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I returned to education and Denver Public Schools this year, after a five year foray into law and policy. I very vocally and rationally opposed SB191 when it was being debated by pointing out that it would do more to drive great teachers out of the profession and dissuade great potential new teachers from entering the profession than it would do either to weed bad teachers out or raise them up. In other words, it was going to have a larger effect on choking off the inflow and increasing the outflow of the most talented teachers (more than least talented teachers because more talented people generally have more alternatives in the competitive labor market) than it would have on removing or improving teachers who needed remediation or removal. I also argued that it focused on the one aspect of our educational system that was least broken –-the quality of our educators– while ignoring the factors that were most broken –what goes on outside the school building, years, and hours to socialize kids to be either successful or unsuccessful students.

My experience this year has overwhelmingly confirmed these observations. I started at West Generation Academy, an innovation school in DPS. Their plan sounded good to me, the passion of everyone involved appealed to me, and I wanted to be a part of it. The implementation was so badly botched that within weeks virtually every teacher there was desperate to get out. Many of the teachers (including me) have left, and the principal has resigned. The reason for this is that they assumed that they could accomplish everything in the building, without addressing the litany of issues affecting what would go on in that building, and without putting any discipline plan in place, and, as a result, it was complete chaos.

Now, at Abraham Lincoln High School, I see the most talented and passionate teachers talking about how the joy has been taken out of teaching, and how the micromanagement of teaching has crippled them and made them unable to teach effectively. More are talking about retiring early than ever before, when great, dedicated teachers were often reluctant to leave the job and children they loved.  I feel it myself, unable to do what I am best at –inspiring students with a sense of the wonder and adventure of life on Earth—because I am so bogged down in the bureaucratization of education, following a curriculum that teaches boring irrelevancies rather than inspiring insights, and engaging in practices that are like an off switch to whatever curiosity is left in these brutalized students’ minds. We are doubling down on the failed factory system of education, in a prime example of the doctor eagerly killing the patient.

Tom Boasberg (DPS Superintendent) came to Lincoln a couple of weeks ago, and answered one of the questions submitted to him. It happened to be mine. In reality, whether intentionally or unintentionally (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter) he didn’t answer it but rather answered a similar question that I hadn’t asked. I wrote him to explain why the question I had actually asked was one that needed more attention. I also sent an email to two representatives of CDE who had come to roll-out our School Support Plan, to share with them my views, hoping that maybe this perspective I would like to see more integrated into our education policy could reach more ears with more ability to increase its salience in our education policy decision making. Those two emails (neither of which were responded to) follow below.

Email to Tom Boasberg:

Thank you for addressing my written question during your visit to ALHS today. I just wanted to clarify something that I think is very important, somewhat unique in the perspective being expressed, and may help inform a more nuanced approach to education reform. I apologize for the long email, but please indulge me; I think it will be worth your time. First, here’s the question again: 

How are we, as a district, going to preserve the comparative advantage that excellent teachers traditionally had in inspiring students, in pursuing spontaneous lines of inquiry that might arise in the course of instruction, of avoiding the overapplication of standardised approaches that might not be best suited to our particular grade level and population? And how are we going to stave off the loss of job satisfaction, the sense of despair and joylessness that is so apparently invading the minds and hearts of so many excellent teachers, who feel micromanaged and stripped of their ability to use their discretion to serve their students to the best of their ability?

I wasn’t referring to standardized tests so much, but rather standardized instruction. I don’t mind standardized tests particularly, as long as there is little pressure to teach to them (a potential problem with teacher evaluations increasingly based on their results). But I do have some concerns about standardized instruction. In some ways, i think it is the perfection of mediocrity.

Let me explain: My forte as a social studies teacher who spent years in his youth traveling around the world, who was a PhD student and college lecturer, who wrote a fantasy fiction novel, and who is now a lawyer and public policy analyst, is to take students on adventures of the mind and imagination, to incite their sense of wonder about the world, and to sometimes engage in spontaneous adventures that just emerge from our interactions, much as I do with my own nine year old daughter, who is “gifted and talented” and scores in the advanced range of standardized tests in all subjects. (And I think that her high performance is in large part due to these interactions.)

But, having returned to education this year after my foray into law and policy, I do not feel that my comparative advantage is being well utilized. This is no one’s fault, but a defect of our efforts to improve the quality of education, because we are focused on improving the performance of poorly performing teachers, but not attentive to preserving the special skills of teachers who have exceptional abillties of particular varieties.

I am in a PLC of fellow Geography teachers who aren’t particularly eager to adopt the games and simulations that I had developed in my previous teaching career, which leaves me more or less forced to teach in more conventional ways. My former joy in teaching is almost completely extinguished, and what I used to bring to my students I am no longer able to bring. They do not benefit as much from the energy and wonder and imaginative forays that was my trademark.

