Dec 28

Where We Are And How Far We Have to Go

Tonight, I got into a long, heated discussion with a family member who also happens to be a Congressional staffer for a Democratic legislator. Shockingly, the conversation was about education. She is a big fan of Michelle Rhee. I — as I’ve written before — am not.

I don’t want to get into the specifics of the argument, but instead, what is troubling me is how effective people like Michelle Rhee are at commandeering the argument. Somehow, even in the debate over who would be Secretary of Education, Joel Klein (who recommended Michelle Rhee for her position in DC) was the "reform" candidate and Linda Darling-Hammond represented the status-quo, despite a lifetime of working to reform schools. Diane Ratvich, over at Bridging Differences, asks the question, "Who Are the Real Reformers?" and she writes:

Many years ago, Linda Darling-Hammond and I were colleagues at Teachers College. We sometimes crossed swords over issues, but I always found her to be smart, thoughtful, and deeply devoted to the well-being of teachers and children. I don’t think that makes her a leader of the "status quo" crowd. I have always thought that she is above all interested in improving schools, helping teachers, and doing right by kids. What’s wrong with that?

Nothing is wrong with that. And that’s the thing… one comment that set me off tonight was when my family member said, "What I like about Michelle Rhee is that she’s making sure that everyone in DC is focused on kids, not teachers." And yes, that is very much the rhetoric that Rhee uses. And sadly, that is as dangerous a false dichotomy as I can imagine.

That’s the issue… and that’s what made me so upset tonight. We cannot assume that we can divorce student needs from teacher needs. They must be maintained in a delicate balance that assumes rights and responsibilities from both parties. We must be willing, as a nation, as districts, as schools and in our classrooms, to talk to each other, to identify the things we need to make learning happen in our classes. Teachers must feel valued and and safe as must students. We must understand that we cannot browbeat our teachers into teaching any more than we can browbeat our students into learning. But we must also understand the solemn responsibility we have to each other, teachers and students, administrators and parents, to co-create the systems and structures necessary to create the schools we need. It’s so easy to demonize each other. It’s so easy to say that it’s all the fault of bad teachers or lazy students. But it’s so hard to find solutions that are sustainable, real and meaningful.

That’s why the conversation hurt so much tonight. Because smart people should know that that the way to school reform isn’t just by breaking the people in the system down, but also because I know that what I really heard underneath that was frustration that the system has gotten so broken in the first place.

What we have to recognize is just how much back-up we have to do so that we can even begin the real conversation. It starts with respecting the rights and honoring the responsibilities we all share — teachers, students, parents and administrators — in creating schools that work.

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Tags: rhee, education reform, DC

Dec 26

Uniformity

"And the children go to school.
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
And they all get put in boxes
And they all come out the same."
— Little Boxes, Malvina Reynolds

The School District of Philadelphia has a uniform policy — K-12, all schools are supposed to have uniforms. At SLA, we have our lab coats and a "dress respectfully" code that, by and large, kids have always really respected. (I believe our official wording is "Dress in a way that would not detract from the learning of others.") It, for me, has been a way to honor the district’s policy while honoring the kids’ individuality.

Next year, Jakob starts kindergarten — a fact that I’m not quite willing to admit yet, but that’s another post — and Kat and I have looked at a lot of different options, and we’ve narrowed it down to two School District of Philadelphia schools that we’re waiting to hear back from. Either school would be a fine choice, but one school enforces the uniform policy much more than the other. I am surprised at how upset I am about Jakob having to go to a school where there’s a uniform policy that would limit what he wears.

Some of this has to do with my own desire to live in my jeans. I taught for years in jeans at Beacon. Game day was jeans and a tie and blazer, but jeans. Now, I wear a suit three or four days a week, and my students almost never see me in jeans on school days because it’s not worth fighting the fight to prove to the outside world that I can be an effective principal even if I don’t look like their expectation of what a principal should look like. After all, I still get the "aren’t you too young to be principal?" question enough that the suit or the khakis just make it easier.

But as Kat and I were buying holiday gifts for Jakob, and we were thinking about clothes we should and shouldn’t buy him based on the uniform policy of the school he might attend next year. It made me sad to think that he’d have to wear what everyone else wears. Jakob at five already has a cool sense of style. I don’t want him in collared navy shirts and khaki pants every day. I don’t need him to look like every other kid. And I find myself resenting the idea that someone thinks he should. And I admit, it makes me less excited to send him to a school that would want him to.

So what’s the larger policy question, then… do we draw a parallel between the way we ask kids to dress and the way we teach them? Is it a stretch to argue that standardized curricula and standardized assessments are easier when you look out onto a classroom and see only a sea of navy and tan? Is it any wonder that the rise in a return to school uniforms in US cities has coincided with No Child Left Behind?

Finally, I’ll argue that uniform policies are part of a paternalistic infantilization of children on the part of schools. "Dress respectfully" encourages students to figure it out for themselves. It asks them to understand that school is a serious place that is different than the home, and that students should dress in a way that allows everyone to learn without clothing being a major distraction. But it also allows them to express their individuality in important ways. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s something very right about that. Our schools should be about teaching students to make smart, honorable decisions for themselves and their community. How we choose to express ourselves through our dress is one of those decisions. Our schools should be a place where kids can learn that.

And I still want Jakob to be able to wear his jeans.

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Tags: uniforms