, honor professionalism but most importantly succeed by adopting practical wisdom to the endeavor. This role can be played out by funding models that appear to work – like the KIPP Schools, the National Association of Street Schools, the Cristo Rey and Nativity schools, and successful programs such as CAST and Project Lead the Way. They should support the research that will help bring them to scale in cities and rural areas across the country. Public schools need not be afraid of these models, and would do well to apply practical wisdom among their leadership.
To repeat the words of Dr. Schwartz, foundations and especially political leaders (and even the general public) need to reconnect to a sense of virtue and practical wisdom as it shapes an education plan for the next decade. It must embrace new concepts and technologies and support new and exciting applications of brain research to learning. In fact we need to revise the very way that educational research has been conducted on the district and state level. We must move from an empasis on outdated metrics to more entrepreneurial problem solving approaches to education.
The public dollars that comprise more than 90 percent of all k-12 spending rarely support entrepreneurial problem-solving. This meand that philanthropic giving, which accounts for a fraction of 1 percent of educational spending, has played an outsized role in the launch of new ventures like the KIPP Academies, Aspire Public Schools, New Leaders for New Schools and Teach for America. Because k-12 education is nominated by government spending and because this money is consumed in salaries and operations, precious little is invested in research and development of new ventures. Outside of the limited funding for charter school facilities and start-up costs, almost none of it support entrepreneurial activity.
In the private sector, the torrent of venture capital is accompanied by an ecosystem of institutions and actors that provide quality control, support new ventures and selectively target resources. In education, especially when it comes to directing philanthropic dollars, such infrastructure is sparse. The venture-capital communities that have sprung up in corridors like Silcon Valley and Route 128 in Boston are not plugged into K-12 education and equivalents do not exist in the world of schooling.
History has shown that Religion abhors scientific discovery. Until the national community is willing to break out of its religious belief in a public school model that no longer represents the needs for 21st century learning skills, we will continue to be dominated by the dictums of those who control the religions of public school. Practical wisdom will prevail and foundations have a role by giving voice to those who espouse it in education.
A few years ago I met with a school superintendent of one of the districts in the county. We had lunch at a now defunct Friday’s located on the periphery of a dying mall in Elyria, Ohio. It must have been in the early spring because the school year was coming to an end and the results of the State standardized tests were revealed. As we talked about potential funding projects within the district we were interrupted with greetings from a group of about five other men who had just finished their meal and were on their way out. The men were superintendents from other districts and of course knew the man I was with. The greetings were hearty and the topic immediately focused on the test scores. ” How’d you do Larry,” said one of the guys. The guys were comparing the scores. They were talking the same way they would about a national football, baseball or basketball championship. The guy with the poorest results withstood the jousting. It was all good fun ending with chortles and high-fives. The guys left the restaurant. Larry looked at me and said, “John, these tests are just a big game but we have to play it if we want to survive.” The comment struck me as tragic. Here was a talented creative man stuck in a system he knew was not serving its purpose and yet – there he was. More tragic was the thought of individual children who are the afterthought in this system that makes fetish of statistics and numbers.
That was my first glimpse into the public school system which, like many of our public institutions, has a disproportional number of people suffering cynicism and an overall loss of virtue. In college, I took it upon myself to read all of John Updike’s novels. Fast forward thirty years and in that restaurant in Elyria; over my “calorie conscious” club chicken salad, it occurred to me I was living an Updike chapter. Wikipedia tells us that Updike describes his subject as “the American small town, Protestantmiddle class.” Joyce Carol Oats says,
JOHN UPDIKE’S GENIUS is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies. Perhaps it is out of a general sense of doom, of American expansion and decay, of American subreligions that spring up so effortlessly everywhere, that Updike works, or perhaps it is something more personal, which his extraordinarily professional art can disguise: the constant transformation of what would be “suffering” into works of art.
Suffering was my sense in the restaurant that day. I knew instinctively I was experiencing the first of many Updike-ian experiences in Ohio. Too many good teachers and their students suffer because we are stuck in a game that is about quantifying learning in ways that are totally incapable of capturing that elusive topic. Yet in an effort to please authorities and follow the law, people get stuck in a looping game. No wonder the entire teaching profession is suffers from a malaise. Unlike the novels, I cannot find the comic relief in reality so I turn to film to find it.
We all play games. In philanthropy, the game with grantees goes something like this. “Last year we asked for $50,000 but the foundation gave us $35,000. This year we really need the $50,000 so should we ask for $65,000? It has been my experience that when we get into the game, we loose sense of our values and loose the ability to have honest conversation. If we play that game too long, we risk loosing our moral compass.
I am writing about the games we play having just spent the holidays watching the entire five seasons of the HBO Series, The Wire. I would make this required viewing for anyone intending to engage in charitable work in any urban area of the United States. This incredibly well-written and acted series validates the analysis of Dr. Kuserow which I published. in a previous post “Philanthropy and Class- What are We Thinking.” The Wire provides a glimpse into the workings of urban drug rings, police homicide and drug units, the venality of city government and the cynicism and hopelessness of urban public schools. The series hired local people to act in the film with the leads carried by professional actors. The result is a more violent but realistic portrayal on film of what Updike conveys in literature – “…the general sense of doom of American expansion and decay.” If Bach had put this series to music, the recitative would be, “It’s all in the Game.”
