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Occupy Third Grade?

On a crisp fall morning in the nation’s capital, 3rd grade teacher Rebecca Lebowitz gathered her 29 public school students on their familiar giant multicolored carpet, and reminded them how to make sense of the characters whose worlds they would soon enter during independent reading time.

“What are the four things we want to look for when we meet a new character?” Ms. Lebowitz asked from her chair at the foot of the rug. Several hands shot up before nine-year-old Monica spoke confidently over the steady hum of the classroom’s antiquated radiator. “We want to pay attention to what they do, what they say, how they feel, and what their body language tells us.” “That’s right,” her teacher said cheerily. “When we look for those four things, we have a much better sense of who a person really is.”

As the calendar shifts to the eleventh month of 2011 – a year of near-constant revolution and upheaval, from the Arab Spring to the Wisconsin statehouse to the global effort to Occupy Wall Street – what might the rest of us learn from students like Monica? If, in short, we were as smart as a third-grader, what would we observe about the character of this year’s global protests, and what might we decide to do next?

1. It is not about “democracy” – As much as we glorify and value the principles and practices of our democratic system of government, it’s not democracy per se that is at the root of this unleashed global yearning. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently pointed out, what motivated the protesters in Tahrir Square – and what most animates those who continue to brave the wintry weather in public squares around the world – is a deeper quest for what lies at the root of a genuinely democratic society: justice.

The people protesting around the world are not just looking to be seen; they’re demanding to be heard. And what they’re saying is that from Egypt to the United States, essential social contracts have been broken – contracts that require at least a modicum of fairness and balance. If anything, therefore, these movements are about highlighting an uncomfortable truth: merely having a democracy does not guarantee a just society, and the tendencies of democracy and capitalism, left untended, tend to flow in different directions.

2. It is about unsustainable social orders – Across the Middle East, citizens have been risking their lives for months to protest the injustice of their daily lives. And yet the absence of social justice is a cancer that has already spread well beyond the borders of the Arab world. According to a recent analysis of the 31 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), nearly 11% of all people in OECD countries live in poverty. Worse still, 22% of American children are affected by poverty, yet the United States spends only 0.33% of its GDP on pre-primary education.

When these data are combined with other indicators like income inequality, access to health care, and the percentage of elderly citizens living in poverty, the United States gets a social justice rating that trails all but four of the OECD’s 31 countries. Add to that the now-well-known fact that the top 1% of Americans now control 40% of the total wealth, and you have an unsustainable social system, plain and simple. Clearly, people are angry, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

3. It does require a reboot of public education – History has shown us that to sustain a movement for transformational social change, anger is both necessary and insufficient. To sustain our energy, we are best fueled by an empathetic regard for the needs of others, not just our own. As Gandhi put it, “I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion.”

If what we seek, then, is a more sustainable and just social order, how should we recalibrate our public schools – the institutions most responsible for equipping children with the skills and self-confidence they need to become effective and justice-oriented change agents as adults?

We might start by evaluating each other the same way Ms. Lebowitz’s students evaluate new characters in a book. To fulfill the egalitarian vision of 2011, children must grow up in learning environments that are sensitive not just to what they do and say, but also to how they feel and what their body language tells us about the larger world they inhabit. This, too, is a central insight of those who study systemic change. “We need to learn to attend to both dimensions simultaneously,” says M.I.T management professor Otto Scharmer. “What we say, see, and do (our visible realm), and the inner place from which we operate (the invisible realm, in which our sources of attention reside and from which they operate).”

Recent events have underscored just how essential it is to acknowledge our global interdependence; after all, it was the financial subterfuge of the few that affected the personal wellbeing of the many. That’s why a healthy democracy is more than just policies and practices – and a healthy school is more than just test scores and teacher policies. That’s why the American activists of tomorrow need more than just the occasional lesson about Gandhi or King; they need consistent opportunities to actively apply their own developing compassion for others in the service of creating a better world. And that’s why students like Monica need to grow up in a society willing to heed the rising voices of the protesters and recommit to our nation’s founding promise:  “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice.”

That’s the sustaining vision of an equitable society. Now it’s time for a mission capable of fulfilling it.

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To What Do We Owe Our Fidelity?

Today was one of those magical work days — not so much because it was chaotic and crowded (it was), but because it was jam packed with interesting people and conversations. It began with University of Gloucestershire professor Philip Woods (an expert on democratic leadership and school governance); it ended with the fabulous Traci Fenton of WorldBLU, an organization that is identifying, and helping to create, democratic business cultures around the globe; and it featured a remarkable mid-afternoon tea with Sir Ken Robinson — yes, that Sir Ken Robinson — who is writing a new book and imagining lots of new and powerful ways to connect people to their passions.

