Clueless Betsy DeVos Blames School Teachers, Doesn’t Get that Test-and-Punish Is Core Problem

After our new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited a Washington, D.C. middle school last week, she insulted the teachers there.  She said the teachers were “in receive mode,” and continued: “’They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child,’ DeVos told a columnist for the conservative online publication Townhall. ‘You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.’”

Let me point out that I have not noticed this “receive mode” among the teachers I know here in Ohio. Just last week Melissa Cropper, President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT), sent out a call for “activism now.”

Ohio requires far more testing than the annual test that was mandated by No Child Left Behind.  The new Every Student Succeeds Act  offers a way for states to develop their own accountability plans and a way to reduce—at least somewhat—over-reliance on test-and-punish.  Cropper is protesting the inaction of the Ohio Department of Education, which has just provided evidence that it will ignore the opportunity for states to have more latitude for shaping their plans for educational accountability rather than just have punitive sanctions imposed on them by the federal government. Patrick O’Donnell of the Plain Dealer reports: “Ohio’s proposed new state education plan under ESSA… avoids making any changes in state tests or even any recommendations, despite complaints of excessive testing of students dominating surveys and feedback sessions across the state.”  O’Donnell adds that Ohio’s draft plan isn’t final.

Cropper castigates the draft plan: “This plan is devoid of an overall vision for education and does nothing to move Ohio away from a testing culture and towards a culture that is more responsive to the needs of children.”  Why, wonders Cropper, does the Ohio Department of Education intend to submit its empty draft to the federal government on April 3, despite that the state doesn’t really have to submit its final draft until September 18?  Is the state rushing this along to avoid public input and discussion?

Cropper urges school teachers and members of the public: “Continue your activism. Take the online ESSA survey now.  In each section, feel free to add whatever comments you might have about the topic, but make sure to include something that indicates that the plan does nothing to change our current testing culture and that the state needs to wait until September to submit so that it can be rewritten to reflect the vision Ohio wants for its students.”  She adds that the Ohio Department of Education will accept comments until March 6.

Bill Phillis, Executive Director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding amplifies Cropper’s plea for engagement by forwarding an e-mail notice from the Legislature’s Joint Education Oversight Committee, which is also holding hearings on Ohio’s ESSA draft plan: “The Joint Education Oversight Committee will be hearing testimony regarding Ohio’s State Plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act.  JEOC will hold two meetings on Thursday, March 2, 2017 at 2:30 PM and Thursday, March 9, 2017 at 1:30 PM in the Senate South Hearing Room. If you are interested in testifying please contact Haley Phillippi,  haley.phillippi@jeoc.ohio.gov or 614-466-9082 and indicate a date preference.” People wishing to testify should send their testimony to Phillippi 24 hours prior to the meeting.

The reason I was so amazed to hear Betsy DeVos criticize teachers as “in receive mode” is that, as part of a local education coalition in my own community, month after month, I listen to our teachers complain about the burden of testing and test prep on them and the students in their classes.  The teachers in our coalition were the people who demanded that we all read Alfie Kohn’s The Schools Our Children Deserve, a plea for a return to progressive education.

While Betsy DeVos insulted teachers last week as “in receive mode,” in my community and my state, teachers are dismayed and up in arms about what they are receiving. Here in the words of Steve Nelson’s new book about progressive education—First Do No Harm, is the kind of pressure our teachers are irate about receiving from the U.S. Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Education: “Public schools all over America are judged by the standardized test results of their students. In many, perhaps most, communities the test results are published in local newspapers or available online. The continued existence of a school often depends on its standardized test scores… Neighborhood public schools are labeled ‘failing’ on the basis of test scores and closed, often to be replaced by a charter operation that boasts of higher test scores… What has occurred is a complex sorting mechanism.  The schools, particularly the most highly praised charter schools do several things to produce better scores…. (S)tudents  are suspended and expelled at a much higher rate than at the ordinary public schools in their neighborhoods. Several studies show that charter schools enroll significantly fewer students with learning challenges or students whose first language is other than English.” (pp. 68-69)  All this pressures school administrators to force teachers to teach to the test at all cost.

Steve Nelson’s definition of progressive education is exactly what the teachers in my community’s elementary, middle and high schools are demanding: “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.’ Conventional schools tend toward training and instruction, while progressive schools insist on learning and discovery. Perhaps the most powerful and misunderstood facet of progressive education is the notion of democracy. Progressive schools see themselves and their students as inextricably connected to the society in which they operate. The problems and fascinations of the world around them are the problems and fascinations they examine.” (p.11) He adds: “Education should cultivate the capacity to recognize and create beauty. School is a place where empathy and compassion should be honored and developed. The flames of curiosity should be fanned, not smothered. Skepticism should be sharply honed.” (p. 48)

The teachers I know describe how they slip progressive projects and exploration in around the edges of the demands made on them to prepare children for tests.  They also manage to save enough energy to respond when Melissa Cropper of OFT asks them to speak up for a better Ohio ESSA Plan.  We must join them in speaking up.

We should also remind Betsy DeVos again and again that by reducing test-and-punish she could help everybody at school—superintendents, principals, teachers and children—escape education “in receive mode.”  If Betsy DeVos were honestly concerned that too many students are being trained and taught and instructed and that they are in schools that fail to emphasize deeper education—discovery, examination, problem solving, skepticism, curiosity and compassion, Betsy DeVos would be absolutely in agreement with the school teachers I know.

