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The New Ninth Ward

If you’re one of the folks that stopped watching Treme after its first season (“Too boring! Too slow!”), or if you just never bothered to check it out, you might want to check back in. Now in its third season, Treme is proving itself adept at mirroring what creator David Simon’s more celebrated predecessor, The Wire, did better than any show before or since: depict characters struggling and surviving amidst the dysfunctional, intractable, and dialectical systems holding them – and us – prisoner.

In The Wire, the city was Baltimore, and the systems were the drug trade, the public schools, the municipal government, the press, and the police. In Treme, the city is New Orleans, and several of the systems – the schools, the police and the elected officials – make a return appearance. This time, however, Simon adds some new storylines and characters, all of which ride in on the destructive current of Hurricane Katrina, and all of who exist to tell a different story. Indeed, if The Wire was about the older, less visible systems that are holding us prisoner, Treme is about the newer, more visible ones that are being created in the name of progress. The genius of both shows is they refuse to craft a story about something so complicated by oversimplifying the myriad forces at play. As in life, systems and people are more nuanced than mere two-dimensional caricatures – even the ones that hold us prisoner, and even the ones who are up to no good.

I say this because lately I feel like the conversations about school reform in New Orleans are taking on an unhelpful and increasingly entrenched two-dimensional tone: you’re either for the locals, who are being preyed upon by profit-seeking charter schools and carpet-bagging businessmen who see in the chaos of Katrina their last, best chance to remake the city into something new; or you’re for the engines of progress, which recognize that the city’s schools were an embarrassment, its housing projects a blight, and its local traditions best preserved via tangible, lasting monuments, not intangible, romanticized dysfunction.

I say this as someone who knows well-meaning people that have gone to New Orleans as “engines of progress” and who see in its schools the greatest chance to reimagine urban public education for the better. And I say this as someone who feels that much of what they have created is, in effect, perfecting our ability to succeed in an old (Industrial-era) system that no longer serves our interests.

We do ourselves a disservice when we describe school reform in New Orleans in the overly simplistic “privatization of public education” storyline (which is so appealing precisely because it has such clearly defined good people and bad people – and which, like all storylines, is at least partially grounded in the truth). And we are kidding ourselves if we continue to believe that what poor communities need most are outsiders coming in and helping their children raise test scores via a grab bag of teaching methods that not a single “outsider” I know has actually chosen for their own children.

What we have at play in modern New Orleans, in other words, are a few bad people, a lot of bad decisions, and a lot of good (or at least decent) people struggling to succeed amidst larger systemic ways of seeing and thinking that are still holding them – and us – prisoner.

The most recent episode of Treme captures this spirit perfectly in the lyrics of a new song one of the characters has penned in an effort to tell the story of what has happened there since Katrina. Sung by the legendary Irma Thomas, its opening stanza tells you what’s coming:

I’ll meet you on the corner of Dick Cheney Street

And Rumsfeld Boulevard,

Right next to the statue of Michael Brown,

In the new Ninth Ward.

As the song progresses, it’s clear its author is not a fan of the changes underway (nor should he be).

Folks are living so easy there,

Times used to be so hard,

A chicken in every pot,

Oh they dance a lot,

In the new Ninth Ward.

The song’s final stanza sums up the unique tragedy of modern New Orleans – a city with as much cultural heritage as any place in the United States, and a city with as much need of civic improvement.

We kicked out all the criminals,

Got rid of the blight,

Put a little camera on the traffic light,

The kids that come to school

They come to learn and not fight,

This time around we’re making it right,

In the new Ninth Ward.

What makes Treme so redeeming is its refusal to give the chief architects of the post-Katrina clusterfuck a free pass, and its insistence that we not delude ourselves into seeing those architects as being separate from the rest of us. We have met the enemy, and it is us. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we may actually figure out a way to be free. Until that happens, get ready – a new Ninth Ward is coming your way soon.

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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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Let’s Scrap the High School Diploma

This month, schools across the country are hard at work preparing auditoriums, printing programs, checking commencement speeches, and readying for the arrival of one of our society’s most cherished rites of passage – the high school graduation ceremony.