We may be lifting the lower performing teachers up, but we may also be pulling certain kinds of extraordinary teachers down. I think we need to work at preserving that spark of spontaneity, of imaginative innovation in the classroom, that some of our standardization of curriculum and instruction may be stifling. At least, it is stifling it in my case, and it breaks my heart to be in the classroom not fully liberated to do what I can do uniquely well. And Social Studies is the perfect discipline to allow such innovation and adventure in education.

I am passionate about education, not just as, or even primarily as, a vehicle for career success for our kids, but even more so as a vehicle for the growth of their consciousness and their spirits, their joy in the partcipation in the adventure of life on Earth, and yet do not feel that my own spirit is liberated enough to take them on that journey in the context of this new paradigm. And that breaks my heart.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Email to CDE representatives:

Thank you both for your excellent facilitation of our SST Reveiw Roll-out at Abraham Lincoln High School today. I want to take the opportunity to put on record some feed-back I have about the direction public education is taking in Colorado (and the nation), which will in some ways be familiar, but perhaps with a novel enough addition of nuance to be of value.

First, I think that it’s clear that the main variables differentiating highly successful students from unsuccessful students, and highly successful schools from failing schools, are found outside the schools rather than within them. That does not mean that what we do in the schools is irrelevant, or that we are therefore absolved of responsibility, but rather that, if we are serious about dramatically improving education in Colorado, we need to address the fundamental problems where they reside, and not focus all of our attention and resources on patching up the defects created by our failure to do address them where they reside.

We need to redefine education, from something that takes place in a school building during school hours and school years, to something that takes place everywhere, throughout the day, and throughout our lives. We need to redefine “schools” from the places where education more-or-less exclusively occurs to the focal places from where a less localized education is facilitated. And, most importantly, we need to stop killing the patient with desperate attempts to cure a cultural problem without ever actually addressing the cultural problem at all.

The main difference between highly successful suburban schools and failing urban schools is everything that goes on prior to and outside the school experience. It is primarily a function of socialization, in which more students in successful schools (wherever they are located, really) are better socialized to be successful students than in failing schools, creating critical masses that then create feedback loops amplifying either the success or failure of the school, and pulling students either up or down as a result. If we spent the resources we currently spend trying to “cure” education in the one place where it was actually somewhat functional -the schools themselves- and invested those resources instead into the place where reform is truly needed -the socialization of the children prior to and outside of the schools- we could dramatically improve educational outcomes in Colorado and America.

I understand the daunting political and practical obstacles to what I’m suggesting, but the consequence of failing to face those obstacles squarely and courageously isn’t just limiting ourselves to addressing educational challenges within the narrow confines of educational institutions, but actually harming the ability of those educational institutions to most effectively educate our children. Yes, we make marginal gains by all of this “scientific management” of education, by reducing it to its components and increasing the efficiency of performance of each component part (see “Taylorism”), but it is the perfection of mediocrity, and the prevention of true excellence, because truly excellent education is far more organic, far more inspired, far more spontaneous, and far more utilizing of the particular talents and expertises and knowledge and passion of the teachers who are truly the best and most effective teachers of all.

And it is precisely those teachers, those passionate, deeply knoweldgeable, charismatic teachers, who can inspire kids, who can ignite their sense of wonder about the world, who we are driving out of this new micro-managed, sterilized, oppressive paradigm of education, this attempt to save an institution we are in the process of killing, like Medieval doctors bleeding their unfortunate patients.

I want to be a voice for real education, for passionate education, for organic and inspired education. At the very least, let’s preserve some enclaves in which that organic, charismatic adventure can occur. My field, social studies, is one of those fields that should not be reduced to a mechanized and micro-managed discipline, but should be an enclave of wonder and adventure through which to ignite students’ curiosity. Let’s at least build more nuance into what we are doing, retain some of the spirit that we have forgotten to value, because we may raise test scores and increase graduation rates, but we are going to lose soaring souls in the process, and that is not a bargain we should feel compelled to make.

(See also Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons.)

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

There is a “liberals are hypocrites” post that is going viral among right-wing zealots on facebook, with thousands of shares and hundreds of comments on some of them, in which a news story about two African Americans who committed a violent crime against a white is, once again, proffered as proof that 1) George Zimmerman was right to pursue and shoot Trayvon Martin, 2) “Stand Your Ground” laws are good and necessary, 3) those who oppose them are trying to turn good, law-abiding (i.e., “white”) folks into unarmed innocent victims of bad, law-breaking (i.e., “black”) folks, and 4) Liberals are hypocrites because we aren’t concerned enough about black-on-white violence.

My following response, which is an expression of sheer disgust at continuing to see this ugly bigotry repeated over and over again, apparently resonating with far too many people, only addresses the first three of these issues. (The fourth can be summed up as follows: There is virtually no one defending black-on-white violence, and no laws bringing into question whether some incidents of it –or, more precisely, acts of violence by those you DON’T identify with against those you DO identify with– can be prosecuted or not. The reason the white-on-black violence of the Trayvon Martin shooting is a larger issue is because there are people defending it as a non-issue and advocating laws that make it more likely to occur more often.)

