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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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What DC Can Teach Us About New Teacher Policies

This weekend, an article in my local paper crystallized three things we need to stop doing if we want to transform American public education for the long haul – and three things we should start doing instead.

1. STOP having a national debate about labor law; START having a national conversation about how people learn.

The article I’m referring to was written in response to the July 15, 2011 announcement that 206 teachers in the D.C. public school system had been fired for poor performance, “a rarity in a big city school system and an extension of former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee’s aggressive drive to upgrade classroom instruction in the nation’s capital.”

Indeed. For the past four years, ever since Ms. Rhee first took the helm of the D.C. public school system (DCPS), the tenor of our national conversation (and my local one) has been squarely fixed on teachers, on teacher evaluations, and on the role teachers unions have played in our ongoing efforts to guarantee each child an equal opportunity to a high-quality public education.

On one level, this makes sense: teachers are clearly the most significant in-school factor to a healthy learning environment for kids; teacher evaluations are clearly in need of an extreme makeover; and teacher unions have clearly been occasional obstacles to some of the larger efforts to remake our public schools. In that regard, any and all efforts to “upgrade classroom instruction” are exactly what the doctor ordered.

And yet, the reality is that the past four years have been more of a national debate about labor law – and less of a national investigation about how people learn. And the problem is not that labor law doesn’t need fixing; it does. But when things like “last in, first out” (LIFO) firing policies, collective bargaining rights, and teacher pensions crowd out our capacity to identify what highly effective teaching and learning really looks like – and requires – what we get are cover stories about personnel dismissals and litmus tests on national personalities, not evaluation tools that are designed to help the vast majority of teachers get better. Which leads to the second thing . . .

2. STOP spending so much time talking about the best and worst teachers; START focusing on everyone else.

Although mass firings of the sort DCPS reported last week are rare, the number of personnel affected was still quite small – just 5% of the total workforce. In fact, very few teachers were rated as either great or horrible; the vast majority – nearly 70% — were simply rated “effective.”

This underscores a rather obvious point: the only way to transform the teaching profession is by crafting policies that help the vast majority of educators improve the quality of their practice over time – not by lionizing the master teachers or demonizing the ones that should find a new line of work.

Is that what’s happening in DC? I believe our new schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, when she says that IMPACT, the city’s new teacher evaluation system, is designed to build capacity, not just weed out the unwanted. Perhaps over time IMPACT will even become a useful national model for a different sort of evaluation tool that can provide feedback, reinforce high standards, and help ensure a high-quality teacher in every classroom. However, based on a recent in-depth review of IMPACT, we’re not there yet – and we’re still way too focused in our public rhetoric on the best and the worst teachers. It would be nice to see the rhetoric and the reality get more in line with each other. And it would be nice to imagine that some worthy educators won’t recklessly lose their jobs along the way.

3. STOP viewing poverty and education as an either/or; START viewing them as a both/and.

Anyone who lives and works in education knows that an ongoing argument has been occurring between some who feel you can’t fix education until you fix poverty, and others who feel you can’t fix poverty until you fix education.

The reality is that both sides – and neither side – are right. Poverty and education are inextricably linked, and the ecosystem each child inhabits – from his home and community to his health and his school – has a massive, complicated impact on that child’s capacity to learn and grow. Therefore, any new policies that fail to account for that complexity aren’t just poorly designed; they’re patently unfair.

This point was reinforced in the article about the DC firings and the IMPACT evaluation system. As Washington Post reporter Bill Turque wrote, “a breakdown by ward confirms, as it did last year, that the overwhelming majority of highly effective teachers work in schools with lower rates of poverty and other social problems.”

This news shouldn’t surprise anyone – how could it be otherwise? – and yet too many of us are still suggesting the path forward must be lit by signs saying either “It’s The Poverty, Stupid,” or “No Excuses Means No Excuses.”

We can do better. We have the capacity for greater nuance in our understanding of something as complex as teaching and learning. And as we spend the summer months preparing for a new school year, we would be wise to be more mindful of what we must stop, start and keep doing in the months and years ahead.

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