"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Teaching Children to Hate School

If children were only technically-precise production copies, there might have been hope for the innately-naive business model for education based on management, input, measurement, and manipulation. But children, alas, are only made of miracle protoplasm capable of being bringing forth worlds in immeasurable ways, even as they are herded, mishandled, branded, and penned again year after year. At their core, these little firing bundles of temporal neuronal ensembles have many developmental nodes that wither from neglect as idiot programmers scratch their heads as to why their projects cannot be debugged.

Meanwhile, at the center of children's little pulsing innervated kernels is the phylogenetic imperative encoded in their DNA to grow, to expand, to self-organize, to learn, to exercise the autonomy that defines them as organisms. By middle school, the majority of urban male children have a plan, and it doesn't include more of the same sub-routine of baffling bullshit.

Here is a clip from a piece on the "dropout problem" or, more precisely, the reform school problem, in The Notebook by Ron Whitehorne, obviously a teacher with some experience in dealing with miracle protoplasm:
. . . .Absenteeism is lowest in 4th grade. The rate increases by one-third between fourth and eighth grade, and almost doubles again in ninth grade. It continues to be the case that a significant number of students do well in the primary grades, begin to lose interest and fall behind in the middle grades, and stop going to school in droves when they reach high school. Current “data-driven” reform strategies haven't adequately tackled that problem.

In contrast, underlying the small schools movement – like the middle schools movement of the 1980s – is the understanding that adolescents have particular needs, and that education needs to take these into account. Young people want greater independence and more relevance. A curriculum that is strong on real-life connections and problem-solving, a school climate that promotes trust and responsibility, and the active involvement of teachers and staff with their students are the marks of student-centered small schools. Creating the kind of curriculum and climate that will overcome the alienation of students who now experience school as failure, boredom, and frustration is not easy. It will never be done as an add-on to a heavy diet of test prep.

In the Hornbeck era, Philadelphia schools were encouraged to create small learning communities (SLCs) that were supposed to embody these small-school values. As is so often the case with top-down change, it happened mostly in form and only infrequently in substance. But at my school we got grant funds to create viable, thematically based small learning communities. I was part of a four-person team that kept the same students from sixth through eighth grade and organized instruction thematically. We saw improved attendance, behavior, and engagement in learning from our students.

The teachers remember this period as our “best years.” As for the students, there is no data I can cite. But I ran into a student a couple of years ago who had successfully graduated from high school and was supporting a family. After we exchanged pleasantries, tears welled up in his eyes, and he told me that his years in middle school as part of our team had been the best years of his life. When I probed further, he said he felt valued, supported, and successful.

Too many students, once they make the passage from the primary grades, do not feel valued, supported, and successful – and act accordingly. But this lesson is, at best, an afterthought for clipboard-wielding, data-driven NCLB proponents.

When our school was one of a number of schools slated for restructuring in 2002 as part of the state takeover, our leadership team met with the administrator for restructured schools. I told him we had done some things right, like SLCs, and we needed to try to retain these strengths. He waved his hand, said we had tried “all that,” and it was time to move on.

Well, we've moved on, and while some real gains have been made, there is little evidence that a high-stakes, test-driven program is going to turn our high schools (or our middle schools) around. Many things are needed, including a major infusion of resources. But we also need to look at the essential lessons of successful small schools and small learning communities and make them a central focus of school reform.


  1. I'm curious. What increases in learning do you see with "a major infusion of resources," when and how will we know it has occurred? After the infusion, what do you see sustaining increased learning?

  2. This topic really resonates with people.

    Reading the reader responses to the recent anti-teacher & teacher's Union hit-piece in the LA Times, you get the distinct impression that there are a lot of folks out there who remember school, or parts of it, as a dreadful experience.

    Here's the article:


    Many of the posters are piling on teachers, with critical comments on their purported "laziness", ineptitude, cruelty, apathy, etc etc

    Some clearly hate teachers and want them to suffer and be pushed-down in any way possible.