Perhaps by this time next year, we can do our students an even greater service and scrap the high school diploma altogether.

OK, maybe not next year, but soon. After all, almost every component of today’s traditional diploma reflects yesterday’s traditional thinking – if by yesterday we mean the 19th century.

It was 1893, to be precise. That’s when the first blue-ribbon commission was assembled to study the nation’s schools, which, at that point, were still largely decentralized. Among its findings, the ten-person committee recommended that “every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil.” Not long thereafter, the College Entrance Examination Board was established in order to create a common assessment and set uniform standards for each academic subject. Couple those developments with the rise of the Industrial Era, the exponential growth of immigration, and the need to move an unprecedented number of students through the system, and you have the seeds that slowly gave form to the public schools we have today.

Although these developments were clearly pivotal in fueling American growth in the 20th century, it’s equally clear that same system is ill-suited for the particular challenges and opportunities of the 21st. Which brings us back to the high school diploma – a document that still depends, in most places, on the same set of required courses, the same set amount of “seat time,” and the same set of curricular content that students have been studying since the end of the second World War.  No wonder that more than half our students have been classified as chronically disengaged – and that figure doesn’t even include absentees and dropouts!

We can do better. But first we need to shake free from the comforting familiarity of the pomp and circumstance of high school as we have come to know it.

The good news is that several schools across the country are already taking this courageous step. One such place is the Monadnock Community Connections School, or MC² for short (mc2school.org). A public school of choice in New Hampshire, MC² was founded to fulfill a distinctly 21st century mission: “Empowering each individual with the knowledge and skills to use his or her unique voice, effectively and with integrity, in co-creating our common public world.” As school founder Kim Carter explains, “Learning at MC² is personalized – so it can be tailored to each student’s learning needs; experiential – because students learn best by doing; negotiated – so that students can participate in decisions about what they will learn; and community-based – because learning takes place through a variety of community interactions.”

As you might expect, MC²’s goals and mission force it to look quite different from the typical high school. Instead of annually promoting kids from one grade to the next, students at MC² cannot progress until they have demonstrated mastery in a set of core competencies. Students spend as much time learning out of the school building as they do in it. Every student must write a 100-page autobiography in which they reflect on the people and events that have shaped the person they have become. And no one receives a diploma until they have successfully made a public presentation of their own personal growth and preparedness for adult life. (You can view a few of those presentations here).

In schools like this, the old adage is turned on its head: children are to be seen and heard. In schools like this, academic learning is balanced by an equal emphasis on emotional and vocational growth. And in schools like this, teachers and administrators have stopped relying on Industrial-Age benchmarks, and started identifying which Democratic-Age habits of mind and being will be most essential to their students’ future success as global citizens.

To create places like this for every child, we don’t need to sacrifice our desire for greater rigor, equity or accountability – but we do need to scrap many of our most time-tested symbols of schools, and of schooling. Redefining the requirements of a high school diploma is a great place to start.

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Is a Free Education a Fundamental Right?

Should your zip code determine your access to the American dream? Or is the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee to provide “equal protection” a principle we have silently agreed to uphold in theory – but not in practice?

I’m starting to wonder after reading about Tanya McDowell, the Connecticut mother facing felony charges for lying on her five-year-old son’s registration forms so he could attend a better school. McDowell’s story is painfully reminiscent of Kelley Williams-Bolar, the Ohio mother who made a similar choice earlier this year – and is now a convicted felon.

These two stories of civil disobedience come against the backdrop of an ongoing national conversation about our public school system – and how it must be improved. They also provide an unsettling irony in lieu of tomorrow’s 57th anniversary of Thurgood Marshall’s historic victory in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that triumphantly reaffirmed a core American principle: “In the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.”

If Marshall were alive today, he would urge us to stop celebrating our symbolic victory in Brown, and start accepting our actual responsibility for tolerating a public education system that is, clearly, still separate, and still unequal.

Marshall said so himself, in a lesser known 1973 Court opinion, San Antonio v. Rodriguez. But this time he was not the lead lawyer, arguing the case, but the Court’s first African-American justice, issuing a ruling. And this time, he was on the losing side.

