A Free Bird

Well.

I’ve been thinking over how to do this, whether to write this post with a tone, or overload it with facts and figures and research.

I think what is best is just to speak from my heart on this. I’m willing to provide data to support my assertions, but in many ways and in many places I already have. Please take a few moments to look it up for yourself, if you aren’t sure, or message me directly, and I’m happy to answer anything I can.

That said, here we go.

We are all having the wrong conversation. All we discuss is how we can improve student learning, and what impact all the different things in a student’s life have on the student’s ability to learn, and how we can respond to the needs of students to help them learn. And that is a beautiful thing, truly. I would not argue with any of that, with any of the discussions or data or facts or opinions on those topics.

What I WILL argue with, however, is having this discussion as a means to label and punish instead of uplift and support, because in reality, this discussion is based on a wholly flawed foundation. And I do mean wholly.

When it comes right down to bare facts and hard data, the reality is that students today are learning more with lower dropout and higher graduation rates and with less of an achievement gap than ever before in recorded American history.

Keep your opinions and dearly-held beliefs to yourself for a few moments. In the entertainment industry this would be called “willing suspension of disbelief”. Be a good listener and stop formulating your counter-argument while I’m still talking.

We will never achieve 100% of anything. NEVER. The very concept of perfection is patently ridiculous. There are exceptions to every rule, right? It is ludicrous to expect that 100% of students will graduate from high school with passing scores on any given standardized assessment and go on to college where they will successfully complete a full degree in the expected time frame and find a job and live the American dream with little pink houses for you and me. And in any case, whose dream is that? Even parents get the dreams of their children wrong. What makes any individual competent to say every child should go from Point A to Point B, and should any given child deviate from that course (say, to take the road less traveled), well, that child is failing? And not only is that child failing, but that child should be told he is failing, and that his school is failing and his beloved teacher is failing as a result of his failure.

What a heavy burden to lay upon the shoulders of a 9-year old kid, a 3rd grader, the age of my daughter, my eldest child. (Who, by the way, is absolutely NOT taking that damnable test.)

It is no difficult thing to see the spark of creativity and enthusiasm die in a child forced to perform at ever-higher levels of achievement, although it is difficult to witness. Educators of conscience, what are we to do? To sit hopelessly by and allow it to happen? What of the future? Where are the educators of tomorrow? Where are the leaders of tomorrow? Hell, where are the role models of today? Everywhere we look there is corruption. Money can’t buy happiness? Sure it can, and if it can’t literally be used in that way it can certainly ease the pangs of discomfort and desire. Those in power wield it as both shield and sword, alternately striking at and deflecting blows from the “have-nots”.

What is my solution, you might be wondering. What do I think we should do instead of what we’re already doing? How can we make things better?

WHICH IS MY ENTIRE POINT. What needs to be made “better”, and what does “better” look like or mean? How can we improve student achievement? WE ALREADY HAVE. How can we decrease dropout rates and increase graduation rates? WE ALREADY HAVE. When will it be enough for you, for us?

Am I beating my head against a stone wall, spitting into the wind? I’m okay with you thinking that. Some day, however, some day we will need to acknowledge that we have created the very system that, through its self-fulfilling cyclical nature, can never be perfected. The better we are, the better we want to be. The better the kids score on the test, the more we need a test that is harder so we can prove that we still need to get better. Because what happens if we aren’t always racing to the top? What happens if we give kids the space to be kids, instead of forcing them to be automatons, widgets, cogs in the clock? What happens if we nurture the spark in the eyes of our children instead of watching it slowly dim, until all that is left is the darkness waiting to be filled?

What if, instead of standardizing our educators and our kids, we allowed ourselves to celebrate their differences? What if, instead of winnowing learning down to a set of questions on a single test, we allowed students to show us their knowledge as artisans, in their own ways and at their own speed? What if we trusted our educators to recognize the achievements of their individual students and determine what needs to happen to support their learning? While we’re at it, what if we gave the educators the resources they need to make all that happen?

I know why the caged bird sings.

“the caged bird sings of freedom”

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6 Responses to A Free Bird

  1. You know I’m not an educator. I’m just a parent. According to Rick Jensen, I’m a “radical” parent, but I don’t see myself that way. What you wrote is well thought-out and constructed. I will fully admit I have questioned my extreme hesitance to what lies before us numerous times lately. Would my son’s outcome be different if schools were the same as when I was a kid? Do standardized tests really pose that much of an obstacle to learning? Who am I to judge others when I am not even in the field of education? I will fully admit after hearing about the Christina board meeting, along with getting beat up by the jackholes over on Kilroys, getting emails about the Market Village East-charter school teachers thing, and other “issues” that you know about, I was ready to hang up my blog last night and call it quits. I was going to cancel my WDEL interview today, and go back to being me again. But I’m not the old me. I haven’t been for a long time. My adventures in education blogging have changed me and what I believe. I emailed someone last night, and they gave me the best response ever and it was exactly what I needed to hear.