    But many posts reveal something else too---A weariness and feeling of being broken-down or subjugated at school---Much like the above post describes---And I think this may be more from the relentless top-down, authoritarian power-structure, and, the fear-motivated environment and methods of many schools,
    rather than teachers per se.

    Reading the above post just re-affirms my doubts about the overall system in place.

    I suppose some kids will always need an authoritarian structure to keep them in "orbit".

    But there are many kids who could adapt well to a non-authoritarian structure of cooperation and based on actual INTEREST in subject matter.

    Different "tracks" or subdivisions in a school might aid in this change.

    Kids in the "Authoritarian Classes" would see the freedom and cooperation in the non-authoritarian ones and perhaps be motivated to gain maturity and self-control and transfer into the less-restrictive environment.

    Kids who just can't break out of the "as soon as teacher turns away, I can goof-off" mentality, would be sent back to the more controlled, authoritarian class.

    But it should be up to THE CHILD to demonstrate their own maturity and willingness to grow up,
    in order to enjoy the more "mature" (i.e. less restrictive) class.

    We do too much "telling kids what to do", IMO, instead of simply setting-up a system where kids who make the selections THEMSELVES to become more mature and/or more academic, could enjoy the fruits of their own personal choices.

    But no.

    It's not that way now in most Public Schools
    and Charters.

    It's THIS way:
    Kids are widgets who must be dictated
    to, controlled and shaped by
    the school, and especially,
    by mechanistic teachers.

    This thinking of children's education as a conformist "haircut" to be administered to a passive individual, has got to end,
    for the next era of REAL EDUCATION to begin.

  3. Regarding SLCs...

    We have had them at our school for about
    3 and 1/2 years. Our SLCs have not had the upward effect on test scores that was predicted by the reform "experts".

    But, as time has passed, I have begun to see the benefits of the smaller SLCs over the larger school format.

    Neither are perfect, but I really see some good in the SLC set-up.

    So I certainly don't disagree with EVERYTHING the "reformists" have pushed, but, alas, in this case, it is for different reasons (socialization, relations with teacher & school personell, etc).

    I am a reality-based teacher.
    Words, lofty claims, glorious prescriptions and zippy termininology do NOTHING for me.

    The Corporatist-"reformers" are full of catch-words, flashy terminology and distracting
    claims. But most of what they prescribe is largely DYSFUNCTIONAL at the school level.

    I have to actually SEE SOMETHING WORK
    to believe in it.

    I have seen SLCs have a positive effect, I believe. So I can support them to a definite degree.

    That simple, open-minded honesty, I think is vital to functioning with effectiveness and INTEGRITY in an institution like Public schools, which face so much change,
    and debate about change.

    I just don't see ANY of that honesty or flexibility in the Corporate reformers.

    They don't have it because they are not
    operating in good faith.

    Their actual agenda is CONTROL and PROFIT,
    not student learning.

    They think nobody has noticed this, but some folks definitely have.

  4. I think there's a need for a revolution in education. Every time I read a story about a school district laying off teachers, I notice that there never seem to be any administrators on the list...

  5. @nitko,
    I think the comments made by this person have been rather subjective and indeed very wisely made with a broader perspective in mind.
    But this also makes me think a li'l more radically, and out of the conventional teach-stuff-test way of education.

    Nitko here talks about "SEEING SOMETHING WORK" to believe in it, but hey! I feel the marks/grades your pupil attain need not be what you're looking out for to make you believe that the SLC idea works. After all the very idea of an SLC wouldnt revolve that closely around the idea of putting children to test all the time. Read this somewhere - pupil in a classroom are like cereal that you cook. You cant really keep opening the cooker every 5 minutes to see if they're "done!" The cereal would just get spoilt! So if we're unable to come up with a better evaluation/self-satisfaction technique to measure the effectiveness of our SLC or any such revolutionary education mechanism, it is only our mistake I'd say.

    A revolutionary teaching mechanism needs a revolutionary evaluation system too.

    I might have been wrong in understanding Nitko's opinion here, and regret if that's true!