Tomorrow, President Obama will send his education blue print to Congress, which, according to the New York Times article, “strikes a careful balance, retaining some key features of the Bush-era law, including its requirement for annual reading and math tests, while proposing far-reaching changes.”
The blue print is really no different than what was put into practice by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, and is steeped in a corporate model of teaching and learning that uses test scores to drive the day-to-day work of teachers in schools. The blue print is being sent to Congress less than a month after the publication of Diane Ravitch’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. I am in the midst of reading her book, and I can tell you that the previous administration, nor the current one will appreciate her conclusions, that basically we have it all wrong when it comes to reforming education by means of the NCLB approach which offered no insights about improving curriculum and professional development of teachers, but assumed that the corporate model applied to schooling would result in improved scores on achievement tests, and that using a top-down, dictatorial management style would keep teachers in toe (and off guard), parents worrying if their kid would pass the next test, and students not sure of what to expect, other than the next test. Ravitch at one time supported the corporate model, and the NCLB act, but has since been convinced that these have been a disaster for the American school, and that instead of a corporate model, what is needed is a communal model that advocates values that advocates humanistic values.
In May, 2009 I wrote a “letter” to the President, and I am republishing it here, to coincide with Monday’s presentation of the President’s blue print for education. I have great admiration for President Obama, and I hope that he will pursue an educational agenda that challenges what has been the status quo for too many years. Although I am not convinced that our Secretary of Education is flexible enough to see beyond the corporate model that he is pushing through his reform efforts, especially the Race to the Top Fund.
So here is my letter (originally published May 2, 2009), which I sent onto the President today.
We know you have a lot on your plate—a deep recession, two wars in the Middle East, health care reform, extreme partisanship, the fast spreading swine flu. Yet the one area that that is essential to our well being as a nation–education–has yet to become center stage. I know it is a high priority of yours, and I know when you think the time is right, you will bring it forward for open discussion. I believe that teaching is an art, and that teachers in our culture should work with their students creatively in classrooms characterized as humanistic, experiential, and constructivist.
This letter is an attempt on my part to think out loud, and share with you views held by many science teachers across the nation that believe that their work is a calling, and that their work with students should be grounded in the latest research that supports an active learning environment in which students explore, innovate, and solve meaningful problems. I believe that you would share these views that are held by many of my colleagues.
Your beliefs and your experiences are are clearly explored and described in your books, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance; and The Audacity of Hope. I read them in the order of their publication, and the books helped me understand your ideas, and it convinced me that you would be open to reforming science education from a humanistic science tradition.
Although you do not have a chapter in either book specifically related to “education,” your thoughts about education, your experiences with your own schooling and educational experiences, and your work in Chicago as a community organizer provide the reader with your fundamental views of education and the reform that is needed.
Those of us in the science teaching community have followed your views on science and technology in our society and in our schools, and many are more than satisfied with your appointments as members of the Science and Technology Advisory Council. I think there was much support within the community for your appointments of Dr. John Holdren as director of the Office of Science & Technology, and Dr. Stephen Chu as Secretary of the Department of Energy. Further, the stimulus package that was put into law provided an additional boost to the National Science Foundation, and theDepartment of Education has received nearly 100 billion dollars for America’s schools, and educational infrastructure. These are all positive initiatives, and I think they have received enormous support within the science teaching community.
The reform of science teaching that needs to be considered focuses on a paradigm shift from a traditional view of science to humanistic science. This paradigm centers on the way in which students and teachers interact in the classroom. The humanistic paradigm impies that teaching, at its core, is a creative and courageous profession that needs to reform itself from the bottom up—from the local school upward, not from Federal mandates downward. I think we’ve lost our way in this regard, and I am hoping that your personal school experiences in Djakarta, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, and Cambridge will inform you, and that the community organizing work you did in Chicago as a young man will be brought into the dialogue. Your sharing of these experiences can have a profound impact on how others view teaching, and help us chart a humanistic course.
In Chapter 13 of your book, Dreams from My Father, you talk about your desire to become involved with the public schools in the area of Chicago that you were doing your work–on the southside.
- From the cover of Barack Obama’s book
I want to recall a section in that chapter for my readers that was very powerful, and supports the humanistic paradigm that I will propose here. You and your colleague & friend Johnnie had decided to visit a high school, and the principal of the school introduced you to one of the school counselors, Mr. Asante Moran. He was, according to the principal, interested in establishing a mentorship program for young men in the school. In his office, which was decorated with African themes, you discovered that Mr. Moran had visited Kenya 15 years earlier, and he indicated that it had a profound effect on him. In the course of your short meeting with Mr. Moran, he clearly told you that real education was not happening for black children, and then he offered you his view on what “real education” might be. Here is what he said on that Spring day in 1987:
Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn—the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity (p. 158, Dreams from My Father).
