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

Thursday, July 02, 2009

For Urban Children, Says Duncan, "It is not about the building."

Since the emergence of the new Democratic majority, "liberals" like Miller and Kennedy no longer have the Republicans to blame for an education policy that is not about the children, but about the health of the education industrial complex and the oligarchical control of the work force. So that now with total control of the urban school agenda, there is nowhere to hide for those who previously found cover behind good-ole-girl, Margaret Spellings. Thus, we find Dunc's Department of lawyers and financiers and spin doctors trying to put a Democratic face on an education policy aimed to protect and advance the agendas of corporations intent upon control of the schools, from K thru college.

The latest blathering idiocy came this week as Duncan added "the building" to the long list of what good urban schools are NOT about (he is not talking about the leafy suburbs, of course--just the urban centers that house the disposable children of the poor). For these poor children, the oligarchs have a solution that is 25-30% cheaper than public schools. So now, urban education is

NOT about qualified teachers, for the new corporate charters can hire unqualified "teachers" for much less, and hire and fire them at will;

NOT about elected school boards to provide oversight by the community;

NOT about special education, libraries, drama, or sports fields;

NOT about climate control, comfort, food services or transportation.

So logically, it follows that it is NOT, as Dunc just proclaimed, about "the building." Any boarded up pizza joint in a strip mall will do as a base of operations for the new corporate charters, or any corrugated metal shed that can be thrown up overnight. But then, when you are dealing with the Civil Rights issue of this generation, as Duncan has proclaimed the urban ed reform agenda to be, there should be no limit to cost savings involved, because we all know that it is not about money and ALL about the children.

Well, someone is listening to the fool-speak by the Secretary! Many people are listening, and those who are, don't believe you, Mr. Duncan. A clip from HuffPo by Cameron Sinclair:

. . . .I felt the most exciting aspect of this far-reaching plan was the $5B being set up to encourage and reward states that are proactively pushing reform. Additionally while I can write about the many, many positive things said what worried me, as someone involved in improving school environments, was his comment that 'it is not about the building'. Sorry Arne, while I agree it is about the children and while teacher performance is important - it is ALSO about the building.

Many schools in this country are in utter disrepair and the outdated portable classrooms that dot the landscape of the American school system are harmful to the health of our children. (Just a few hundred miles south of Aspen we know schools built with cancer causing chemicals and rodent infestation issues). The simple fact is when you ask those who are affected by their surroundings - environments do matter. In the 1940s teacher Loris Malaguzzi showed that children learn first through the interaction with the adults in their lives, then with their peers and finally with the environment around them. The environment is, as coined by Malaguzzi, the third teacher. Fifty years on most educators can attest to the fact that when you have a classroom that inspires children learn.

At the 2007 Aspen Ideas Festival having just spoken on a session on rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina I was walking with colleagues from Architecture for Humanity when the issue about the state of school facilities came up. Getting all worked up about the increased risks of cancer for children in older portable classrooms, we started talking about an idea of actually involving students and teachers in the design of the classroom of the future. Not willing to wait to get the green light to innovate a coalition of the willing came together to launch the Open Architecture Challenge: Classroom - An international design competition with one caveat, design teams had to include the end users of the classroom as equal partners in the design process. The goal of this initiative is to serve as a catalyst to build safe, sustainable and smart educational facilities around the world.

This initiative also included an curriculum to bring design and architecture into K-12 schools and hundreds of architects and design firms went into schools around the world to teach the impact of architecture. Additionally a series of webcasts connecting students with architects (from Ghana, Pakistan, UK and US) to talk about the different aspects of how to design. All of this done on a voluntary basis with an aim to design the classroom of the future.

To our surprise more than 1,000 design teams from 65 countries registered. The competition generated hundreds of ideas for building better classrooms around the world--from upgrading overcrowded urban schools in India to re-imagining smarter, more sustainable portable classrooms here in the United States. The stories from each of these teams are simply amazing. Today, less than 100m where Secretary Duncan spoke, an interdisciplinary jury will select finalists from a pool of the top fifty entries.

Once a winner has been announced (the school receives $50K, the design team $5K) all school designs will be available for viewing and download via the Open Architecture Network. All design are under a creative commons license allowing school districts and non-profits to replicate some of the best ideas and shape the classroom of the future. In the fall an exhibition of the best entries will travel the globe and hopefully a number of classrooms will be built from this initiative.

Arne Duncan repeated a number of times in his talk that is role is to listen and to discover some of the most innovative ideas out there. Within in this initiative there were thousands of individuals that not only have something to say about the future of schools, they already designed it.

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