Whole Child Symposium

Don’t Settle for the Okey-Doke in a Third Narrative of American Education

An independent school leader and public school parent, Chris Thinnes (@CurtisCFEE) is the head of the Upper Elementary School and academic dean at the Curtis School in Los Angeles, Calif., and founding director of its Center for the Future of Elementary Education. He is a member of the National Association of Independent Schools' advisory council on diversity, a member of the EdCamp Foundation's public relations committee, and a fellow of the Martin Institute for Teaching Excellence.

Originally shared on his blog, these are Thinnes' remarks from the Whole Child Symposium Town Hall at the 2014 ASCD Annual Conference, inspiration from the Network for Public Education Conference, and reflections on an EdLeader21 PLC Advisory Group meeting.

"Sisters and brothers: Don't settle for the 'okey-doke'..."
Karen Lewis

"We don't support the status quo..."
John Kuhn

I just returned to Los Angeles after the honor of participating in one of the great conversations about the future of education, sitting around a table of district leaders engaged in writing what some have called a "third narrative" of public education in the United States. For days we collaborated in an effort to generate a theory of action, and made concrete commitments to a series of initiatives, that will have an impact on the experience of 2 million children in EdLeader21 member schools and districts in the coming years.

When people talk about school- and district-wide visions of authentic student-centered learning; about ongoing professional learning that embraces the principles of student learning instead of the 'provider' model of 'PD'; about moving past and beyond the hoo-hah rampant in the national conversation about the Common Core and high-stakes tests; about the centrality of social justice and inclusion to the identity and evolution of schools; about using assessment 'for' learning as distinct from our obsession with assessment 'of' learning; and about a focus on education for citizenship and engagement, as much or more than for 'college and career readiness' ... When people talk about such aspirations, they harbor the abstract hope that a group of educational leaders—as distinct from the policymakers, pundits, wonks, and politicians who may front as educational experts—might take such action. This group is taking such action. And will continue to take such action. "People wouldn't believe," as Ken Kay stated in his final reflections, alluding by sleight of hand to the prevailing preoccupations of our national conversation about education, "that this kind of conversation about the future of American public schools is taking place..."

I agree completely. And yet, at the same time, I've somehow had the opportunity in recent weeks to be part of several key conversations of this kind—perceived by some, understandably, as disparate threads in unrelated conversations, but experienced myself, as somebody coincidentally navigating between them, as threads that are being woven into the very fabric of a new story—this "third narrative"—of American education in the years to come.

In many ways, this action-oriented approach by district leaders in EdLeader21's PLC—among folks who lead and support the efforts of principals, teachers, children, and their parents to do the 'real' work of education—felt like an 'answer' to the 'questions' another group of us had posed the week before at ASCD's annual conference, during the Whole Child Symposium's Town Hall on "Choosing Your Tomorrow Today" and "The Future of Schools." And it felt, at the same time, like a concrete demonstration of the calls to action generated and demanded by participants of the first Network for Public Education conference several days beforehand—the collective energy from which my contributions to the ASCD panel were inevitably framed.

Whole Child Symposium Town HallWhole Child Symposium, I was invited by ASCD's Sean Slade to join the accomplished ranks of Steven Anderson, Goof Buijs, Liz Dwyer, Thomas Hoerr, Didier Jourdan, and Sara Truebridge to explore a number of critical questions—intended, as I took it, more so as a Rorschach test than a quiz—in a dialogue that's now available as a podcast through the whole child website and iTunes.

Recognizing that listening to a 90 minute podcast is an extraordinary investment of time and energy to invite of anyone—and recognizing that I was so nervous about my participation that I couldn't really remember what I'd said—I took some time to transcribe my contributions. I urge you to listen to the podcast, if and when you have a chance—particularly to hear the mic-drop contributions of the amazing Liz Dwyer, who helped to set and keep the conversation on a course it needed to take.

I realized three things listening to the ASCD podcast: first, that I hate listening to the sound of my own voice. Second: that my thoughts are unequivocally framed by, and inextricably entwined with, the thoughts of folks who have influenced my world view. And third: that, as always, the only way we'll be able to write a 'new story' about American education—one that repudiates the mythology of failing students, teachers, and schools; one that leverages resistance to neoliberal reforms, but also transcends it, with a generative vision of what schools can and should be—is by writing it together.

Here, without further ado, are my best efforts to document my contributions to the panel discussion:

Part 1: Choosing Your Tomorrow Today

In the first portion of the discussion, panelists were asked to explore the phrase, "Choosing Your Tomorrow Today." Reacting both to Tom Hoerr's comments on 'choice,' and Liz Dwyer's comments on how the impact of current policy is to eliminate it for children and their families, I offered:

When we talk about reclaiming agency as educators in a conversation about education, I think ... about the unexamined privilege of the people who are right now responsible for crafting policy to which ... we are responding. At another level it's interesting to me that ... right now, in what is a market-based social imaginary, I think all of us ... even the most well meaning of us; and, frankly, even a strand of progressive thinkers about student-centered education ... tend to think about 'the future' as something that's going 'to happen,' and schooling as something that we're meant to prepare kids to be infinitely resilient to respond to, whatever [that 'future'] turns out to be. And nowhere in that conversation is the [focus on] agency: (a) that people who are not involved in education are [already] making choices for other people's children, and (b) that part of learning is learning how to be a citizen, and to have an impact on the world that we're going to live in.

