Untangle the Bureaucratic Noose on Education

23 11 2011

by: Andrew Freeman

(appeared in Arcata Eye Newspaper, 8/30/2011


Last week I wrote about my experience at two major education conferences that I attended this summer – the Save Our Schools Conference in Washington, D.C. and the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Conference in Portland. Drawing on experiences at these two very different gatherings of educators, I summarized what I feel are three major obstacles facing education in the United States today – Bureaucracy, Divisiveness and Fear.

Again you can refer to last week’s article to read my discussion on the stifling effect bureaucratization, and specifically standardization of curriculum and its subsequent high stakes testing to determine school funding and staffing, has had on schools across the nation.

Before addressing the problems in education and working towards better meeting the needs of children, educators need to move beyond patterns of divisiveness and fear and towards courage and partnership.

To begin the discussion of divisiveness and how it plagues education today, let’s consider a parallel with the movement to protect forests here in Humboldt County. Over the years we have seen dozens of heated confrontations between local environmentalists and loggers. Yet the truth is that nobody cares more deeply and passionately about forests, albeit for possibly different reasons, than an environmentalist and a logger. An opportunity for true partnership to create change was missed and a Texas-based corporation orchestrated the raping of our forests for over two decades.

Currently in education, there is too much bickering, fighting over territory and playing the victim. Traditional public school teachers blame charter schools for taking their students away; charter schools claim they are the best way forward; private schools are labeled as elitist. This is the kind of poisonous banter found in many a staff lunchroom throughout America’s schools today. Pointing fingers at each other will not move us forward in any meaningful way.

Even at national conferences that brought educators together, divisiveness was present. In Washington D.C., I found many urban-based public school educators identifying charters and independent schools as the wrong way to go.  In Portland I found a number of alternative school educators standing in a place of self-righteousness, believing that their model of education is the right way to go. In both cases, the conversation was about one way or the other, excluding the possibility that there are numerous ways in which we can provide quality education for our kids.

Just as the logger and environmentalist both care deeply about the forest, the traditional public school educator, the charter school educator, and the independent private school educator all hold the same core belief that our children deserve a high quality education. We share a common ground where the roots go deep.

International business consultant Carl Zaiss teaches that to achieve true partnership we must move beyond “either-or” and into a “both-and” mentality. Under this premise we can still be passionate advocates of our viewpoint while also “communicating powerfully and not creating the resistance that occurs when we make others wrong.”

It is time for educators to stop blaming one another and look at the larger bureaucratic forces at work that are holding our children’s education hostage. We need to recognize that there is not a one size fits all approach to educating our children. There is no panacea. There is only us, and we need to come out of our corners and engage in meaningful dialogue. We all have stories and perspectives, we can learn a lot from one another, and we can be the change.

However, many educators understandingly are afraid to rustle feathers in their schools, districts and communities. Young public school teachers without tenure can be fired without any stated cause. When teachers speak out or take a stance on education they are often branded as working in their own self-interest. Mainstream media puts a lot of energy into coverage of embarrassing stories like the Atlanta cheating scandal, painting images of teachers in back rooms shading in test bubbles late at night, without asking the deeper questions of why they came to such a point of desperation. Most educators are afraid to rock the boat, even though if you speak with them privately they will tell you that the boat is sinking.

To my fellow educators I say we cannot allow fear to hold us back from untangling the bureaucratic noose that is strangling our schools. None of us ever entered this profession to get rich. We entered into this work because we want to make a positive difference in the lives of children. To be bold, I will say that as educators we undertake a sacred obligation to humanity and generations to come. We must not allow fear to obstruct our work.

To parents, students and other supporters of education I say your involvement is critical to effecting real change. While a teacher’s motive for taking a stance can be questioned as in their self-interest, nobody can question the motive of a parent to seek a quality education for their child and nobody can question a student who chooses to take ownership over their own education.

Therefore I encourage all educators, parents and students to begin a dialogue. Let’s embrace our common visions and our differences and work together to positively transform our schools into enlightened centers of learning that reflect our greatest attributes, hopes and vision.

I invite local educators, parents, students and community members interested in solutions for improving education to begin a local dialogue. Contact me at andrewmfree@hotmail.com.

Andrew Freeman teaches Social Studies at Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy (NPA), an Arcata based publicly funded charter school.