The case began when a group of poor Texas parents claimed that their state’s tolerance of the wide disparity in school resources – much of which were determined by the value of local property taxes – violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. A state court agreed, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, reversed.

Gone from the Court’s 1973 ruling was its 1954 contention that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” Gone, too, was its assertion that “it is doubtful any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity,” wrote a unanimous Court in Brown, “where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Instead, the five-Justice majority in Rodriguez wrote simply that while the Texas school system “can fairly be described as chaotic and unjust . . . it does not follow that this system violates the Constitution.”

“Though education is one of the most important services performed by the state, it is not within the limited category of rights recognized by this Court as guaranteed by the Constitution.” If it were, the majority conceded, “virtually every State will not pass muster.”

For Justice Marshall, that was precisely the point. “The Court concludes that public education is not constitutionally guaranteed,” he wrote, even though “no other state function is so uniformly recognized as an essential element of our society’s well being.”

Marshall understood that without equal access to a high-quality public education, democracy doesn’t work. “Education directly affects the ability of a child to exercise his First Amendment rights,” he explained. “Education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society. Both facets of this observation are suggestive of the substantial relationship which education bears to guarantees of our Constitution.”

So here we are, nearly thirty years after Rodriguez – and nearly sixty after Brown – and yet parents like Tanya McDowell and Kelley Williams-Bolar feel compelled to break the law to ensure that their children receive a fair shot at the American dream. Meanwhile, income inequality has reached unprecedented levels, the nation has simultaneously grown more racially and ethnically diverse, and massive spending disparities remain between schools.

In today’s America, when it comes to public education, have we allowed our five-digit zip codes to become the equivalent of a lottery ticket to a better future? Is this really who we wish to be?

After so many years and so little real change, something new – perhaps even something drastic – needs to be done.

What if we took away the legal ambiguity that resulted in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision? What if we made the guarantee of an equal opportunity to learn our nation’s 28th Constitutional Amendment?

(This article originally appeared on cnn.com.)

What do YOU think? Is a Free Education a Fundamental Right?

a)    NO. A public education is extremely important. It’s also not listed as a fundamental right anywhere in the U.S. Constitution. It may be imperfect, but the Supreme Court got it right in the Rodriguez case.

b)   YES. The 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection” under the laws is sufficient grounds for recognizing the unique value of a quality education. It’s time to reinterpret the Rodriguez case!

c)    NOT YET. Reinterpreting Rodriguez is not enough. It’s time to make equal access to a quality education an undeniable right. It’s time for the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution!

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Don’t Believe the Hype (About College)

It’s not what you think.

I’m a proud graduate of the University of Wisconsin (and two graduate schools). I loved college. And it’s undeniable that the United States boasts some of the best universities in the world.

I’m also someone who flunked out my freshman year with a 0.6 GPA. In fact, I’d say it wasn’t until I flunked out that I had a chance of being successful. I simply wasn’t ready for what college was designed to give me (aside from the unsupervised social time).

Although my freshman-year GPA was surprisingly low, my freshman-year experience is unsurprisingly common. Too many young people simply aren’t ready for college, for a variety of reasons – meaning they either coast through four or five years and waste a ton of money along the way, or, if they’re lucky, they crash and burn so badly that they discover, for the first time, what it is they actually want to do with their lives – as opposed to what the adults in their lives have told them they should do.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently since reading Matthew Crawford’s bestselling book, Shop Class as Soulcraft. Crawford, as you may know, got his doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Chicago – and then left a cushy job at a DC think tank to open a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia.

In this regard, Crawford is uniquely suited to comment on three inextricably linked aspects of modern society – our public education system, our modern economy, and our shared values. And, as Crawford puts it, the news ain’t good.

In some respects, the story starts in the 1990s, when shop class started to become a thing of the past, and educators started exclusively preparing students to be “knowledge workers” – and stopped valuing the ancient notion that our hands are what make us the most intelligent of animals. Yet the clearest starting point stretches back much farther, to the early 20th century, the rise of Industrialism, and the concerted effort to separate thinking from doing – and, in the process, to begin the degradation of “work” as we have come to know it.

