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by Joel Shatzky
from the Autumn, 2013 Jewish Currents
Judging from my experience training teachers for four decades and witnessing several waves of damaging conservative attacks on public education in the U.S., most children who learn well today, and most teachers who build actual teaching careers, do so in spite of the school system rather than because of it. Even while education theorists propose interesting, progressive models of education and a variety of reform propositions, the enduring model of instruction, and the skills emphasized in the curriculum, remain largely derived from a time when a predominantly agrarian America was industrializing.
Horace Mann (1796-1859) was the educational pioneer most responsible for this model, which was innovative in its day: He advocated mandatory education in a common school for all young learners, the separation of religious from secular education, and “building a person’s character,” which Mann described as “just as important as reading, writing and arithmetic. Instilling values such as obedience to authority, promptness in attendance, and organizing the time according to bell ringing helped students prepare for future employment” (emphasis added).
A highly pressurized version of this industrial model of education is the norm today, with walled learning spaces, subject-based curricula, administratively scripted instruction, arbitrary segments of time allotted to each class, teacher “supervisors,” standardized testing, and a very regulated school environment. Yet in the eyes of most creative and effective educators, that model runs entirely counter to children’s natural inclinations. Research has shown that the more flexible, open, and collaborative the classroom is, the more positive, motivated, persistent, and retentive of their learning most students will be. “[M]any teachers, particularly in elementary schools, continue to prize active student involvement, cross-disciplinary projects completed by small groups, and similar activities,” writes Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, at Educationnext.org. “. . . Many teachers and principals still embrace the principles of open education, but keep their heads low to avoid incoming fire.”
Perhaps they “keep their heads low” based on the knowledge that structures and methods of open, student-centered education require excellent teacher-training programs, guidance from experienced educators, support for teachers from the school system, and generous funding. Instead, the American public is now stuck with a system that produces a 50 percent teacher turnover rate every five years, which makes the creation of learning communities within schools — including among experienced teacher mentors and new teachers — impossible to achieve.
The role of community as a context for successful education cannot be too strongly stressed. Kids are naturally oriented toward and heavily influenced by their social peer group, but most modern schools do little to respond to this orientation; even “recess” and “assembly,” which are minimal concessions to a community sensibility, have been shrunk or eliminated in most systems (contemporary school architecture often cuts out an auditorium altogether).
The radical Russian-Jewish educator Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was an early advocate of learning built upon a “social community,” from which children learned both in and out of the classroom. He called them MKO’s (More Knowledgeable Others), and saw them as including parents, teachers, coaches, neighbors, experts and professionals, as well as other children. Recognizing the importance of the “total environment” (and the significance of language in shaping thought and culture), Vygotsky indicated that social elements have a great impact on the intellectual development of young learners.
I used to tell my college students, “What you learn in class is the tip of the iceberg,” since it is the totality of an environment that shapes the learning experience. The rest of the iceberg is often referred to by educators, in accordance with the industrial model, as “intellectual capital.” In terms of the future vocational success of the young learner, it is also “social capital.” The more books available and read in the home, the more conversation with older people as well as one’s peers, the more visits to museums, zoos, concerts, and summer camps, the more likely that young people will be successful, despite the narrow ways of public education. These “capital-building” experiences also form the habits of mind that produce a “cultivated” person, who does well in job interviews and other work-world interactions — and is able to appreciate the arts, understand the lessons of history, and think critically and creatively, capacities that go well beyond the narrowed objective of being “certified for work.”
Noted educator Deborah Meier has argued for the importance of making connections between school experiences and the life experiences of young learners. Meier is the founder of several small schools in Harlem and Boston and of the small-school movement in general, and was the first educator ever to receive the MacArthur “genius” award, in 1987. In a chapter in a recently published collection of essays, Public Education Under Siege (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), Meier divides educators into three groups: “Public School Traditionalists,” “Reformers,” and “Radicals.” The Traditionalists, she says, feel that problems in educating the poor are caused by the poor themselves; the Reformers believe that schools should provide young learners with the tools to become “middle-class 5-year-olds” who fit into with the traditional classroom; the Radicals, among whom Meier counts herself, see “remaking the schools” as the goal.
“We focus,” Meier writes,
. . . on the strengths of ‘lower-class children’ which the ‘necessity to survive’ in an unfriendly world [has] produced. The ‘culture of poverty’ . . . can’t be overcome by pretending it doesn’t exist. Instead, change comes with self-acceptance. . . . [Educators] must find ways to utilize the ‘culture of poverty’ itself, to begin with the child’s own experiences, good and bad, to involve his parents and his community, and to let each child’s growth develop from his already functioning personality, rather than cut off from it and rootless.
Meier’s approach emphasizes motivating “reluctant learners” by making connections between what they are supposed to learn in school and what they are compelled to learn outside in order to survive.
Another radical teaching approach is presented by Alan Singer, director of the Secondary Education Social Studies Department of Teaching, Literacy and Leadership at Hofstra University and a frequent contributor to Huffington Post on issues of education. Singer expresses a succinct view of an “ideal” school for the 21st century: It “would integrate students across, race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, and academic ability and prepare students for active participation in a democratic society. Its curriculum would include academic, artistic, athletic, and vocational components, and high school students would have the opportunity to work part of the day.”