The news story (about an incident of black-on-white violence), used in this way, highlights the fundamental difference between almost all variations of right-wing ideology and almost all variations of left-wing ideology: The former is firmly rooted in fear and hatred, while the latter aspires to hope and humanity. Those on the right scoff that those on the left would be so naive, though, in reality, hope and humanity is not only a more positive orientation, but, when leavened with reason and information, is also more pragmatic, better serves one’s own self-interest, than the fear and hatred that informs those on the right. (See, for instance, Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems, for one reason why this is so.)

Those on the far-right are blithely indifferent to the death of an unarmed black teen at the hands of an armed white vigilante, because the armed white vigilante, in their mind, had every right to defend himself against any and all potential or perceived dangers, while the unarmed black teen lacked even the right to life, as long as it is one of them rather than the government that deprives him of it. One rationalization that is used is the presumption of guilt laid on the teen due to the possibility that he reacted violently to being pursued, something that these ideologues should respect rather than condemn, if we each have a right to protect ourselves against perceived threats! Ironically, however, they only defend the armed pursuer’s right to “defend” himself, and not the unarmed pursued’s right to do so!

If these right-wing ideologues had any integrity, any consistency, were anything other than implicitly racist hypocrits, they would not point to the possibility that Martin was beating Zimmerman before he (Martin) was shot as justification for the shooting, but rather with approval that Martin was defending himself against the armed individual pursuing him! Why aren’t they chanting that it’s a shame Martin didn’t kill Zimmerman before Zimmerman killed Martin, since it was Zimmerman who was the armed pursuer, and Martin who was the unarmed pursued?

But, of course, that’s not the way their little minds work, because it’s all about who they identify with, and who they identify as their implicit enemy. The armed vigilante is LIKE THEM, and that’s all that counts. The unarmed victim is THE OTHER that they fear and hate, and so his innocence, the fact that he had his life taken away unjustly, is just no big deal. They excuse the armed pursuer, because they identify with him (racially, and ideologically as an armed pursuer of someone he thought was a criminal); they implicitly condemn the unarmed teen to a death sentence without a trial because they don’t identify with him (racially, and as someone who someone like them was inclined to suspect of being up to no good). It’s the very nature of their way of thinking, and the reason why it should be odious to all rational people of goodwill.

What an amazingly convoluted ideology it is that does such contortions to be indignant that anyone would raise any objections to an armed pursuer shooting to death an unarmed teen apparently doing absolutely nothing illegal at the time the pursuit began, but spares no indignation whatsoever on behalf of the unarmed teen who was shot to death! The imagined threat to Zimmerman, who was both the pursuer and the wielder of deadly force in this instance, is more salient to them than the real danger to Martin, who was the pursued and unarmed victim of a shooting death!

What gets me most about this is what it indicates about how far we’ve sunk as a nation. This isn’t just a fringe ideology that a few grease-painted jack-asses adhere to. This has become a mainstream ideology, a cult of implicit violence and hatred justified by fear and generalized enmity.

It goes beyond the rationalization of offensive deadly violence by an armed pursuer against an unarmed victim, justified only by the pursuers “reasonable” fear of crime in general (!), essentially legalizing paranoid racist violence. It goes beyond conveniently targeting those “scary blacks” (as the news story used to stoke the right-wing indignation so poignantly illustrates) whose crimes justify Zimmerman acting as police, judge, jury, and executioner at the sight of a black kid in his neighborhood. It even goes beyond their assertion that there is no racism in America, that their now oft-invoked fear and hatred of those blacks who have not proven that they are not a threat isn’t racism at all, but rather merely the rational response to the “racism” of those who think that laws that facilitate killing unarmed black teens due to a generalized fear of crime are a bad idea.

It includes and goes beyond all of this. It extends to and is fed by the delusion that there is no social injustice in America, that people fare well or poorly primarily by virtue of their own merit,  a notion that is not only absurd on the face of it, but is also thoroughly disproved by statistical evidence (see The Presence of the Past). It combines a blithe indifference to the legacies of history that relegate people to sharply unequal opportunity structures at birth, with the equally blithe willingness to subtly loathe the entire categories of people who, born into such opportunity structures, are overrepresented among the poor. But irrational bigots are not swayed by such things as fact and reason and human decency.

The fact that such a belligerent, inhumane, and just generally dysfunctional ideology can survive as a major ideological strain in American culture is scary beyond belief. This cultural virus has always been with us, but never before in my memory so virulent and widespread as it is today. Anyone who has any desire for us to remain or become a rational and humane people needs to take stock of this, to repudiate it, and to oppose it, passionately and constantly, because it is truly ugly and destructive insanity.

(See the following related essays on different aspects of American racism and xenophobia: “Sharianity” and Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding.)

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