Starting with the child as he or she is, and helping them connect to their environment—this is the core of humanistic teaching. Most teachers know and try and act on this humanistic philosophy, but for many, it is an upstream battle. The locus of control is far removed from the individual teacher’s classroom. The control is centered in state department’s of education, and the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). And much of that control creates a conflict for innovative teachers. As responsible professional teachers, they want their students to do well on the high-stakes, end-of-year exams, yet know intuitively that this persistence on testing leaves creative teaching behind. There is a need to shift the locus of control away from the Federal and state power centers, and move it to the vast number of communities of schools (there are about 15,000) around the nation. These 15,000 districts have a better understanding of the nature and needs of its students, and has a cadre of teachers who, I submit, are quite able to formulate curriculum, and design instruction that favors a humanistic paradigm. I am not suggesting that we erase the National Science Education Standards. I am suggesting that professional teachers are able to interpret the Standards, and create educational experiences grounded in constructivist and humanistic theory, and provide in the long run, meaningful school experiences.
I believe that you understand what I am talking about. Your motivation to leave New York City and move to Chicago to become a “community organizer” was because of your belief in “grass roots change.” In fact, in your first book, here is what you said:
In 1983, I decided to become a community organizer. There wasn’t much detail to the idea; I didn’t know anyone making a living that way. When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots (Dreams for My Father, p. 133).
Humanistic science education is not a new perspective on teaching. It has had to compete with the pipeline ideology of traditional school science, which has been ineffective for most students. Pipeline ideology is primarilly based on training for the scientific world, and the organization of the curriculum tends to a strict adherance to canonical science. A humanistic science perspective tends to be context-based or science-technology-society based. Instead of a science concept being the starting point for learning, the humanistic science teacher starts with contexts and applications of science. Science concepts are explored within these contexts. Humanistic science teaching trives in STS programs, environmental science projects, gender projects, and culturally focused investigations. These experiences shed light on science-related social content for students, and often focus on the affective outcomes of learning, how students feel about science, how it impacts their lives, and what they can do to solve science-related social issues. Many teachers know from experience that projects like these help students see themsleves as citizen-scientists, using social and scientific processes to solve real problems.
Recent results on The Nation’s Report Card show that there has been little change in 17 year old’s performance in math and reading from 2008 to 2004, and 1973. Although there were slight gains in achievement among all students, the achievement gap between white students and black & hispanic students has not changed. And the NCLB act was intended to close the gap. Your able Education Secretary, Mr. Arne Duncan has said that he wants “real and meaningful change” in the nation’s schools. Real and meaningful change can not be more of the same—longer school days, the same curriculum and standards.
I suggest that for meaninful reform in science teaching, there needs to be an openness to new ideas, and there needs to a very strong involvement of grass-roots teachers for this kind of reform. Teachers and students should not be on the receiving end of decisions made by academic vice-presidents, governors, and commisioners of state departments’ of education. These constituencies are important, but the reform must be grounded in practice & related science education research; refom needs to be in the hands of professional teachers.
Well, there you have it. Am I totally off-base here? Can meaninful reform be a grass-roots effort? What are your thoughts? I hope you will be willing to share them.
Resources: Grounding Humanistic Science in Research—Starting Places:
- Abel, Sandra K. & Lederman, Norman G. (Eds). (2007) Handbook of Research in Science Education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbarum Associates. Most up-to-date review and exploration of research in science teaching. Humanistic science is reviewed in Chapter 29.
- Aikenhead, Glen S. (2005) Science Education for Everyday Life: Evidence-based Practice. New York: Teachers College Press. Provides evidence-based research to support humanistic science. Review of this book.
- Bransford, John D., Brown, Ann L., & Cocking, Rodney R. (Eds.) (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. From the link you can read this book online at the NAP site.
- Capobiano, Brenda. (2007). “Science Teachers’ Attempts at Integrating Feminist Pedagogy through Collaborative Action Research.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 44: 1 -32. A powerful example of the kind of research in which teachers explore their own practice based on feminist and humanistic perspectives.
- Cross, Roger T. & Peter J. Fensham (Eds.). (2000) Science and the Citizen. Melbourne: Arena Publications. An important book that explores the issues related to S-T-S and humanistic science.
- Hines, Maxwell. (2003) Multicultural Science Education: Theory, Practice and Promise. New York: Peter Lang. An important book shedding light on multicultural science education.
- Hutcheson, Charles (2005) Teaching in America. Springer. The purpose of this book is to facilitate the transitions of international teachers from their native countries into American science classrooms, using original research.
- Lemke, J.L. (2001) Articulating communities: Sociocultural perspectives on science education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 38 (3) 296 – 316. An important paper by one of the leading science education researchers exploring sociocultural perspectives in science education. A sociocultural perspective most basically means viewing science, science education, and research on science education as human social activities conducted within institutional and cultural frameworks.