Hope and the Moral Dimensions of Teaching

“The schools are failing, the schools are failing!”

Empty rhetoric about public education keeps filling newspapers here in Washington state and across the country. For more than a decade, or a hundred years depending on how you count, detractors and retractors, extractors and segregationists have been claiming that the cornerstone of American democracy and cultural globalism are faulty and only getting worse.

In the meantime, generations of students have been raised, launched, and lived through this so-called failure. The media has portrayed all of us, the products of these so-called failing public schools, as insolent, apathetic, and largely irrelevant minus our capability to produce and consumer according to their want and desire. We have defeated these shackles though, more and more in succeeding years, to become the powerhouses of social ability. Rather than failing, we are thriving. Rather than withering, we are bursting forth with the positive powerful possibilities of a future unimaginable to those who’d keep us from succeeding.

Last night I met with a muse of mine, the spectacular Donnan Stoicovy. Donnan’s the Lead Learner (aka principal) at a Student Voice Super School in State College, Pennsylvania. Her hard work has included tirelessly supporting her teachers and their students. Their countless struggles against a public education system hellbent on squashing any consideration, let alone practice, of democracy in schools are a model for all of us. Meeting with her and Bernard Badiali from Penn State reminded me of all the reasons why our work in schools is absolutely crucial to the critique, survival, rebirth, expansion, and re-examination of democratic education in America.

While we were talking they graciously introduced me to John Goodlad’s “Moral Dimensions of Teaching“:

  • Enculturating the young in a social and political democracy. Foster in the nation’s young the skills, dispositions, and knowledge necessary for effective participation in a social and political democracy
  • Providing access to knowledge for all children and youth. Ensure that the young have access to those understandings and skills required for satisfying and responsible lives
  • Practicing a nurturing pedagogy (the art and science of teaching). Develop educators who nurture the learning and well-being of every student
  • Ensuring responsible stewardship of schools. Ensure educators’ competence in and commitment to serving as stewards of schools

Considering my own experiences of the previous week and anticipating my coming weeks, I can see how Goodlad has managed- again- to provide us with an essential template for our work. I urge my colleagues and friends in this work to consider these Dimensions in their own practice, and think about how they apply to the individual and collective futures of our work. The urgency and agency apparent in these deceivingly simple Dimensions can help us in countless ways, particularly as we attempt to counter the popular Henny Penny narrative that’s actively inculcating young people to believe their failures while pacifying corporations’ narrow self-centered interest in ending support for public education.

CommonAction is available to train, speak, and share about this topic and many others. Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360)489-9680.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

“Youth Voice” Isn’t Enough to Stop Youth Disengagement

Youth voice is not enough. Adults working to build communities with young people have learned that it is important to engage youth as self-advocates and peer teachers, community culture monitors, and youth organization cheerleaders. As youth organizations become more savvy, more youth are being effectively taught to challenge themselves, working with their peers to create safe and supportive environments for all people.

However, after more than 15 years of national interest in youth voice, many communities are still struggling to effectively address the problem of youth disengagement. We have to consider the reality of youth disengagement as a form of youth voice and the role of youth/adult partnerships in challenging youth disengagement. But we also have to acknowledge that youth voice is not enough.

Most people, young and old, value action. From our hunter/gatherer roots to present, there is often nothing more important to us than getting things done. Somewhere along the way, though, society decided that the loudest or most eloquent person in the group should be given a place to talk separate from everyone else. From Socrates to Abraham Lincoln, we have created pedestals and mantles on which we place these individuals, and we call that place “leadership.” Many youth organizations perpetuate that idea.

The challenge with many organizations’ conceptions of youth voice is that it is automatically associated with this traditional youth leadership model: Young leaders are nurtured to become adult leaders, and in many ways we carry forward the notion that youth leadership is only for certain youth.

Occasionally, well-meaning adults will try to engage nontraditional youth leaders in traditional youth leadership activities. When those experiences do not work out, adults feel justified shrugging their shoulders and simply give up on nontraditional youth leaders. However, when this reality is coupled with our hunter/gatherer roots, we can see why youth voice is not enough: Adults working with nontraditional youth leaders in “failed” youth leadership opportunities are generally taught to sit passively and wait for their turn to speak up. Despite that, the nontraditional youth leaders take action, whether it works for adults or not. This is when youth voice becomes inconvenient.

Effective social change requires direct action. It is important that everyone working for social change sees youth as a piece of that action but not the whole pie. My experience working with communities across the country and research on youth voice has shown me that there is a five-part process for meaningfully involving all partners. Following is an explanation of how my cycle of engagement can be used to engage nontraditional youth leaders.

