Saturday, November 12, 2011

Same City, Different Worlds: The PEN Conference and the EWA seminar. The two “camps” of education sounding off in Chi-town

Today in Chicago, two major education events took place.  And the two events could not be more different.  On the north side, a group of dedicated educators gathered from across the country to discuss progressive education practices for the Progressive Education Network (PEN) National conference.  Among some of the distinguished speakers and panelists were Pedro Antonio Noguera, Bill Ayers, and Gloria Ladson-Billings.  On the other side of town at the University of Chicago, a very different event was underway: The Education Writers Association (EWA) Seminar entitled “Evaluating Teachers: Beyond the Rhetoric”.  This group included speakers such as Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project (Michelle Rhee’s brain child), representatives from the Gates Foundation, a panel of teachers none of whom was a current (non-TFA) educator, and Educators for Excellence (cozy friend of the Gates Foundation and DFER).
At PEN, the 600 educators discussed topics like teacher and student voice in public policy, making “child-centered learning” , how to educate the “whole child”, the damage of high-stakes testing to the practice of real informative assessment, sharing ways to incorporate social justice in all subjects,  as well as sharing tricks to engage all learners in a safe, inviting, creative environment.  The three-day event ended this afternoon with a poignant and rousing keynote address by Gloria Ladson-Billings (professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of books like The Dream-Keepers:  Successful Teachers of African American Children)   Dr. Ladson-Billings framed her speech around the disturbing statistics of growing poverty, lack of health care for many families, and the income gap’s exponential growth over the past decade.  She drew a chuckle from the teacher audience when she joked about a new teacher’s complaint about having to teach special education students.  “If you are in education today,” she argued, “then you ARE a special education teacher.   You are an ESL teacher.  Our population is changing.”  She spoke to the complexity of teaching today over and over again saying that “teacher-proof” curricula and “lack of regard for teachers and their work” “can’t improve student learning.”   Her speech ended with a standing ovation.

While Dr. Ladson-Billings was praising the hard work of creative educators, down south, according to the tweetosphere, the day’s talks seemed to center on teacher evaluation including VAM models and how that data is being used in places like Tennessee and Texas.  Thanks to these models, more teachers will be punished and fired (including some simply due to random error).  VAM also represents a significant weakening of union protections for teachers.  These evaluations are being used to systematically destroy the teaching profession as schools become places of fear and compliance.  Teachers will be forced to go against all they know about child development and educating children holistically and instead focus on test prep to increase the all important test score.

At a different point in the conference, panelists from the LA Times divulged that the Times evidently had always planned on publishing teacher’s names with their test score rating.   In fact, “LAUSD's Deasy wanted LAT to "clear the way" by publishing VAM data, says LAT editor D. Smith” (Alexander Russo).  Overall, here’s a link to the day’s schedule:  It seems like an event with an agenda if I ever saw one.

Now, back to the PEN conference, my biggest critique was that a vast majority of the participants were from private schools.  And the few public schools represented were from districts like Winnetka, one of the wealthiest towns in the United States.  There was virtually no one, outside a few lone Chicago Public Schools teachers, who represented high-poverty, urban schools.  One teacher from Gage Park High School on the city’s southwest side, invited some students to attend the conference.  The students spoke of the need for equity in funding, of safety in schools and neighborhoods, about wishing to go directly to Mayor Emanuel or even Arne Duncan with their concerns, social justice, collaborating with parents and community organizations, and their desire for the best education for all.  Although the voices of public schools students like these were under-represented, their valid concerns were echoed in Ladson-Billings concluding speech.

To me, the moral of this tale of one city’s schizophrenic day of education is this:  Sure, we love progressive education practices, but only for the rich white private schools.  When it comes to the vast majority of our children in public schools, we want to standardize and sterilize learning into easy-to-compare test prep factories.  We want to sort and control public school teachers, just the way we sort and control their students.  While the rich children explore, learn, question, dream, try, experience, fail, and enjoy the process of expanding their minds in beautiful schools and small classes with no pressure of grades or homework, all the other people’s children are condemned to mindless, empty recitation of facts.  These children’s teachers are forbidden to explore progressive ways to inspire these young people, except in the spaces “between the cracks”.  While the privileged choose a school for its unique, child-centered curriculum, public school teachers secretly “interrupt” the scheduled dry testing curricula with real authentic discussion and learning while telling their students “When the Feds come, tell them we’re on page 93.” (David Stovall, Associate Professor at University of Illinois-Chicago)

Progressive education and its respect for the teacher and the learner is something every child in this country deserves.  Let's start "interrupting" the education deforms happening now to see this goal come into reality.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps the PENners might consider an #OccupyEWA action.

    I attended PEN and I learned alot, especially regarding the privilege of curriculum and The Curriculum of Privilege.

    My big take-away though was the realization those as someone said, that Progressive Ed is "ancient." It's the way we have ALWAYS learned things. Discover yourself and your world and do whatever it takes to creatively solve-problems, oh ad while you're doing it, reflectively look at WHY you're doing it, and why that way.

    Very human way of looking at education. Now add in the critical theory piece, and we start to "Repair the World" - "Tikkun Olam."