a discussion of school reform

A recent broadcast on Democracy Now! was called Educators Push Back Against Obama's "Business  Model" for School Reforms. Lois Weiner and Karen Lewis are very smart and they make some excellent points. 

For the record, I do not support the corporate takeover of public schools:  far from it, I support community learning centers without any police arm whatsoever, schools that are fully staffed and far more flexible and running all sorts of local programs and services to help provide learning tools for young people, and all people, in our communities. I don't support ending public funding for schools though I think voluntary community learning centers could be far more flexible in almost every way, employ many more people of many more kinds, be more flexible with the money they have, be more effective by a thousandfold, and also become sources of strength and support for communities.

But back to education reform as envisaged from within the system. Karen Lewis made these observations:
So his [A. Duncan] legacy is: "I don’t know what to do. Let me just give it over to the privatizers. Let somebody else do"—I mean, basically, under his aegis, the Board of Education abrogated their responsibility towards education and gave it away, because he literally had no idea, and still doesn’t have an idea, of what to do. 
The problem is the system is obviously broken. I don’t think anybody will argue with that, that the system is broken. It is—it has not basically changed since the 1900s—1800s, for that matter. And as a result, it has never been able to absorb real innovation. 
Most participants in our education debates do not have the experience of reinventing/reexperiencing education, from the ground up, that homeschooling families do. The spontaneous decentralization of education that homeschooling represents is the real educational reform movement and innovation. 

I do not think that homeschooling is the answer in itself, as some homeschooling families believe, but, following John Holt, I think that the knowledge to truly innovate and achieve voluntary community learning centers can only come out of the lessons learned by homeschooling families who have taken back education -- and their children -- and have learned how to "grow their own."  Growing without schooling is learning how to get a kid to read and think and have healthy social skills without the institutional structure and its problems. And the many different families who have made that journey in the past 40 years have learned a lot.

Like organic agriculture, one has to first know that you actually can grow food without chemicals and fertilizers.  You just have to get out of that mode of production entirely.  After there are a lot of people with gardens, awareness shifts and you can start working on local food networks.  Decentralizing education in this country, empowering families and children first, is what homeschooling has been doing. And that has meant first confronting compulsory attendance laws, the laws that disempower families and children within the public school institution. 

Lois Weiner comments on the neoliberal agenda behind this corporatization of education and she has this to say:
And I think it’s also very important to understand that this focus on educational reform is replacing, is a substitute for, a jobs policy. We need to understand that. Education can democratize the competition for the existing jobs, but it cannot create new jobs. And when most jobs that are being created are by companies like Wal-Mart, education cannot do anything about that. So, we need to—we really need to look critically at Race to the Top and understand the way that it fits into this new economic order of a so-called jobless recovery and that what’s really going on is a vocationalization of education, a watering down of curriculum for most kids, so that they’re going to take jobs that require only a seventh or an eighth grade education, because those are the jobs that are being created in this economy.
Schools are ripe for corporate takeovers because they are not rooted within the family and community but have depended upon a policing mechanism from the beginning.  The mixing of education with job-training has been present in the public education system since its inception and it assumes the top-down, central planning approach that was the goal of state-mandated attendance at schools.   The remote control of education by testing corporations is just the latest consolidation in a long line of techniques that assume a factory model of education and that place children in these factories for vocational training.  


Grading and sorting by mandatory grade level were and are the more basic forms of this manufacturing technique, originally from Prussia, that is the antithesis of homeschooling -- where families often focus on working together, growing their children's strengths and gifts.  Jobs should come out of our human capital resources and not be determined by elites or corporate needs.  No child should be subjected to grading and sorting as it is currently practiced:  substantial science in the 20th century has shown how grades do not motivate at all and actually work against our psychological makeup.

It is not just standardized tests that are an issue:  the grading and sorting by grade level is a practice that undermines the social cohesion of the school itself as well as harms children.  And it is not necessary: children and families can choose when to test and when to get the grades or scores they need to build a portfolio for whatever vocational path they want to pursue.  We need far more counselors, than we currently have to help provide the knowledge of these choices to families who can then select what tests, what classes to take on the record for a grade, in order to achieve a career goal.

These are our children, they are human beings in this system and 12 years of grading is completely unnecessary.  Evaluations of a child's learning journey can be humane, individual, and discussed with families.  Change will mean understanding that we have a factory model that must move children along by grade level like a conveyor belt.  Lois Weiner notes:
And I think that that’s going to pull—those changes are going to be—pull, I’m hopeful, the national unions to more progressive, more militant, and more pro-parent and pro-education stances. 
More pro-parent is significant because compulsory attendance laws removed families and parents entirely from any meaningful role in public education.  The parent and child should have the strongest possible say in what happens, they are the people the system should serve.  The schools should be for families and children and an effective system design would understand how compulsory attendance undermines the people who are at the heart of the schools.

The real workers in schools now are children.  They don't have a union and they are not represented at all. They need advocates and those advocates must be families first as they are invested and connected to the child in ways that no teacher can ever be. Most people would still attend schools even if they were not compulsory as they would want educational choices. Families were cut out by compulsory attendance laws and that is the base reform that must be made:  bringing families to the table will be the real innovation, the really powerful system design change,  that must be done to actually change our public school system into the democratic community learning centers the 21st century needs.


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