Through all these conversations and exchanges, I’ve been reflecting on a question I’d never thought of quite so explicitly before. It surfaced during my morning conversation with Professor Woods: “In the work that we do, to what do we owe our greatest fidelity?”

I think this question gets at the heart with the issue I have with both extremes of the current education reform landscape.

On one side is the old guard, for who I think the answer to the question would be either “the children” or “democratic learning.” I think both of these are the wrong answers, but for different reasons. Regarding the idea of our fidelity being owed to “the children” — well, of course, but what good does the answer do you except allow you to feel self-righteous, because the answer doesn’t tell you anything about where to start or how to go about the work itself. And I don’t think our primary fidelity is owed to “democratic learning” either — because although it’s hugely important, it’s also often (mis)interpreted primarily as a set of structures, and strategy should always precede structure if you want a finely tuned organization.

Conversely, I think the new guard would say they owe fidelity to the concepts of “achievement” and/or “accountability.” These, too, are the wrong words, and for more easily identifiable reasons. Achievement has come to basically mean basic-skills standardized reading and math scores. How could we owe our greatest loyalty to those, unless our sole purpose is to collect some personal bonus at the end of the year (hey, wait a minute). And the idea of accountability is a little too punitive and unimaginative as a superordinate goal. We can do better.

What was reaffirmed to me this morning, and throughout the day, is how I believe we must answer the question — we owe our greatest fidelity to learning, and to helping people create the optimal environments in which it can occur.

Being clear on what we’re most loyal to ensures that, strategically, operationally, organizationally, we will ask the question that gets to the heart of what matters most: Will ______ help our students learn how to use their minds well? If yes, do it. If not, don’t. Best of all, a fidelity to learning doesn’t preclude other priorities. Our focus will still be on the children. Our community will still create multiple opportunities for democratic decision-making (it’s a great way to help people learn, after all). Our efforts will still be on measuring how well or poorly we’re helping students achieve (in the fullest sense of that word). And our intentions will still be to hold ourselves and each other accountable to what we aim to do together. But it’s only by setting our narrowest focus on the true bulls’ eye — on learning, and on the core conditions required to support and nurture it — that we can create the greatest likelihood of success.

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Education and… National Security

I see that President Obama listed education as a core aspect of his overall National Security Strategy. It reminds me of a great piece my former boss and mentor Charles Haynes wrote less than three weeks after the September 11 attacks.

As Charles wrote: “Over the course of this long struggle, the most effective answer to training camps of hatred and terror will be schools of freedom and democracy. While Osama bin Laden and his ilk use tools of indoctrination and propaganda to teach blind obedience, our schools must use democratic principles to instill an abiding commitment to universal human rights.”

This is, of course, as true today as it was then. And yet I wonder — in what ways are our current policy prescriptions addressing this particular challenge, either implicitly or explicitly?

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Washington Post Review of American Schools

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post published a nice review of American Schools today. Check it out at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/civics-education/how-to-build-real-american-sch.html.

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The Big Picture on School Performance

On Feb. 1, President Obama vowed to toss out the nation’s current school accountability system and replace it with a more balanced scorecard of school performance that looks at student growth and school progress.

I love the idea. Mr. Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan have repeatedly criticized the No Child Left Behind Act for keeping the “goals loose but the steps tight.” On their watch, both men aspire to introduce a new law that keeps the “goals tight but the steps loose.”

With that more flexible standard in mind, I have a scorecard to propose: the ABC’s of School Success.

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Good Review of American Schools

The prolific Ken Bernstein, aka “Teacher Ken,” just reviewed my book for Teacher Magazine. See what he has to say here.

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Our Children Deserve Democratic Schools

A few years ago, a reporter in Columbia, South Carolina asked local elementary school children why America celebrates the Fourth of July.

Most of the answers were predictably personal. To eat hot dogs, said one boy. To watch fireworks, a girl answered. Another child thought we all celebrated the Fourth of July because it was his brother’s birthday.

One student, a fifth grader from Nursery Road Elementary School named Vante Lee, gave a different answer. “We celebrate the 4th of July,” he said, “because we celebrate our freedom and the chance to make our own decisions.”

Click here to keep reading.

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We’re Pursuing the Wrong Set of Standards

With $100 billion to spend in the next two years, the Obama administration means business when it talks about reshaping the public education system. Why, then, is it ignoring some of the business community’s best insights when it comes to core questions of how to spark systems change?

There’s a disconnect between what the administration is promising – a set of voluntary national content standards – and what we the people will receive – a standardization of the public school system.

Click here to keep reading.

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