Bureaucratization, Fear and Divisiveness are Hobbling Education

23 11 2011

by: Andrew Freeman

(appeared in Arcata Eye Newspaper, 8/23/11)


For seven years I have taught in our public education system. I consider myself and all teachers to be activists. Our work is important for we are helping to shape the lives of what we as a society hold most precious – our children. With this in mind I recognize that my work as a teacher goes beyond what I do in my own classroom and school. There are forces at work shaping our nation’s education policy, which in turn will craft what we will be as a society in the years, decades and centuries to come.

This summer I embarked on a journey to find the pulse among the currents of education philosophy and policy in America. My travels first took me to the Save Our Schools National Conference and March in Washington D.C. and later to the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Conference in Portland, Oregon.

In this and next week’s column I will provide a report of what I observed and learned at these events. I will then outline what I found to be the three biggest issues facing education in America today and what people are doing about them.

Save Our Schools (SOS) is a grassroots coalition of public school advocates who have the goals of equitable funding for all public schools, an end to high stakes standardized testing, and teacher, family, and community leadership in forming public education policies and curriculum. However, the way forward to reach these goals was heavily debated at the conference.

Often I felt that we were having the wrong conversations at SOS. For example, while we all could agree that public schools should receive equitable funding, there was a lot of time spent lambasting alternative schools, private schools, and the ever emerging quasi private/public charter schools. While the concerns about privatization in public education are real – we must not allow private corporations to use their contributions to influence curriculum – we also have examples of non-profit organizations, like Bill Gates’ Foundation, giving money to fund innovative charter programs. Karran Harper Royal, co-founder of Parents Across America, takes a strong stand against charters which she claims in New Orleans screen admissions, push out “underperforming” students, and neglect traditional neighborhood schools. This is certainly unfair and problematic. However taking unwavering stands against charters is not going to deliver equity; we must instead demand more equal funding for all schools.

This is one example of the many conversations that took place at SOS. Despite our differences, 3,000 of us marched together around the White House sharing a belief in the importance of quality education and a love for our children.

I left my experience with the rank and file public school people to enter the world of alternative education at AERO in Portland. Here was an eccentric gathering of those working on the fringes of and outside the system. I was inspired hearing about the work of those in Free Schools, Montessori, Sudsbury, Waldorf, Democracy Schools, Peace Schools, Farm Schools and even Un-Schools! After being in DC learning about the major problems  facing our nation’s public schools, it was refreshing to be among those who by and large have avoided stifling standardization and top-down regulations and instead have manifested thriving models of what education can be when school creation is up to parents, students, educators and local communities.

Based on my experiences at both conferences, I summarized what I found to be the three most pressing issues facing education today: Bureaucratization, Divisiveness and Fear.

Bureaucratization of education is the major factor that pulls educators away from providing the best service they can for our children. While there are many facets to the bureaucratization issue, the aspect I wish to focus on is standardization of curriculum and the subsequent high stakes standardized tests.

One area we all had common ground on at SOS and AERO was a call for an end to high stakes standardized testing. The testing mania, which links funding to school wide performance, was unleashed by the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. Phil and Joan Harris, education researchers and authors of The Myths of Standardized Tests, claim that student knowledge, achievement, and learning cannot be assessed by a measurement of correct and incorrect responses to a limited number of questions on a standardized test. Consequently, test scores do not provide citizens with the information they need to know about public schools and their teachers. The Harris’, use quantitative analysis to prove false the assumptions behind testing. However, most educators know instinctively that student achievement and learning must be assessed using both quantitative and qualitative measures. Even then, there is no absolute value that can be placed on something as profound, complex and cosmic as a human being’s knowledge.

The testing regimen has resulted in school administrators pushing teachers to prepare students for the test, it has caused teachers to narrow the curriculum to cover test-relevant information, or “teach to the test”. Finally, it has short-changed our children from receiving the holistic, creative, enlightening, and empowering education they all deserve.

There is a clear majority opposed to standardized testing and it’s time to exercise our democratic rights and put an end to it. I encourage readers to explore the work of Angela Engel, author of Seeds of Tomorrow , who is lobbying at high levels of government to end standardized testing; the Bartleby Project, a grassroots effort encouraging students to take a stand; and Students Against Testing.

Finally, I invite local educators, parents, students and community members interested in solutions for improving our children’s education to begin a local dialogue. Contact me at andrewmfree@hotmail.com.

Next week I will discuss what I found to be the two other major problems in education today – divisiveness and fear – and how we need to shift towards finding common ground, respecting differences and moving forward towards positive change.

Andrew Freeman teaches Social Studies at Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy (NPA), an Arcata based publicly funded charter school