If Betsy DeVos really believed in progressive education, as Secretary of Education she could use her powerful position to support  teachers as they excite children’s curiosity and support their personal interests and development.

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In Fine, New Book, Steve Nelson Urges New Education Path that Is Less Dangerous for Children

Steve Nelson’s new book, First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, is refreshing in the author’s declaration of privilege as he applies all that he has learned in nineteen years as Head of the Calhoun School, a private, progressive school in New York City to an analysis of what’s gone wrong in public school reform over the same period.

Nelson begins: “I am mindful of the position from which I write. Those of us in independent schools enjoy great privilege. This privilege allows us to draw our students into deeply satisfying and thoughtful lives. But we must recognize that these experiences should not be limited to only those children who are wealthy and/or lucky enough to enroll in our schools. Non-sectarian private schools enroll only about 6% of America’s children. So what about the other millions of children? Do we who carry privilege also bear responsibility? I think so.” (p.5)

This is a refreshing and deeply grounded book for these times when so many of our long-held values about education are being tested.

Nelson isn’t utopian; he doesn’t imagine that all public schools could possibly afford to indulge children in classes of 15 students where teachers personally appreciate each student’s learning style and developmental level, but he does believe the constructs of progressive education are a far better way to organize schools than the test-and-punish system that came with No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

A good teacher, Nelson summarizes the history of progressive education from Socrates and Aristotle through Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, A.S. Neill, Rudolph Steiner, John Dewey, Francis Parker, Felix Adler, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and Howard Gardner.  He also explores the neurobiological and psychological research supporting progressive education.

What is Nelson’s definition of the kind of education he’d like to see for more American children in their public schools? “While the distinctions between progressive education and conventional education are not always stark, it is reasonable to differentiate between ‘education and training,’ between ‘learning and being taught,’ and between ‘discovery and instruction.’ Conventional schools tend toward training and instruction, while progressive schools insist on learning and discovery. Perhaps the most powerful and misunderstood facet of progressive education is the notion of democracy. Progressive schools see themselves and their students as inextricably connected to the society in which they operate. The problems and fascinations of the world around them are the problems and fascinations they examine.” (p.11) He adds: “Education should cultivate the capacity to recognize and create beauty. School is a place where empathy and compassion should be honored and developed. The flames of curiosity should be fanned, not smothered. Skepticism should be sharply honed.” (p. 48)

Nelson’s critique is biting. Writing at the end of the Arne Duncan era, when mega philanthropy collaborated actively with government to drive “corporate reform,” Nelson comments: “In short, business leaders and free market economic principles have gained increasing control over education. Education has become highly dependent on philanthropy, as public funding has declined.  Philanthropists didn’t make their fortunes as violinists, so they bring their business perspectives to bear on the institutions they support. As the old saying goes, ‘If your only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail.’  Today’s economist-driven version of education reform is the hammer that mistakes America’s children, particularly the poorest kids of color, as nails to pound.”

Nelson considers just how A Nation at Risk misunderstood our educational challenges; how testing and the intense pressure of high stakes works in children’s brains to undermine memory; how children who are drilled never learn to question and inquire; how the no-excuses charter schools enforce compliance and destroy curiosity; how scripted learning aimed at test scores hurts children and makes it impossible for good teachers to do what they know best; and how our notion of IQ which focuses on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence is insufficient and leaves out the seven other domains identified by Howard Gardner. And we learn why schools need to nurture these other domains through the arts and physical activity—the classes schools are cutting these days as test prep takes more and more time.

Nelson’s strength is his experience—nearly twenty years in his most recent position alone—working with children and adolescents at school. As he defends the needs of public schools that serve the mass of our children and emphasizes the need for reallocating our society’s resources, his focus is on what money can do inside a school to free the teachers to teach and create space for children to explore.  He doesn’t cover what he doesn’t know—meeting the children’s needs in a school where all the students qualify for free lunch, for example—assembling the resources and expertise for a quality English language program for immigrant children—finding the resources to serve severely disabled students.

Nelson style is fresh and engaging.  He is not ideological despite his strong belief in progressive schooling. He nudges schools and policy makers to move in a progressive direction. And while a lot of books about progressive education are dated, this one is very much up to date—exploring progressive education theory in the context of the destructive pressure of  “corporate reform” accountability.

While the book was written in the last year of so of the Obama Department of Education, it speaks clearly to the problems we are likely face in a Trump administration with Betsy DeVos as education secretary. As the Head of an exclusive New York City private school, Nelson knows precisely why the kind of school choice being promoted by Trump and DeVos won’t work: “The private schools where privileged parents send their kids are expensive and highly selective. I know. I’m the Head of one of them. Calhoun’s tuition is an embarrassing $48,000 per year—about average for Manhattan private schools. Poor families in New York City don’t have the ‘choice’ to attend Calhoun or any of the other private schools. At Calhoun we offer a great deal of tuition assistance so that our students are not all from wealthy families, but the glib come-on in support of privatization is inaccurate and dishonest. Try taking a $5,000 to $7,000 voucher to a place like Sidwell Friends, where the Obamas sent their daughters. Sidwell’s tuition is also about $40.000.” (p. 112-113)