by John Thompson
I very much appreciate this guest blogger opportunity. The first time I posted a comment, it was on Gerald Bracey’s blog, EDDRA. I drafted and redrafted my statement before finishing with LBJ’s lament, “where can I find a one-handed economist?” I was so proud when a reply from a famed economist arrived in my mailbox. My wisdom was not mentioned, but it was Truman’s quote, not LBJ’s, I was told.
Despite this ignominious introduction, I’ve come to see the blogs as a modern day Village Green. Having come to teaching at the age of forty, I had plenty of experience in academic and political battles. On the other hand, when I joined the fray in the role of a teacher, an asterisk seemed to be attached identifying me as just a teacher. I wish that teachers had more opportunity to express their practical experience in the administration and the governmental offices across the nation, but at least in the edusphere we are welcome.
The wonderful discussion in the edusphere about policy and politics needs to be balanced by the practical experience of teachers. On the other hand, education is too important to be left to the educators.
We face a paradox. If our poor children are to have a future in the global economy, we need more than incremental change. High school, as we know it, is obsolete. Inner city middle schools may be the most dysfunctional institution in America. Richard Elmore is correct. The motto of public education today should be “Inequality. It’s our greatest product.”
Elmore also provides a wonderful metaphor comparing education to the ocean. On the surface, change is constant. On the other hand, little changes on the sea bed. Our values are closer to those of the 19th century, and teachers still teach the way they were taught.
So, educational reformers often act like a team that is down by several touchdowns late in the game. We abandon any semblance of a game plan and throw one desperation pass after another, creating turnovers and making things worse. For instance, when our school addressed the challenge of NCLB by instituting high stakes benchmark testing, the argument was, “We have tried everything else. Why not try this?” We learned the hard way. On the other hand, it was not nearly as hard on the teachers as on the students who dropped out by the dozens.
Education has not shown an ability to “chew gum and walk at the same time.” We live in an age of digital miracles and yet what is the creative destruction that comes from technology? Mostly, we’ve just computerized the old pencil and paper worksheet format.
Worse, we have institutionalized the old value system of memorizing the “right” answer. We face the obscene reality in poor schools that technology is not used to liberate the minds of young people as much as it is a tool to coerce and beat down their teachers.
I keep asking how we got here from there. Understandably, reformers looked for “a lever and a place to stand” to transform education. We failed, however, to balance their theories with the practical knowledge of teachers. Often, “research-based” reforms were just a more expensive version of gimmicks that had failed earlier. (In our state for example, the discredited Objective Based Instruction and Extended Learning Opportunities were rebranded as “safety nets,” remediation, and “credit recovery.”) Had teachers been asked, we would have predicted with remarkable accuracy why the SES tutoring and the primitive online tutoring programs would fail unless they were integrated into classroom instruction in a mindful, and balanced, manner.
An effective teacher knows that one of the greatest challenges is determining the proper rate for introducing new challenges, and that is a fundamentally subjective process. On the other hand, there are theorists who want the rate that children learn to be pre-determined by top down mandates. Policy experts and politicians know that the sausage-making process of legislation requires oversimplification. On the other hand, teachers know that schools are a complex as any aspect of humanity. Newcomers to education are often sincere and dedicated. On the other hand, they “don’t know what they don’t know.”
Locally, when educational reforms are undercut by a complex set of contradictory institutional pressures, our best practice is to hit a bar and thrash out working compromises. On the other hand, the closest thing we have to that approach is the blogs. It’s not a good idea to drink cheap beer while blogging. But on the other hand, maybe the edusphere can help us achieve a proper balance of policy, research, theory, and practical experience.
John Thompson teaches at Centennial High School in the Oklahoma City Public School System. He was the OKCPS runner-up Teacher of the Year this year, and the First Annual Champion of the Centennial Buffalo Chip Throwing Contest, wearing the plastic glove on his left hand and throwing with his right. He has a PhD from Rutgers in history, and his major work, Closing the Frontier, won the Western Historical Association Athearn Award for the nation’s best 20th century history published over a two-year period.