Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lines of Thinking From the 2014 ASCD Conference

The ASCD annual conference took place in Los Angeles from March 14-17. It was consistently thrilling to be among a diverse group of 12,000 educators. Everyone had stories to tell, aspirations to share, and good work to do. You just had to sit down next to anyone and say, “Where are you from? What do you do?” and an hour later you had another colleague.

I heard competing narratives about our students and the schools they need. One narrative concerns poor kids of color who come to school from the earliest elementary years already behind in basic skills. They need schools structures and teachers who are strong enough and sensitive enough to stand with the kids, and who have a pedagogical skill set attuned to their students’ particular needs—especially in reading, writing and the traumas of poverty. If we don’t provide a more rigorous and high-end curriculum of health care and basic skills for these kids, they’ll never catch up; the lack of resources to more predictably turn these communities around is further proof of the institutional racism we still must fight. There is much call from these communities for longer school days and longer school years to bridge all the gaps.

Another narrative is that our schools are overwhelmed with mind-numbing standardized curricula tied to standardized tests, and kids need to be freed up to be creative, to follow their interests, and to make mistakes as they are preparing to take democracy into another generation. We don’t need longer school days or longer school years to just do more of the enervating sameness—we need a grander notion of what education means.

One more narrative: schools alone cannot heal all the wounds of poverty and racism, no matter how long the school day, because there is a limit to how much remediation of basic skills you can ask a kid to tolerate in a given day. All students need recess, the arts, advisory, vocational exposure—not just the prosperous kids whose basic skills are secure. At our best we’ll still have to prioritize the options. As a mentor of mine said to me once when I was struggling with all the needs of my school: “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” Schools operate in a world of infinite need and finite resources, and you make hard decisions about what you can do.

The synthesis of these narratives compels much thought. Is it as simple and ultimately complex that different communities of children need what may look like significantly different schools?

These overlapping and at times competing narratives contribute to a shared dilemma: we are fragmented in our struggle against the forces most of us identify as a threat to democratic schooling: privatization that diverts the limited funding already available to the most needy school systems; undermining of the teacher as a professional; over-reliance on standardized testing. It’s a sad fact that thousands of parents in the Boston schools are trying to get their children into charters--the love of their kids understandably trumps long-term political theory.
At one point in L.A. I am in the audience for a panel discussing the whole child initiative. The members of the panel are articulate and deeply critical of the status quo of schooling, and the audience members are the choir, and everyone who speaks says, “WE should…” or “THEY should…” or “THEY shouldn’t…” I started getting antsy. I remembered back to an organizing meeting of my youth when my buddy and I realized that as long as people spoke in “We” and “They” terms, nothing was about to happen. We decided to say, “Here’s what I am going to do, and if you want to do that too, come see me.” Not sure what I am going to do now.
I am thinking of the notion of working upstream and downstream: those of us in human services are working at a river, pulling drowning people out to safety as much as we can; we need some of us heading upstream to find out who and what is pushing all these people into the river. How do I find other hands to link with up and down the river?
My most hopeful notion is that the work of the 12,000 passionate educators surrounding me in L.A. was but a fraction of our larger community. We are a huge reservoir of  potential and kinetic energy—for now keeping the educational system functioning as well as it can, perhaps just a decisive moment or two away from cleaning up the river.