Let’s look at the first group – the police department. The Baltimore Chief of Police has gotten word from the Mayor to reduce the alarmingly high crime statistics. The high numbers of homicides and felonies in particular jeopardize the Mayor’s ambitions to win the upcoming Gubernatorial election. The Chief and his Deputy Chief for Operations are good bureaucrats and realize that their fealty to the Mayor will position them for promotion. Their own ambition increases the pressure on their subordinates – the district directors and the cops on the street to make the crime stats go down. The cops and their officers realize the futility of the strategies used to combat the drug wars in the city. They know their tactics of arresting street pushers is pointless since the suppliers and kingpins elude arrest. People are murdered with impunity. The Mayor demands a decrease in the stats, the Chief and the Superintendents know their orders and tell the cops they must comply. The cops play a game to keep their jobs. The “game” devolves into a cynical game of beat the chumps. Authority looses all respect. The cops change the stats and the “system” appears to improve. The game is called jukin’ the stats. Check out the meaning of Jukin’ to understand the depths of cynicism. On the ground, nothing changes. In the third this episode of the series only one cop has the courage to stand up and tell the leaders the truth. This is how that session goes – beware, the language is strong!:
A British friend of mine once stated, “In the U.S. when your legislators make a law they think the whole affair is ‘done and dusted’ ” once it is signed. The Urban Dictionary defines the term thus –
When something is “done and dusted”, it’s not merely created or accomplished, it’s also polished and cleaned up after. Nothing else is needed, so it can be considered “case closed”.
In our case, the Feds made the law (No Child Left Behind) and case is closed. The Congress wrote the law, the President signed it. People were reelected. The States were left with implementation. With no money. The result has been a system that demeans professional teachers, opens the doors to venal and ambitious personalities that will use reporting to gain recognition, access and ultimately rewards in terms of professional promotion.
In series three of The Wire one of the sharpest police officers leaves policing to become a teacher in the Baltimore public schools. There he is faced with kids from the same corners he busted their older siblings. He learns quickly bring the attitude of the corner into the classroom. The game is how to get around real learning, to test authority and ultimately assert oneself in a world of chaos. Check out this clip – I love these kids. I don’t know how many times I have seen classes just like this in my travels around the country.
B-5 “And I’m an Audi 5000!
Eventually the teacher “Mr. Prezbo” figures out these kids are not going to learn seated in rows reading from outdated and used textbooks. He senses that and realizes they can learn the material but he needs to do that by opening the learning process from their experiences. The superintendent pressures him to teach to the text. He argues they are not learning. He is told that if he wants to keep his job he must use the text. He figures out that these “corner” kids live a life of gambling and play dice in the streets. Using their experience of the game he find out they understand probability. Here is a great scene.
But save the best to last. Now into the semester, with progress made, the first-year teacher is called to a general meeting with the school principal. She describes the terms in which teaching will take place during the remaining weeks of the semester. Compare this dynamic with the first scene in the police headquarters.
Anyone I know who has seen The Wire agrees that the directors capture the reality of public education in most schools in urban areas in the U.S. It is a portrait not only of Baltimore, but New York, Cleveland, Boston….the list goes on. It is a sad and tragic case that the system is allowed to go on. Clearly there are successful classrooms and good students. The reality is those successes take place because of dedicated teachers and typically have nothing to do with the added “rigor” the legislators and designers of NCLB intended. What we have created is a sense of doom in our public schools.
I think it is the role of philanthropy to speak out against the games. Funding programs we know work. Finding and supporting teachers who are making a difference in classrooms despite the system – not because of it – remain the challenge. It is interesting to me that Al Sharpton and Joel Klein wrote and article for the January 12, 2009 Wall Street Journal entitled “Charter Schools Can Close the Education Gap – it is not acceptable for minority students to be four grades behind.” They tell us, “Genuine school reform, you stated during the campaign, “will require leaders in Washington who are willing to learn from students and teachers . . . about what actually works.”
Much like the cops on the corner or the teachers that work with the kids day in and day out, the truth will come only if we are humble enough to listen and open to learning. Doing so can open individuals to virtue.
I am happy to report that my superintendent friend retired from the system leaving behind one of the most dynamic schools in the county. The project we discussed involved implementation of the Universal Design for Learining UDL developed at the Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST) in Winchester, Massachusetts. The foundation provided the support and worked closely in fostering healthy relations between the colleagues in Massachusetts and Ohio. He made UDL the required approach to learning for all teachers in every building in the district. By focusing on UDL and linking UDL, with Co-Teaching and appropriate use of technology, this district has had an excited teaching core and children of all abilities engaged in learining. Incidentally their test scores have gone up too.