During the Great Depression Myles Horton and a group of committed educators founded Highlander Folk School. Based on Dutch models of adult education centers, Horton built the school to provide a place where adults who shared a common cause could meet to hash out their ideas regarding how to better organize to promote social change. The first groups to gather at Highlander were workers and labor leaders who organized unions in the South. Later, the school would serve as a fulcrum for the civil rights movement by helping to inspire Citizenship Schools. Teachers from the black communities ran the schools themselves, focusing on teaching the basic skills of reading and writing necessary at the time for voter registration. In Frank Adam’s history of Highlander he explains, “From two words — ought and is — arises the tension out of which people will learn and act.”
Today’s school reform movement is a battle over the “is” and the “ought.” Perhaps it’s not too hard to agree on the “is” — problems we are facing in our public schools, particularly when it comes to equal opportunities for all of our nation’s youth — but what seems to be most debated is what ought to be: what are the goals of school reform and how might we reach these goals?
Unfortunately in reaching for solutions, we have silenced the voices of those who matter most. We are seeing across the United States — and in many countries around the world — the disenfranchisement of our teachers. Education policy makers at every level — city, state, and federal — have become an oligarchy that ascribes to a few common principles:
1) a school’s success or failure is determined by students’ performance on standardized tests; 2) it is the fault of teachers when students perform poorly on these tests; 3) if students do not rapidly improve, schools and individual teachers need to be held accountable; 4) accountability, by federal mandate, might involve the state taking over the school and firing all the administrators and teachers, thus “reforming” the school from the bottom up.
Such measures are often justified by policy makers with statements such as “we’re doing what’s best for the students.” However, what they often don’t take into account is the fragility of the overall school community, made up certainly of students, but also of teachers, parents, community partners, school staff, and administrators. Education relies on the day-to-day interaction among real people in a shared space. We cannot impose a rigid set of expectations and then believe that our teachers will be able to teach thoughtfully and creatively.
School principal and education writer Debbie Meier describes the critical relationship that exists between the world of the teachers and the world of the students:
Students learn a lot from the company they keep — including the intellectual habits of their teachers. We’re never going to get kids to approach science or literature thoughtfully if their own teachers do not have the space or time for thoughtfulness, much less permission to practice it. Adults need to model the habits of mind they want their students to adopt — good judgment, the exercise of reason, respect for differences, a willingness to try new things, and the courage to ask hard questions. But teachers who are “just following orders” — implementing a one-size-fits-all program in accordance with an experimental protocol — are not helping their students learn these lessons.
The National Research Council of the National Academies of Science recently reported that the most important skills students need in the 21st century workforce fall into three categories: cognitive skills, interpersonal skills, and intrapersonal skills. Two of these categories emphasize our ability to relate with others and our capacity for self-reflection and improvement. A system that views its teachers like cogs in a machine is not one that is likely to foster these skill sets at any level.
Through our top-down mandates and ubiquitous talk of “accountability,” we are discouraging teachers from fostering creativity and innovation in their own classrooms. Lately, I was having dinner with a teacher at a high school that fired all its teachers and then was “reconstituted,” to use the Department of Education’s term. I remember walking down the hallways of this urban school many years ago and feeling such a strong sense of community and warmth. I asked him if the school still felt like this after the draconian changes. The teacher responded, “I’ll tell you the truth Kurt, the school has lost its sense of humanity.”
Yes, we do have a great deal of work to do, particularly around providing equal educational opportunities for students in all of our public schools. In the tradition of Highlander, we must take a critical look at the “is” and find ways to reach the “ought.” Also like Highlander we must arrive at solutions by honoring the intelligence, creativity, and the on-the-ground knowledge of the dedicated teachers in our nation’s schools. Perhaps by working alongside rather than against teachers, we can shift the educational climate back to a place where the very humanity of the student and the teacher are valued again.