Any historian is already familiar, for example, with Frederick Winslow Taylor and his 1911 book, Principles of Scientific Management. It was Taylor who wrote: “All possible brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning department.” It was Taylor who suggested that the modern workplace “will not have been realized until almost all of the machines in the shop are run by men who are of smaller caliber and attainments, and who are therefore cheaper than those required under the old system.” And it was Taylor whose ideas led people like Ellwood Cubberly, a former head of Stanford University’s Department of Education, to recommend in 1920 “giv[ing] up the exceedingly democratic idea that all are created equal. . . . Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.”

What has this legacy begotten? According to Crawford, it has given us a society where the production of credentials (e.g., knowing how to graduate) matters more than the cultivation of anything real (e.g., knowing how to think). It has led us to devalue the specific skills of the craftsman, and overvalue the general knowledge of the office worker. And it has engendered the gradual WALL-E-fication of our culture, in which the larger goal becomes the creation of passive consumers whose assembly-line work environments – be they the actual assembly line or the assembly-esque world of modern office work – can only be cured by the illusory freedom we exercise when we choose different products to purchase.

The bigger concern, and the one that relates to my own skepticism about whether everyone should go to college, has to do with the changing nature of the workforce. As Princeton economist Alan Blinder has written: “The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not. And this unconventional divide does not correspond well to traditional distinctions between jobs that require high levels of education and jobs that do not.”

In other words, it’s easier to imagine outsourcing your need for legal advice than your need for an electrician. But the point is not that no one should go to law school and everyone should become an electrician – just that the goal of our schools, our economy, and our society should be to help people find work that engages their human capacities as fully as possible. And that’s not happening. And that’s a really big problem – and one that will never be solved if our knee-jerk reaction is to urge every young person to go to college.

“The best sort of democratic education,” says Crawford, “is neither snobbish nor egalitarian. Rather, it accords a place of honor in our common life to whatever is best [for each individual].” Amen, I say. So let’s stop pretending that college by itself is a cure-all for every person. Let’s start recalibrating our schools in ways that will help children discover their worth – and acquire the skills they’ll need to unleash their full potential on the world. And let’s keep searching for ways to help people understand, in the deepest, fullest sense, what it means to be free.

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What’s Your Declaration of Education?

Those pesky EduCon folks are at it again.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a small, networked, eclectic tribe of educators who attended a conference at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, and who, with great energy and determination, pledged their shared commitment to bring about a different type of public school system by agreeing to the following core values:

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members.
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen.
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around.
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate.
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked.

For me, EduCon was a Come to Jesus moment – a time when I found adults who shared my fidelity to a language of possibility that was solution-oriented, relationship-driven, and future-focused. And now I see that they/we are at it again, this time via a drive “to remind ourselves and our students that citizenship means asking questions, finding answers and standing up for what you believe in . . . and that education must mean that too.”

The vehicle for this lofty goal is something known as The Great American Teach-In and, if it works, the result will be, on May 10, thousands of classrooms, students, and schools drafting their own Declarations of Education.

The Teach-In website has useful resources for anyone who wants to structure a conversation that results in an actionable set of aspirational goals toward the creation of healthier, higher-functioning learning environments. And the conversations will all be framed by a core set of essential questions:

1.     When and where do I learn best?

2.     What does an ideal learning environment look like?

3.     How closely do our current places of learning resemble our ideal learning environment?

4.     What barriers to learning/growth exist within our current learning environments?

5.     What will we do to make our current learning environments more perfect places to work and learn?

What I love about this idea is it assumes the best people to change the landscape of public education are those closest to the day-to-day workings of our nation’s schools – educators and students. After all, although there is much to dispirit us with the state of our school system, it does educators no good to assume these ills have merely been “imposed upon them”, and that they have no choice but to keep hoping, as passive victims, that better days lie ahead.

As the great quantum physicist David Bohm once said, “Thought creates the world and then says, ‘I didn’t do it.’” So, too, is it with the current state of public education in America – and all of us have a choice: remain complicit, and passive, in the acceptance of a system that denies us the ability to create truly transformational learning environments; or become active agents in solving our own most intractable problems – and creating spaces for people to reflect on their ideal learning environments, and then think together about how to create those environments as soon as possible.