    Here’s the bottom line, and I just wrote this on Kilroys too. Everyone is talking about how to increase the proficiency, and the gaps, and all that b.s. How do we change our schools, how do we make them better, how do we make them more equal, how do we evaluate our educators, blah blah blah. Do you know why everyone is talking about this? Because they bring it up and we react to it. And the cycle goes on and on. It’s a distraction, and very few of us are talking about it. It’s the mechanism. It’s not the proficiency, but the mechanism behind it. It’s what dictates every single conversation about education in Delaware. If we get rid of the mechanism, the conversation will change. This is why opt out is so important and critical.

    Look at this from outside our usual box. About a year or so ago, everyone is talking about how bad Common Core is. The state knows they are coming out with an atrocious test, but they know they can use the scores from it to get what they want. And in the meantime, they will use the scores from the less atrocious test to get the ball rolling. DPAS II is announced, gets all of you teachers pissed off and ready to do battle. But you fought the language in the text, not the actual text. The mechanism. Priority schools is announced. You fight the wording, but not the actual mechanism behind it. Now it’s the Wilmington Education Committee and redistricting Wilmington. Why must we do this? Because schools are failing and there is segregation. Why do schools want better students to attend their schools? To increase their overall standardized test scores. But nobody is looking at why redistricting has to happen now. Because of the mechanism. It is the ultimate kobayashi. Distract them long enough, from our mechanism, from opting out, and we can do whatever we want like we’ve been doing. As long as the conversation doesn’t tackle the mechanism, than we will endure. This is what they want. This is their Achilles Heel, and this is what we need to expose and turn a crack into a crumble.

    Why every teacher in Delaware hasn’t unified behind the destruction of the mechanism is beyond me. They are doing it in other states, in great numbers. In Delaware we talk and talk and talk, but actions speak louder than words. Parents need to unify, teachers need to unify. They already are. They have been unified for years, and their actions have split us. Public vs. charter. Haves vs. Have-Nots. Wilmington vs. Dover.

    My area of knowledge is special education. In the past couple of months, I have asked what can makes these children’s lives better, and I’ve had the answer in my head. You spelled it out with your post. Celebrate. When a student gets cancer, the community rallies around the student, and they cheer them on. Why are we not doing this for every single special education student in the state? Why aren’t we saying “Yeah these kids are different, but they are heroes. They deal with this stuff every day of their lives, some without even knowing it, but they are still here.” We celebrate different cultures or breast cancer awareness month. When was the last time anyone saw Autism Month celebrated in schools. Or ADHD awareness days? All these kids want is to be loved and needed. That’s all. Give them the love, and the proficiency will come. But not at their (the state) levels, but at their own individual and unique levels. Give anyone a chance to shine, and you have opened the door to a world of possibilities.

    We have canned food drives at schools, and we have clothing drives, but does that erase poverty? No. Does it change the long-term situations for these students? No. What will change that? I don’t have the answer to that, but proficiency scores are certainly not the answer.

    We have become so blinded to the true inherent goodness of humanity that we have lost our way. I know this is a very Kavipsian response, but it’s what I feel at the very center of my being.

    When you talk about graduation rates increasing, are they really? What is a drop-out rate when there are so many cohorts and data involved? The whole pool of numbers has become so convoluted and so twisted and is so easily manipulated, it has become a joke. It is because of the mechanism. Get rid of the mechanism, you get rid of the obsession.

    You, my friend, have a very powerful voice. We need more of you. We need all of you. Board meetings and Facebook and blogs won’t cut it anymore. We need you in the heart of it all. We need you to be radicals. We need you to face down the mechanism and say no.

  2. Eve Buckley says:

    I love your what-ifs, Jackie. And there are private schools (some) that take this approach, of celebrating difference and creative exploration and childhood. They are much less restricted by government decree. Why don’t we allow more kids in public schools to enjoy that quality of educational experience? It’s not teachers who are the limiting factor in this–it’s bureaucrats requiring teachers to prioritize measurable, standardized skills at the expense of riskier but potentially very rewarding investigation and expression. Not trusting good teachers to guide their own classes with considerable autonomy is a tremendous waste of “human capital,” to borrow the DOE’s own unfortunate terminology.

  3. Nina says:

    Wow, I have not given myself the time required to truly understand this situation. I have not been involved in the “educational system.”
    Thank you Nancy Willing for posting this wonderfully written, educational letter/artical. I will continue to follow this subject, which I consider the single most important issue we face.

  4. Pingback: Two Unique Views on the March to Proficiency, Just Opt Out Now! | Exceptional Delaware

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