Another vision is offered by Judith Franzen, an early-childhood educator who directs a Waldorf School in Buffalo, New York: The Waldorf “approach,” she says, is “based on a developmental picture that . . . takes into account how children learn at different times in their lives as well as the impact of temperament. In early childhood, they learn through imitation and live in the direct participatory consciousness, so what the adults do, think and feel matters, because it enters deeply into the child unfiltered. Hence, we emphasize the qualities of the teacher first and foremost, create nurturing, home-like environments, perform domestic activities with much care so the children can participate in them and then allow the children to move and play, developing their physical bodies and imaginations.” By imitating adults engaging joyfully in tasks, children establish good habits and gain expertise in life’s ways — hence the model for Waldorf-based childcare is called “LifeWays.”
There are certainly “successful” schools throughout the country (though their success is often dubiously measured by standardized test results). Until we move toward a democratized and more compassionate economy, however, only those young learners who, as my mother, a great educator, was wont to say, “are smart enough to pick the right parents” will have access to inspiring and effective education. Much real learning occurs between the time children leave the classroom on Friday and return on a Monday, and schools have no influence on these experiences. Community-based approaches to education would have to lower those walls separating school life from home life. The “culture of poverty” would not only be understood by educators, but would be transformed by schools.
My own ideal school, for example, would encourage weekly class excursions, not only to museums and zoos but to workplaces and their own neighborhoods, where students and teachers might help in developing and maintaining projects such as gardens, animal shelters, and daycare centers. School curricula, instead of being strictly subject-based, would mostly be project-based and largely collaborative. Periods of instruction would vary in length with the interest and progress of the class.
The school I envision would be staffed by top college graduates who would compete strenuously for the well-paid privilege of being educators. Teachers would be thoroughly trained in how to best teach students with learning disabilities, and there would be after-school programs for the community, which would include parents and others involved in students’ lives. School facilities would be available to the community well into the evening, and staffed by teachers, social workers, specialists in the arts, and tutors in reading, writing, math and a variety of other subjects.
During regular school hours, there would be abundant time for play and independent cultural activity, to enable young learners to learn from each other. Each young student would also have the opportunity to get instruction in music, visual arts, theater, and dance, supported by a regular infusion of supplies such as musical instruments, drawing paper and materials — all of which the young learners can use at home. After fifth grade, students would spend a portion of their days tutoring and providing role models for younger students, improving the learning of all.
To have their progress evaluated, students would present to their teachers and peers, including younger and older students, for comment and constructive criticism. Almost all “assessments” would be project-based rather than test-based, since testing is generally the least effective way of determining what a young learner really knows. As noted educator Alfie Kohn has observed, “Only by abandoning traditional grading and performance assessment practices can we achieve our ultimate educational objectives.”
Today, approximately 30 percent of American students earn the college degrees that prepare them, or at least mark them as suitable, for middle-class occupations. Their success is increasingly used as a cudgel with which to beat both the large plurality of Americans barely living above the poverty line and the public schools for their failure to prepare students for the so-called “new economy.” School reform has thus become a scapegoat issue that substitutes for the reform of our economic system, which has been globalizing, profiteering, and transforming so quickly that most working people cannot keep up. Rather than demanding that our economic system provide a guaranteed living wage for the great majority, politicians and education bureaucrats blame the victims — and their teachers — for failing to overcome their disadvantages.
Indeed, it is a wonder, and a testimonial to public education’s hardiness, that 30 percent of Americans over the age of 25 actually do have a college degree, given the obstacles to success that schools face. A 2009 survey by the Center for Disease Control, for example, showed that 16 percent of white children, 13 percent of black children, and 9 percent of Hispanic children who live at poverty level are suffering from dyslexia, which makes the learning of basic reading skills very difficult. One out of eight Americans receive federal food assistance, for example, and some thirteen million school-age children live in households that have a hard time finding sufficient nourishment, according to Louisiana State University’s Agriculture Center. Of course, standardized testing doesn’t fill their bellies, and the undermining of teachers’ unions and job security does not create a guaranteed living wage for anyone else.
Yet that’s what we have: relentless growth in standardized testing, and teachers being targeted for defamation and disempowerment. As a result, it is hard to avoid the pessimistic conclusion that our social system is embracing Social Darwinism, and that the least successful forms of instruction are being foisted on a confused and duped population. Nonetheless, communities of parents, teachers and activists have begun fighting back against their educational victimization of poor children by the budget-cutting powers-that-be. Often these struggles are directly linked to issues of unemployment, public housing, health care and other community problems — as they should be. It seems that before “community-based” methods of education can take hold in America, community-based political struggles will have to gain in force and breadth.
Joel Shatzky is the author of Option Three: A Novel about the University, published last year by our magazine’s imprint, Blue Thread. Shatzky taught at SUNY Cortland for thirty-seven years before retiring in 2005. He is a playwright who has had productions in New York, London, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and his books include The Thinking Crisis (with Ellen Hill), Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists, and Contemporary Jewish-American Dramatists and Poets (with Michael Taub), among others. Shatzky writes frequently on education issues for Huffington Post.