My summer began with preparation for and writing my comprehensive exams, a step down the Ph.D. road. For the most part, I think I represented myself well in how much I have learned about teaching literature and composition. I may have taught my advisor a couple of things about remix. And I learned I still have plenty to discover before this journey is over.
In July I tried to not think about education. I spent some time at the beach to refill my soul. As a California native, I breathe in time with the tide and extended periods away from the ocean affect me to my bone marrow. It had been a long two years since my last trip, and the moment I smelled the salt air I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. Minimal computer access, limited social media, no television or radio for five days meant a true respite.
And then I came home.
The level of discord about pretty much everything seemed greater than before my hiatus. Politics, education, and even how best to get from the northern suburbs to the airport were not discussed but argued. I read more “I have a right to my opinion” in the last couple of weeks than anything else. No one was listening. A lot of people opted for the ad hominem instead of choosing discourse.
How are we to function as a society if being right is the only thing that matters? And who determines what or who is right? The loudest voice? The cleverest snarky comeback? And what about treating others as individuals rather than part of some collective liberal, progressive, conservative Borg Hive where “resistance is futile?” I certainly don’t care to be assimilated into a movement where my individuality is stripped from me and added to the collective. From where I sit, I am beginning to fear that resistance may well be futile.
Education is a prime example of what I mean. Public schools, begun to ensure that every child had access to basic skills (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic), have morphed into giant hives of busy activities about social justice, equity of outcome, high stakes testing preparation, and some-are-more-equal-than-others protests. Do these things matter? OF COURSE. With the exception of equity of outcome, society needs to be concerned with social justice (as in, treating all humans with dignity and respect according to the law) and boosting those who, for whatever reason, need extra attention in order to have equal opportunity to succeed. Frankly, equity of outcome benefits no one and is the educational equivalent to the Borg Hive. Each individual has different strengths and weaknesses; those strengths should be encouraged and the weaknesses mitigated without trying to make everyone the same. We aren’t.
Respect, opportunity, and justice can all be accomplished without sacrificing individuality and without creating villains of particular groups of people. This goes for both ends of the political spectrum. Not all conservatives think alike. There are, in fact, degrees. Not all liberals believe in lockstep harmony. Most people have opinions that cross political and social lines. The key to understanding is more knowledge, more story, more humanity, not less.
The publishing company executives that seem to rule education find quantitative data compelling. Politicians require donations from companies that are also driven by quantitative data. But, in the last 50 years, quantitative data has failed to lead to programs that make public schools more effective in any of the 3 Rs or the social initiatives attempted. More high stakes testing and punitive teacher assessment are not going to make our students better problem-solvers, better communicators, or better collaborators. Nor will it encourage the best and the brightest among adults to choose teachings. (This is one of those dilemmas faced when equality of outcome is the goal. If every outcome is the same, why do schools want exceptional teachers?)
The boom in homeschooling, charter, and private schools is evidence that parents want individualized, differentiated, and excellent education for their children. Those who have the means (like most DC politicians) take their students out of public schools because scripted and data-driven public schools no longer meet those needs. Many school districts do try to break out of the mandates handed down from on high–and there are lots of teachers at every level who bend over backward to bring out the best in their students. But those exceptional teachers are tired. And burned out. Undervalued and underappreciated in a system that rewards sameness, these teachers are leaving. Some are headed to private or charter schools. Others try consulting or professional development– or go back to college for advanced degrees. Others leave education altogether.
Something has to give.
I believe it begins by listening. Communities must listen to the teachers explain how they may be best supported. Teachers listen to parents about the needs of students. Parents listen to teachers about how they can help their children push through challenges. Administrators and superintendents listen to the studies based on qualitative data. Everyone listens to the exceptional teachers whose students are excited about learning. Districts focus on the teachers and students in their own classrooms rather than test scores from places too geographically and demographically different to be a fair comparison. Bring in literature from all the cultures represented by local transnational students. Showcase the unusual attributes of artists, inventors, athletes, and musicians. Give students real audiences for their accomplishments, not delayed feedback on a multiple choice exam.
Listening is a place to begin. Not listening for ideas to argue against, but deeply, truly listening to hear the point of view from another uniquely capable human being. We are not all the same, but we can treat each other as equals.