Part 1: Listen to all youth. Families, counselors, and other adults have a direct stake in the well-being of our communities. However, the most important partner is often the least engaged: connecting all youth as partners and hearing their voices, at par with other partners including traditional youth leaders, is essential. Adults must hear youth experiences with injustice; their ideas about social change; their wisdom about creating safe and supportive communities; and their beliefs about learning, teaching, and leadership in general. These experiences and ideas and their wisdom are essential to effectively engaging not only youth, but also all other partners. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that educators must learn to “speak by listening;” social change opens the door for adults to demonstrate to nontraditional and traditional youth leaders that they are our partners.

Part 2: Validate perspectives. The historical structures of communities require adults to give permission to youth. In the old “youth empowerment” concept this meant always saying yes. Today things are different. We know that validation does not always mean saying “yes.” Instead, it is important to sometimes say “no” or “maybe,” and always to ask more questions. Inquiry is acknowledgment, and it builds relationships and allows adults to connect with young people across the board.

Part 3: Authorize change. Sometimes the straightest path to creating change is the one that looks wiggly. To authorize youth is to give them permission to tell their own stories through positions and education. They need the education and the positions that will allow them to effectively change the world.

Part 4: Take action. Young people are not the only partners who require action. With demanding modern schedules adults want to hear more than just words too—they want to do something. However, one of the points of this cycle is that action does not happen in a vacuum; instead, it has to have context. The other parts of this cycle provide that framing. Don’t take action without the other parts.

Part 5: Reflect on learning. Reflection allows all partners, including young people, to look back on what they have done, make meaning from it, and apply what they have learned to the next rotation of the cycle. An easy framework for reflection is

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what: What happened?
  • So what was the point of that?
  • Now what do we do with what we have learned?

Keep in mind that these different parts are a cycle though, so as they come around to completion, we use our reflections on learning to re-inform the process of listening to partners.

Social change requires more than youth voice: it needs action. The Cycle of Engagement is one tool in the Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit that can engage young people and adults as partners in creating a whole new world. Let’s use it together.

CommonAction is available to train, coach, speak, and write about this topic across the US and Canada. Contact Adam to learn about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360) 489-9680.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Charter Schools Destroy Democracy

The story of charter schools in Washington State is intense. It spans several introductions in the Legislature, involves the voting down of the approach by citizens three times, is foisted up by education organizations and politicians bank-rolled by large foundations that are dismantling public schools across the United States, and generally disregards the education and well-being of students beyond their roles as tokens in the struggle.

The Challenge

Yesterday, an editorial was published in the Seattle Times by an editor of Rethinking Schools who is an education faculty at the University of Washington-Bothell. Dr. Wayne Au writes,

Charters underserve English-language learners and students with disabilities; they do not keep accurate track of student data, such as who is on free and reduced lunch; their governing boards regularly lack public accountability; they have also reached levels of racial segregation not seen since before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that legally ended “separate but equal” schooling — prompting the NAACP to issue a statement in 2010 opposing charter schools.

This is a large part of my active discouragement of these places at every turn: Charters are the wolves in sheep’s clothing, being pitched by businesspeople in farmer’s costumes. They are insidious for many reasons, several that go beyond the professors concerns. In a report from the Institute of Education Sciences of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, a part of the US Department of Education, it was stated that,

On average, charter middle schools that held lotteries were neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving math or reading test scores, attendance, grade promotion, or student conduct within or outside of school. Being admitted to a study charter school did significantly improve both students’ and parents’ satisfaction with school.

This means that charters are more effective at creating the perception of change in schools, rather than change itself. Knowing that they are not held routinely held accountable the way public schools are, it is no wonder why they consistently look better.

Performance is only part of my concern thought.

There is a reason why foundations are not pouring money into private schools and sending students there by droves. Charters are systematically, routinely designed to siphon money from the public school system by diverting public support and target it towards private interests. The lesson charter school advocates, including foundations, politicians, and lobbyists are promoting is that having public accountability is a failure, and private innovation is the only way to go.

Anyone who cares about democracy and social justice needs to see the truth of charters: They are trojan horses for destroying democratic society. There’s a reason why the U.S. was the first nation in the world to consider them seriously, and why only deeply capitalist countries are adopting them.

Charter schools are baaaaad news.

I agree that there is always more room, but I do not agree that charter schools have absolutely anything to do with it. Charter schools are a false choice forced on Americans as “The Only Choice”, insofar as they represent an extreme departure from the democratic nature of public schools and an isolatory uplifting of capitalism as an ideal.

The Solution

There are great strides that can be taken to reinvent public schools.

  • Actively engage all students as partners throughout the public education system in order to foster authentic, meaningful school reform. Dismantle that old system created for the industrialists of the 19 century. 
  • Redesign all learning for the 21st century. 
  • Dismantle the meritocracy that hires only teachers from schools that teach the old methods. 
  • Empower parents and communities to provide elders and teachers from life experience, new science, oral historians, and those who will share whole, uncensored versions of history. 
  • Allow all children to regain their natural curiosity and recover from oppressive, authoritarian institutions. 
  • Allow teachers to be creative and help design public schools with parent advisory board approval.

