Our kids reveal our values

Since becoming a mother I have come to realize that one of the most powerful statement of my values comes in the choices I make about and for my children. I give far more thought to the food I buy for my sons than I did when I was making choices about my own food habits. I think a lot more about the music I listen to, the words I use, and the habits I model than I did when they were not watching me. Somehow knowing that my choices have an impact on them makes me pause and choose more thoughtfully to ensure that my choices match my deepest values.

This is why I am troubled by the double standard reflected in the educational choices made by many individuals in the education reform space. I was reminded of this when went to our sons’ public school for a student-led conference last week. Our school embraces a progressive, student-led educational approach. Kids learn through integrated units and performance-based work; their work is evaluated by both adults and students using performance portfolios, student-scored rubrics, and public exhibitions. Our kids take part in an Outward Bound-inspired program that takes them out of school for anywhere from 6-20 days a year; this program is not about academics – it is totally about exploring nature, building community, and working on personal character development. So I was surprised to see a well-known education reformer walk into the school with his son, who enrolled this year.

He is one of the many individuals leading organizations like Denver Public Schools, the Colorado Department of Education, numerous charter school networks, and education reform lobbying organizations who do not send their kids to the schools that are most stifled and beaten down by the current reform agenda. Yet these reformers are driving policies and decisions that are dramatically shaping the public schools in this country, especially schools serving students who have very few choices when it comes to the schools they attend.

The morass of changes passed in the name of education “reform” have resulted in a top-down accountability system that has the results of standardized test scores at its foundation. Test scores drive conversations about whether kids are “learning”; whether educators are “effective;” whether schools are “good;” and whether districts are “performing.” It is common knowledge that standardized test scores (in this country) are highly correlated with a family’s income and parents’ educational level. And both income and educational level (in this country) are highly correlated with race.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether the fact that test scores and income/education level of parents are so tightly linked should cause us to question whether the tests are a good measure of student learning. It’s a hugely important question that I’ll leave for another post.

The truth is that all schools are not equally effected by this new accountability framework. Schools with higher percentages of students from high-income, well-educated families look “better” when it comes to standardized test scores. And if a school looks like it is doing OK, it is generally left alone. States have enough to do breathing down the necks of “underperforming” districts to be able to pay too much attention to districts whose scores are good. And districts have a hard enough time dealing with “bad” schools to fuss too much with schools whose scores are good. The end result is that schools in wealthier, whiter districts tend to fly under the accountability radar. So do schools in generally underperforming districts, like Denver, as long as those schools have benefitted from gentrification and thus have students from wealthier families whose parents are highly educated.

The end result is that we have ended up with lots of “bad” schools that are usually nested within poor and predominantly brown neighborhoods. The trend within the reform world has been to claim that nothing can be done to improve existing schools and to, instead, start new schools that pride themselves on serving predominantly low income, minority students. These schools refer to themselves as college-prep schools, and often reflect the “no excuses” approach that embraces certain key ideas, behaviors and values:

  • Rigorous instruction in “core” academic subjects – reading writing and math;
  • Increased “core instructional time” – this means increasing the time spent directly covering core subjects, generally to the detriment of specials like art, music, PE and recess in the younger grades; and all sorts of non-“core” classes like psychology, sociology, science fiction writing, photography or debate in middle and high school. This focus on increased instructional time is a key driver of longer school days and year-round or extended school years;
  • Teacher-directed instruction – this is seen as the most efficient way to deliver and cover content, but it means students have little opportunity to explore and drive their own learning;
  • Objective data on student performance – administering lots of standardized tests to collect lots of “objective” data that can be used to “drive improvement”;
  • Educator evaluations that are tied to student outcomes – evaluations that are based 35-(preferably) 50% on student performance, where student outcomes rely largely on standardized test scores;
  • School culture – this is often about schools adopting 4-5 “core values” that are plastered over walls and often used in rather jingo-ish ways at school meetings and in marketing materials. It is also about adopting rigid behavioral management tools like snapping at students to call them out on behavior or to “refocus” them; having students “track” teachers/speakers with their eyes; sitting in “ready to learn” poses like “leaning” or straight up with hands clasped in laps;
  • Lots of site-based management, often resulting in leaders preventing teachers from unionizing and hiring brand new teachers or individuals with very little formal teacher training other than what the schools themselves provide.