Sound like a good use of your time? Check out http://declarationofeducation.com/ to learn more and get involved. We can do better – and it is up to us to make sure that we do so.

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Let’s End the Battle of the Edu-Tribes

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

There’s a revolution underway – and no, I don’t mean in Egypt or Tunisia.

I mean the growing, hopeful, tech-savvy, solution-oriented tribe of educators who attended last weekend’s EduCon 2.3 in Philadelphia, an annual event that bills itself as “both a conversation and a conference, ” and a place where people come together, “both in person and virtually, to discuss the future of schools.”

Hosted by the Science Leadership Academy – an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on 21st century learning (what a concept!) – EduCon was as much a revival meeting as it was a conference. To spend time there was to bear witness to the development of a different sort of tribe – a confederacy of educators from across the country, united by inquiry, connected by social media, and committed to solving the intractable riddle of public education.

See for yourself – scroll through the #EduCon tweets and you’ll find two things in abundance: a communal language of potential and partnership; and a rapid-fire establishing of new relationships based on possibility and hope.

This is, in short, the essential recipe for bringing about a paradigm shift in any profession or organization – and it is painfully rare in contemporary conversations about public education. As Dave Logan explains in his must-read book Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, “tribes emerge from the language people use to describe themselves, their jobs, and others. . . When a person looks out at the world, he sees it filtered through a screen of his words, and this process is as invisible to him as water is to a fish. . . Instead of people using their words, they are used by their words, and this fact is unrecognized.”

Logan goes on to characterize five tribal “stages” – informal groupings in society, a field, and/or an organization based on an individual’s predominant worldview (as constructed through the language s/he uses and the types of relationships s/he forms). The extreme stages range from a complete sense of hopelessness about the world and its possibilities (“life sucks”), to a transcendent space of endless possibility and collaboration (“life is great”). And, of course, the bulk of us fall somewhere in between.

I share this because when I returned from EduCon I was struck by the clear contrast in tone between tweets from EduCon attendees and tweets from the leading voices of the two main Edu-Tribes – also known as the “reformers” and the “status quo-ers”, although I tend to think of them more as the Old Guard and the New Guard.

As Logan would explain it, the EduCon Tribe is operating at the crossroads of Stages Four and Five. Its members pay almost no attention to organizational or regional boundaries; the only thing that matters is that people contribute meaningfully to the discussion. The language of this tribe is hopeful, solution-oriented, and obsessed with things like collaboration and communication. And its members are all aligned around EduCon’s five guiding principles:

  1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members;
  2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen;
  3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around;
  4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate;
  5. Learning can — and must — be networked.

The power of these principles is key; a high-functioning tribe always identifies and leverages a core set of values, and uses those values as guideposts to align around a noble cause. Yet contrast that clarity with the Old & New Guards, still engaged in bitter warfare to influence the mainstream media and shape the Obama administration’s federal education policy priorities – albeit at slightly different cultural stages.

To borrow Logan’s terminology, the Old Guard is operating at a Stage Two level – most simply described as a “My Life Sucks” view of the world. Logan describes people in this cultural stage as “passively antagonistic; they cross their arms in judgment yet never really get interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic and resigned. The Stage Two talk is that they’ve seen it all before and watched it fail. The mood that results is a cluster of apathetic victims, united in their belief that someone or something is holding them down and standing in their way.”

Any of us who live and work in education have seen – or been in – this stage throughout our careers. On Twitter, it’s reflected in a lot of negative, oppositional language: words like “skewer,” “dupe,” and “debunk.” And in articles and Op-Eds, it’s reflected in pieces that are primarily about what the other side is doing wrong – and only secondarily about what its own side is doing right.

Meanwhile, the New Guard is primarily made up of people operating at Stage Three – most simply described as the “I’m great, and you’re not” worldview. As Logan explains, “The gravity that holds people at Stage Three is the addictive ‘hit’ from winning, besting others, being the smartest and most successful.” Not surprisingly, the New Guard uses words like “innovation,” “scalable,” and “results.” Its members love the spirit of programs like “Race to the Top.” And because of its overreliance on intellect and the technocratic answer, its characterizations of schools, and of schooling, can come to sound dehumanizing for adults and children alike.