Responding to Steven Anderson's advocacy for student voice, and Tom Hoerr's reminder of the correlative imperative for teacher voice, in a more inclusive and generative conversation about our schools and our country, I suggested:

Everything I'm hearing is making me think ... of a phrase in French that essentially translates to "If you don't 'do' politics, then politics will 'do' you." [Si tu ne t'occupes pas de la politique, la politique t'occuperas de toi.] And at the end of the day ... I 'violently agree' with everything that [was] just said about what we need to do—and it's absolutely true that right now, prevailing policy prevents the reality of being able to implement that kind of vision, district- and nationwide.

And so ... it is no mystery what the future of schools will be—and it's no mystery what the future of the system will be—unless the decisions that have already been made are interrupted.

Following a question from Tom Whitby about concrete strategies and tactics we might adopt to make such changes, and Liz Dwyer's suggestions about how to counteract the bogus narrative about 'failing schools' and parent 'choice,' I added:

That makes me think of the work of Students United for Public Education; it makes me think of the Providence Student Union. It reminds me ... that when students arrive in school, with a set of demands for what learning should look like, that it's more likely to start looking that way.

In response to Mike Thayer's concerns about the restriction of possibilities for the future by current reformers, and the pressing question of who 'gets' to choose, I suggested:

I think about this idea of 'possibility' ... and it makes me wonder whether this can happen just in schools ... I don't think that this is just a 'schools issue.' I think this is a 'college and career issue' as well. We are living in a nation that is obsessed with 'college readiness,' and I'm thinking specifically of something Rod Rock said (who is the Superintendent of Clarkston Schools) ... "It's time to stop asking if kids are ready for college, and start asking if colleges are ready for kids." So I think that everything I've just heard is true, if and only if there's some malleability and flexibility in driving change 'up.'

Part 2: The Future of Schooling

In the second part of our dialogue, panelists were asked to reflect on the OECD's scenarios for the future of schooling, organized under the umbrellas of 'status quo,' 're-schooling,' and 'de-schooling.' Alluding to an interchange on Twitter just the day before, I remarked:

I tweeted something about this yesterday, and Chris Jackson tweeted back (dryly), "What is it exactly that bothers you so much about 'robust bureaucratic systems'?" The answer I have here ... is that I'm pretty convinced—and I wear a similar tinfoil helmet to the one that Liz does—that the inevitable consequence, and probably the goal, of current policy based in a 'robust bureaucratic school system' and 'extending the market model' ... the inevitable consequence is 'de-schooling.' It is, in fact, a 'teachers' meltdown scenario' because the profession becomes unsustainable for more than one reason. It is that students are pushed into new configurations of learning, through a 'network model' of autonomous children pursuing their own interests.

And I think the danger of that for all of us is that the more we focus in the wrong way on meeting individual children's needs, the more we lose track of the purpose of 'the school'—and how the school is constructed as a community; and how the school is constructed to help children learn how to be citizens; and how all learning is ultimately relational, whether it's the connection between students, or the connections between them and their teachers, or their parents.

That makes me think ... of something that I thought was magnificent, that Deborah Meier wrote in one of her books about small schools. She said that really the answer to all of this is not that complicated. We all already agree that what happens in preschool, is what should happen in preschool. And what happens in preschool is that every child's needs and interests are identified, and they're served, while they all function together as a cohort. And that happens again in post-graduate education.

And the mystery is why that doesn't happen in between.

I remembered later that it was kindergarten, and not preschool, that Deb Meier was writing about in The Power of Their Ideas, but the point remains.

Part 3: conclusion

As the discussion moved toward its conclusion, we were asked to bring these two threads together, organizing our thoughts around some prompts: What should be concerned about? What should we advocate for? What do we need from education?

Following comments by Tom Hoerr exploring "what we need to prepare our students to be competitive," and Sara Truebridge and Liz Dwyer's concerns about a national preoccupation with competition and high-stakes standardized testing, I offered my two cents:

We already know that the results (of most of the standardized tests with which we're familiar) are more accurate reflections of socioeconomic status, than they are predictors of the capacity to succeed or to compete.

When provided a final opportunity to share concerns and our hopes, I summarized my perspective this way:

I'm concerned about nostalgia ... particularly among parents and non-educators about what school 'was'—which it wasn't, really.

I'm concerned about disengagement and apathy ... that comes [with] suggestions ... that somehow we should keep the 'politics' out of what we do in the classroom, when every moment in a classroom at the end of the day is a political choice, and a political opportunity.

I'm concerned, at the end of the day ... about the unexamined privilege in most of the decisions that policy makers make, in most of the decisions that policy advocates make, and ... the unexamined assumptions in how we respond to the national narrative; how we make them as well, in terms of making choices for other people's children.

I think, at the end of the day, what I want to see is something that people have referred to as a "third narrative."

I think about the schools ... that [for example] Bill Gates attended, and to which he sends his children, and I want to stop resenting that, and I want for us to find ways examine the conditions of those schools, and to make sure that those conditions are provided to all learners.

And I want to do that in the spirit of what Karen Lewis said a couple of weeks ago [at the NPE conference]: "Sisters and brothers, don't settle for the 'okey-doke'..."

Follow the conversation here on the blog, share your thoughts in the comments and by e-mail, and pose your questions on Twitter using the hashtag #WCSymposium2014.

Whole Child Symposium Town Hall

Learn more at www.ascd.org/wcsymposium.

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