I adapted this list from a friend who suggested all these things can only happen through charters. I’m disinterested in any so-called “innovation” that ultimately detracts from the public nature of public schools, particularly along the lines of private and charter schools. In my experience of working with public schools over the last decade to foster innovative policy and practice, private and charter schools have proven to be ineffective models to hold against the realities public schools face.

We need a concerted effort to refocus our public schools along those lines by inserting public will into public schools. The same public will can eviscerate the influence of corporations on the machinations of public education, particularly on the political and administrative sides. Politicians and public education administrators have succeeded in veiling the high level functions of public schools from the public, and we need to pull back that veil to understand what’s happening there- instead of abandoning it, and the individual classrooms that echo what goes on in the upper echelons. That will take a radical approach to democratic ownership and the wholesale engagement of parents and communities, and that is what many charter school advocates are calling for. Public education is capable of providing this, so long as we, including residents and citizens and parents and voters and children and youth, stand for it and tell politicians that the public controls public schools, not corporations or private influence. 

We need a thrust of public-driven innovation in public education, not the further privatization of public institutions of private benefit. That’s exactly what charters are, and what they do: benefit few at the expense of many. We need to reinvigorate the role of public education. We need public democracy schools that use democracy to educate about democracy, and not otherwise, which is what a lot of so-called democratic schools do.

A public education promotion campaign should be designed to counter the poor perception the public has about public schools. They have been smeared by mainstream media, politicians, and corporations for decades. They have also been called out repeatedly by parents and students who had horrendous experiences in public schools, and public schools have not responded. It is time to reclaim the positive powerful potential of public schools. It is not merely a “PR campaign” that is needed, either. Labeling truth-telling about public schools as “PR” is fighting cynicism with cynicism. We need a campaign to educate everyone about the fragile balance our democratic society walks, and the essential role public schools play in maintaining that balance.

The solution is not to abandon public schools en masse. It is easy to hear the loud, upset, concerned, and disenfranchised voters wagging their fingers at teachers, shaking their fists at principals, and bawling out their students when they do not get good grades. I do see students continue to leave schools in growing numbers, pushed out for economic, racial, and cultural reasons that should be addressed. I do see middle-class, white, suburban parents taking their children out of public schools more frequently. These situations are not the problems. The problem bears repeating:

Charters are trojan horses for destroying democratic society. 

And nothing less. We need to stop them, now.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Appreciating Public Service

Public school teachers, snow plow removal workers, legislators, government administrative staff… All y’all got my respect, simply because they work for the public. Every single person who works for the government in any capacity is due some amount of respect just because they work for the public.

I learned the reality of public service as a public servant. After working for a few city governments in the 1990s, in 2000 I started working for Washington stare government at their education agency. After spending a few years there I went to work for myself. I worked for the state department of health from 2008 to 2010.

In the span of realities facing democratic society, there are a lot of opportunities for individuals to contribute to the health and well-being of democracy. We’re all forced to attend public schools by compulsory law, ostensibly for the well-being of society. We pay taxes for the good of society. Citizens vote, politicians run for office, and volunteers serve throughout our communities. Serving democracy is the highest calling any resident in our democratic society.

Government workers serve society by nature of their positions. They routinely receive less pay, and situationally face higher workloads than their private sector counterparts. Even if they don’t, government workers do something greater than any private workers: they represent democracy. They are accountable for the laws, policies, rules, and regulations voted in, appointed by, or otherwise creates by the government officials who serve to create them at the behest of the constituents they represent. This is democracy in action.

Teachers in public schools, and by default public schools themselves, represent democracy in action, too. They teach the residents who occupy democracy everyday. As they succeed in their jobs, our democracy succeeds. As they fail, democracy fails. The work teachers do is of the highest necessity of anyone in society. While some people fail at that job, that’s no reason to dismiss the entirety of the profession.

Appreciating public service is something in which each resident of democratic society shares a responsibility.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Bill Ayers and Democratic Education

A colleague recently asked what I think about Bill Ayers and his role in democratic education.

Bill Ayers, like all the education celebrities, offers the challenge of notoriety: if we could examine his role regardless of his history, his politics or anything else, whenever he opens his mouth he risks representing more than himself. Instead he suddenly becomes the voice of many. I see that happen repeatedly, and since we can’t distinguish his celebrity from his history or politics, and for the sake of saying it, I don’t honestly see him as the mouth of democratic education. 

I read Education Week and Educational Leadership, and when he’s mentioned there its simply with regard to his professorship and other notoriety. The good part about democratic education is that it is a widespread movement, and I thoroughly disbelieve it can be encapsulated by any one person or organization, Bill Ayers or otherwise. 
If I believed that, I wouldn’t be as engaged with the democratic education movement as I am, primarily because there are organizations that aren’t universal. I guess I’m saying to forget about Ayers – he doesn’t represent me or what I’m working for. Also, about his past, I am almost wholly dismissive, as he has roundly
dismissed it and the educators I know have moved past it, as well.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!