So I’m still happy that in a few weeks Barack Obama will become president, but I have to admit I’m not as happy today as I was yesterday. I was hoping for the bold stroke, the real vision when it came to choosing a Secretary of Education, but alas, it doesn’t appear that’s what happened. And to be honest, I was really amazed at the tenor of the debate in the weeks leading up to the choice yesterday of Arne Duncan and the lack of any substantive discussion of change. We can wait and see if anything truly progressive comes out of this selection in terms of standardized tests, teacher accountability and equality of access among the many other things challenging our kids’s education right now, but looking at the track record, I’m skeptical.
It may just be that Obama looked at the landscape and sensed the time wasn’t right for a change agenda in education. Or perhaps, as Gary Stager would suggest, he doesn’t have a broad vision for how to educate students more effectively and compellingly than what we’ve already got. Or maybe it’s a combination of both (and more.) But I have to say, between his practical embrace of technology, the fact that he has two school age kids, and a mantra for change, I was primed for something great.
And here is the thing: I am so tired of waiting for something, at this point almost anything to meaningfully change in our collective story of education. I look at my own kids every day and grow more and more frustrated with their education, one that is not unlike millions of other kids in this country and one that is no doubt degrees better than millions more. And the world as it is is not helping out either. Huge budget cuts are looming almost everywhere you look. In our state, budgets will no doubt fail in April, and more cuts will ensue. And rest assured, there will be no bailout for education.
But more than anything, why this choice depresses me so was articulated in an Ira Socol post from a couple of days ago that just resonated deeply with what I’ve been witnessing the last few years: we generally seem to have lost our imagination when we think about education. And to me, that’s just such a huge irony right now. In the twenty-five years since I entered public schools as a teacher there has never been a time with so much reason to dream, to imagine the possibilities. One of the strongest pulls of this network is that we get to see snippets of what’s possible in classrooms from around the world, places where kids are truly excited about learning, where they are empowered by technology and vision to do things differently. The world is literally a few mouse clicks or phone taps away, people, information, shared knowledge, tools…learning. The passion of these teachers and students is palpable. And this is not to suggest, btw, that there aren’t many of those experiences happening in classrooms offline, without technology. But the scope and scale of what we could do right now are, I think, unprecedented.
But my problem, our problem, is that this is not reality. It’s not reality for 90% of teachers in classrooms (if not more.) As Socol says:
But in schools, we go backwards. We even declare it, saying, we’re going “back”wards “to basics.” When we let a few new things trickle in, we control them so fiercely that they change almost nothing. Rather than tearing down classroom walls our kids now spend more time in school and even take fewer field trips. Rather than alternative evaluations we now have standardized tests for all ages. Rather than project-based learning we now have Core Curriculum. Rather than social justice we have “zero tolerance.” And rather than the freedom of mobiles in the classroom we have the coercive control of clickers. Rather than the freedom of the internet we have filters and blocks. Rather than the interaction of messaging and blogs and Twitter and Skype we have rules against these technologies. Rather than pushing past Wikipedia and print-based knowledge design, we don’t even allow Wikipedia in so that we can discover its limits. Rather than computers allowing for individualization, we “lock them down.”
And with all of that, is it any wonder that we’ve stopped dreaming of what can be? Of all the teachers I’ve had the privilege of speaking and working with in the last few years, I doubt that many of them can even now really dream of a different way, one that celebrates learning and connections and independence in the ways that many of those networked classrooms we see. They might be able to visualize it, but I don’t think many see it as a potential reality in their classrooms, in their schools. There are too many reasons why it can’t happen. Too many obstacles. Too little vision. (I would be happy to be proven wrong, btw.)
And that’s why when I heard the Duncan choice, I drifted back to this, to what Ira Socol blogged, to what I would have loved for Obama to read and take to heart:
It is time to stop hiding and start dreaming. It is time to reject what we are doing now: hell, that’s easy, we know it does not work. And it is time to reject all the “tinkering around the edges” which wastes our energy and accomplishes nothing. We have to say no to everything that is not sufficiently transformative, which does not change what education is, and put all of our energies into ideas which will transform.
This appointment does not fit that bill, unfortunately. And in a moment when we really, really, really could have used some vision for transformative change, I don’t think we got it.
So, we’ll have to continue changing one parent at a time, one teacher at a time, one classroom at a time, one school at a time, connecting the good works and finding a wider and wider audience for the conversation. And we have to continue to create that compelling new reality of what’s possible, post by post, tweet by tweet. And, we have to continue to dream it.
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