Educational Reform: A Letter to President Obama

Dear President Obama,

Educational reform is in need of your attention and help.  The 2012 election is only 11 months away, and I am writing this letter to you and your team for consideration as a policy statement as you outline your views on education, especially as it pertains to the educational reforms that have plagued our schools for several decades.

Strength in Numbers

According to Anthony Cody, there is a powerful source of support to inspire educational reform.  That source is the more than four million teachers who know about how students learn, and what they need to do to help students learn.  If we want educational reform, then the leaders of this movement have to be teachers, and administrators who are on the ground, and know the students that they teach.  In one of his posts, Cody suggests that teachers, along with friends, families and community members could be turned into a very influential political force.

There are a number of educators who have been writing and critiquing the educational reform efforts that have been dominated by corporate billionaires, and a few private foundations.  These educators have brought to the surface the research that shows that most of the reforms being advocated do not work, and are driven by corporate interests, rather than in the genuine interests of teachers and students.  You might visit the websites of these educators: Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan,  P.L. Thomas, Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier, Mel Riddle, Vicki Davis, and Chris Guerrieri.

For instance, the fact that our students are required to take high-stakes tests as a measure of their learning has brought enormous pressure not only on the students, but their parents, teachers and administrators.  This pressure has led to behavior in schools systems in which a culture of fear has been perpetuated, resulting in cheating.  The educators that participated in the cheating scandal were wrong, but what is really misguided is the misconstrued notion that the only way to measure student learning is with a one-time bubble test in the spring of each year.  In the Atlanta school district, teachers were told to make sure their students passed the CRCT (Test), at any cost.

One policy recommendation that you might consider in your re-election bid is as follows:

As simple as this sounds, this one action would have significant effects on education today, and would result in real change in our schools.

Anthony Cody documented your own views on testing during a town hall meeting when  you were asked about ways to reduce the number of tests that students experience in schools today.  Actually, I am not suggesting that tests not be used, but that the use of high-stakes tests as the measure of student learning, or teaching effectiveness be banned.   Here is what Anthony Cody quoted you saying about testing that I think relates here.

So what I want to do is—one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you’re not learning about the world; you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that’s not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.

High-stakes testing is the cause of teaching to the test, and was the root cause of the cheating scandal in Atlanta, and in other districts around the country.  Vicki Davis, a prominent technology teacher in Georgia suggests that the use of these high-stakes and standardized tests is the equivalent of “modern bloodletting.”  Let’s get rid of this practice.

Starting Points

We know you have a lot on your plate—a re-election compaign, the effects of the Great Recession, two wars in the Middle East (one of which ended today), health care reform angst, extreme partisanship.   Yet the one area that that is essential to our well being as a nation–education–needs 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.

One of the major problems facing education today is the nature of the High-Stakes Testing and Standards-Based Reform.  The reform is top-down, and is driven by several corporate billionaires, and on the surface one not-for-profit company, Achieve, Inc.  The reform has become mean spirited, casting teachers and administrators aside if they do not perform in a way dictated by the reformers.

This letter is an attempt on my part to think out loud, and share with you views held by many 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.

Reform Needs Reform

Your beliefs and your experiences 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 education from a humanistic 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 the Department of Education has received nearly 100 billion dollars for America’s schools, and educational infrastructure.

Unfortunately, The Race to the Top Fund (RTTT) does not reflect the humanistic paradigm that I am suggesting here, but instead further reinforces the top down reforms that have plagued us for decades.  For example, in the RTTT request for proposals, states were essentially required to accept the Common Core State Standards, and insure that student test scores would be the basis for teacher evaluation, and in some states tied to teacher salaries.  There is little support for this, yet the Department of Education went ahead and told states they must base teacher evaluation on student achievement test scores using the Value Added Measure, even after the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council advised against this in a letter sent to the Department of Education.

The reform of teaching that needs to be considered focuses on a paradigm shift from a traditional view to humanistic science. This paradigm centers on the way in which students and teachers interact in the classroom. The humanistic paradigm implies 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.

Reflecting on Your Personal Views of Education

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.

I want to recall a section in that chapter for my readers that was very powerful, and supports the humanistic paradigm that I am proposing 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 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).

Its All in the Context

Humanistic education is not a new perspective on teaching. It has had to compete with the pipeline ideology of traditional schooling, which has been ineffective for most students. Pipeline ideology is primarilly based on training for the scientific and technological world, and the organization of the curriculum tends to a strict adherance to canonical science.

A humanistic  perspective tends to be context-based, and related to the lives of students.   Instead of a concept being the starting point for learning, the humanistic  teacher starts with contexts and applications. Concepts are explored within these contexts. Humanistic teaching trives in web-based collaborative programs, environmental projects, gender projects, and culturally focused investigations.

These experiences shed light on social content for students, and often focus on the affective outcomes of learning, how students feel about learning, how it impacts their lives, and what they can do to solve real life problems. Many teachers know from experience that projects like these help students see themselves as problem solvers.

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 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 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 education research; refom needs to be on 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 Education in Research—Starting Places:

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.