To be sure, these descriptions cannot provide full accounts of any individual or tribe. All of us defy such efforts at easy explanation, and the current debates about public education cannot simply be reduced to whether we’re pro- or anti-union, reform or status quo, or old guard and new guard.  Still, in Logan’s descriptions I see sufficient echoes of the world I inhabit and the conversations I observe, and I’ve become even more aware of the words I use and the types of relationships I form. For me, that means refusing to contribute to the cynicism and hopelessness of Stage Two, and insisting on an expansion of the “coldly cognitive” worldview of Stage Three.

I want more inquiry. I want less demonization of those I disagree with. I want more community. In short, I want my EduCon, and I want it all the time! Who’s with me?

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Education Inception

(This article also appeared on the Huffington Post.)

I just watched Christopher Nolan’s remarkable new movie Inception, a futuristic film about a group of people who, through a variety of means, plant a thought so deeply in the mind of one man that it grows naturally and becomes seen as his own. In the opening scene of the movie, protagonist Peter Cobb rhetorically asks the audience: “What’s the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? No. An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea’s taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, or ignore it – but it stays there.”

Cobb’s movie-based challenge is not unlike the reality-based one being faced by today’s advocates for public education reform – how to seed an idea so simple and powerful that it can mobilize public opinion, inspire policymakers, and improve the overall learning conditions for children. And yet after reading Michelle Rhee’s two newest efforts to launch her own form of “inception” – an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal and her organization’s inaugural policy agenda – I see further evidence of both her well-intentioned vision for massive educational reform, and her fundamental misunderstanding about the power of ideas.

Repeatedly, Ms. Rhee has shown she believes that the best way to mobilize people is through conflict, oppositional language and negative emotion. In the Journal, she speaks encouragingly about the fact that “public support is building for a frontal attack on the educational status quo.” And in the introductory paragraph of her policy agenda, she seems encouraged by the fact that her actions will “trigger controversy.” This sort of language extends the tenor of her brief tenure as DC Schools Chancellor, when Rhee made enough inflammatory statements to become the single most polarizing education figure in country. Love me or hate me, she seemed to be telling us – but pick one you must.

In some respects, Ms. Rhee’s approach to idea-generation, much like her approach to management, is deeply rooted in 20th-century paradigms of mobilization and leadership. Our culture has nurtured numerous shared archetypes of strong, authoritarian leaders – people who can make the tough decisions, go it alone, and refuse to give an inch. To compromise or collaborate is to be soft and exceedingly conciliatory, not to mention a weak-kneed guarantee that nothing will get done. Get with the program or get out. You’re either with us or against us. Don’t tread on me.

Of course, like all archetypes, these characterizations contain partial truths. To be all about compromise and not at all about principle is a poor model for leadership, and we do need leaders who have the fortitude to make tough decisions, hold people accountable, and speak simply and clearly. Similarly, we all should share Ms. Rhee’s sense of outrage. And in the end, several of her policies make good sense. But in terms of the overall effort at inception – at seeding the foundational idea – one thing seems equally clear: a national movement that is based primarily on negative emotion will not deliver us the long-term changes we need in public education.

Christopher Nolan certainly feels this way – it’s the core message of his movie. “How do you translate a strategy into an emotion?” Cobb wonders. A colleague suggests that an idea fueled by negative emotion will work best – something that would grow and fester in the mind of an individual, building both anger and discontent until it could be turned into action. But Cobb disagrees. “Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We yearn for people to be reconciled, for catharsis. We need positive emotional logic.”

I agree, and I wish Michelle Rhee would, too. She has a national platform, a vital issue in need of being addressed, millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of followers. Now she just needs the right idea.

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The Gift, a.k.a “Waiting for Superman”

This morning, I received an email from my dear friend Maya Soetoro-Ng, a lifelong educator and all-around deep thinker, who wrote to her friends and family after seeing Waiting for Superman. Please read it — her way of framing the opportunity provided by the film is exactly what we need to hear.