These are the schools that have been created by, touted by, replicated by, and funded by many of the most prominent voices in the reform community. Yet, in all sorts of ways these same individuals manage to protect their children from these rather scary schools that have been created for other people’s children. First, there is a huge percentage of the most fervent reformers who are young and don’t have children at all. Education reform has become an acceptable form of social fundamentalism that actively recruits young people right out of college or graduate school, plies them with a fairly shallow and narrow set of ideas, and then pats them on the back, telling them how wonderful they are for taking on this moral, new civil rights fight.

And then there are the reformers who are parents. Whether they are the grown up young reformers or the non-educator reformers with business or military backgrounds who parachuted to the rescue of ailing schools districts, there is a similar tendency to avoid having their children in schools that best reflect the fruits of reform efforts. Some have children who are already out of the public school system. It is common knowledge that many most prominent reform advocates in my community and state who have school-aged children do not send their kids to schools that reflect core reform values and educational approaches. The superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Tom Boasberg, a darling of the national reform movement, is currently travelling through South America for six months with his family so that his kids can learn Spanish; but he normally lives in Boulder and his kids go to strong public schools none of which reflect the best practices of education reformers. Boulder is an example of the type of wealthy, generally high-performing district I described earlier; as such it pushes back on a lot of Colorado’s state reforms, knowing the state Board of Education is not likely to yank accreditation from a politically powerful district. John King, our new US Secretary of Education, used to send his kids to a Montessori school in New York while he was pushing Common Core Standards, aligned assessments, early literacy and teacher evaluations tied to test scores. The Montessori method reflects none of these things.

In Denver and around the country, there are reports of far too many reform leaders who shelter their children from the worst of what is happening to public schools in the name of reform. They do this in different ways. Some send their kids to private schools. Others can claim to be part of the public education system but they often move out of urban districts like Denver to live in wealthier suburban districts where the stresses of reforms are not as intense. And some have found ways to send their kids to wealthier, gentrified (higher performing) public schools in urban districts; or to schools with progressive pedagogies, like Montessori schools or Expeditionary Learning schools. In many of these cases I know and have studied the schools these reformers send their kids to, and I can tell you they are very different than the schools that the reform movement hails as “great” schools for brown and poor kids.

In these schools the expectation is that specials like music, art and PE are as important as the “core”. Many of these schools, especially the progressive ones, take students out of the classroom to learn, to have nature-based experiences; to interact with the community in authentic ways. Again in many progressive schools, standardized tests are a small part of the assessment portfolio. Students often assess their own work, they have opportunities to demonstrate their work and the full range of their abilities through projects and portfolios. Parents at these schools would be up in arms if children were snapped at, or told to sit silently, with straight backs and tracking eyes. And in all of these public schools, teachers can join unions and school leaders would be eviscerated if they ever hired untrained or totally inexperienced teachers, most of whom were between the ages of 22 and 26.

I know that we all make choices for our kids based on what their individual needs are, and what our values as parents are. But that is my point. There appears to be a sense on the part of many of these reformers that what their kids need is somehow different than what “those” (brown and poor) kids need. Their choices about the schools they send their kids to reflect a fundamentally different set of values then the values that drive the schools their reforms create: in terms of the academic and non-academic experiences that matter for kids and their development; in terms of what it looks like for children to be respected and treated like autonomous, creative and high-value human beings; and in terms of the outcomes that actually matter in school and life. Because they are not experiencing the real impact of their agenda on schools and students many of them are baffled by the rising tide of dissatisfaction that has helped give rise to the national testing opt-out movement.

I was fortunate to have gotten spots for my sons at a public school that I believes provides a strong educational and human experience. I send them to a school where administration hires experienced teachers and provides them with days and days of professional development, support and planning time that allows them to do their best work. It is a school where there is time to do evaluations of teachers and students well but, even so, those evaluations are kept in perspective. I think we need to define “equity” in education as a system that gives all children the chance to attend schools that reflect what we know about how kids develop, learn and thrive.

There is a huge problem with a reform agenda that makes fewer and fewer of these types of schools available to students generally, but especially to poor and brown children. It is especially troubling when this agenda is driven by mostly white, middle/upper class individuals who have real choices about where they send their kids because they can move to the “right” districts, find ways to send their kids to the “good” schools within urban districts, or send their kids to private schools. It is fine for reformers to advocate for changes to our public education system. But our education system is a reflection of our deepest values personally and civically. It seems fair to ask why reformers want others to be happy with what they say is “good” and “equitable” in education when they apparently don’t think it is good enough or equitable enough for their own children.

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