(Incidentally, plans are underway for the sort of outreach she calls for in early 2011. Email me — schaltain@gmail.com — if you want to learn more . . .)

Dear friend and caring community member,

I only have a few minutes right now, so my evaluation will be necessarily incomplete, but I want to share some thoughts about Guggenheim’s new documentary, “Waiting for Superman”, which I saw last night (I had only seen several discrete segments before).

At the point in the film when children were crying because they weren’t selected in school lotteries, many people around me couldn’t suppress tears and, as a mother of two girls, I too felt intense grief and empathy for the parents of the children.  After the film, I spoke with a wonderful longtime public school teacher and she was teary as well, for a different reason; she was shedding tears of frustration about the fact that the film ignored the enormous commitment and talent of many public DOE teachers and the great work taking place in the classrooms and schools where they throw in their hands and spend large parts of their days. I was one of Randi’s teachers myself in my first years of teaching in NYC. I was even the union rep. for a couple of years. I do understand the hurt, but I urged this teacher not to let the imbalanced nature of the documentary frustrate her, and instead to go talk with others in the community about what she knows, feels, remembers, and can use to help make schools even stronger.

Marveling at the emotion generated by both those who are critical of the film and those who wholly accept the film’s assessments, I’ve become increasingly glad that this imperfect but also compelling film has come along at this time.   Here’s what I hope doesn’t happen:  I hope that we don’t grow more embittered and angry with one another and expend huge amounts of energy in senseless shouting; I hope that public school teachers are not vilified by people who think that they know more than they know about what happens in classrooms.  I hope that the film’s emphasis on test scores doesn’t make us lose sight of the many other potent and meaningful forms of learning and assessment that exist like creative writing, projects of civic engagement, Socratic learning forums, and multifaceted portfolio presentations.

Here’s what I hope happens:  I hope that the film will increase the amount and caliber of dialogue between teachers, administrators, community members, and parents.  I hope that it will encourage teachers everywhere to share their craft and schools loudly and proudly, when pride is merited, and welcome the community’s assistance as well as new opportunities for collaboration.  I hope that the film will help people to see the importance of graceful negotiation when trying to change a system and recognize the true power of persuasion.  I hope that people will think of public schools as belonging to all of us, regardless of whether we have kids in the system, or have kids period.

I hope that we begin to view successful experiments, like good charter schools, as opportunities for evaluation and implementation of best practices.  Of course a larger percentage of charter schools are healthy learning environments, not because the teachers are all better but for the following reasons: charter schools are usually smaller and therefore more manageable; school charters require greater buy-in and contribution from parents; charter schools have the freedom to create cohesive school cultures surrounding issues of local interest and imperative (i.e. Hawaiian language and cultural immersion schools); the choice and freedom in charter schools often allow for a greater sense of ownership by teachers, students, and administrators; and whether conversion schools or new, charter schools are often built using innovations that have been tested and found effective in older, larger, and more overwhelmed regular DOE schools.

Now it is time to reverse the flow of innovation and use charter schools as laboratories for what might work in larger DOE schools.  Let leaders of schools, government, and community focus on building a strong sense of school family, or ohana, in every public school with less tracking, smaller class sizes, smaller learning groups within the classroom, and family-style attention to the whole child.  Let’s think about how to get the community more actively involved in public schools, find new ways for families to participate and share in the culture of the school, and bring the kids out into the community more.  Let’s work to offer free after school, extended year, and parent-enrichment programs, and have school event daycare options for single and overworked parents.  Let’s think of our public schools as the center—the beating heart—of our communities.   Go check out the film, by all means, but then let’s keep talking. With mighty love,

Maya

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Building Democratic Learning Communities

On July 28, I participated in a live web discussion about democratic learning communities with Classroom 2.0’s Steve Hargadon.

It was an interesting and sometimes chaotic discussion. While Steve was asking me questions, participants from all over the globe were also typing questions and comments in a dialogue box. So please excuse my occasional flightiness when Steve asked me a question — it’s because I was trying to have about ten conversations at once!

Click here to listen to the audio of the conversation, and please post any additional comments or ideas. Thanks!

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