Burritos, Boxes, and Buckets–A Discussion of Hope and Despair

By miller727@icloud.com January 2, 2016 Uncategorized 3 Comments

In part one of this series, I shared some general thoughts about the importance of meaningful conversation relative to public education in Oklahoma. The impetus for these posts was a recent article in the Atlantic Magazine which asked the straightforward question: “Can Schools Be Fixed?

To collect responses for this query, the reporters reached out to some of the leading scholars of, experts on, and advocates for K-12 education, and asked them what aspects of schools, the teaching profession, or education policy are giving them cause for hope and despair.

I agreed with many of the opinions shared in the article, partially agreed with some, and totally disagreed with others. Yet, I strongly believe this type of rhetorical exercise is useful in stimulating the kind of conversations we need to have as we revisit the issue of school reform in the post-NCLB era.

Several days ago, this hope/despair prompt was shared with my Oklahoma blogger-in-arms as a challenge.

We have done this several times before, including Jason James’s If You Were King/Queen of Oklahoma Education Twitter challenge in March; a “Why We Teach” challenge from Mindy Dennison in June, and a national challenge from Iowa blogger Scott McLeod titled, ‘Things We Have to Stop Pretending,” which elicited an amazing 136 individual blog responses last April.

For this challenge, Rick Cobb was first out of the box with his summary of the article along with a call to view the current challenges as opportunities and make 2016 a “statement year for #oklaed.” I agree!

Meghan Loyd and Mindy Dennison followed with two heartfelt submissions emphasizing the importance of hopeful thinking in education.

In keeping with the preference for hope over despair, Mindy flipped the letters of DESPAIR to create the word PRAISED instead. Genius!

Well, just for fun, I am going to wrap my hopeful, wistful narrative into a one big, moldy tortilla shell of despair. With some cheese on top. Good visual, huh?

You might take this opportunity to grab a drink to wash it down. What I am about to write may be hard to swallow for some readers.

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know that I have some rather strong opinions about many of the test-based reforms implemented over the past 15 years. I am also extremely frustrated by the multitude of excuses and seeming lack of urgency on the part of our state legislators to adequately fund our public schools.

However, the strongest source of my frustration is how these factors serve as impediments to the real changes that need to happen in public schools. In many ways, I feel like we are trapped in a box. Despair!

The floor and sides of this metaphorical box are represented by various laws, mandates, and directives. Some of these are necessary to establish clear and consistent expectations for school districts and to provide a reasonable level of accountability to our taxpayers and communities.

In this way, I would argue that a “box” of some kind is necessary for the orderly and efficient exercise of public education in our state. At the same time, there are parts of this box which are unnecessary, even contrived. Some of these limits were created and defined by people outside of education and for some strange reason, the vast majority of us follow along and don’t even attempt to push our way out.

By far, the most confining element of life in the box is the disproportionate emphasis on standardized testing. Despair!

Unfortunately, even with the repeal of many parts of NCLB, the reliance on annual testing in two narrow disciplines in selected grades remains intact. The results of these tests will continue to be used to make inaccurate judgments and influential decisions about students, teachers, and schools. Deep despair!

To carry the metaphor out to absurdity, with NCLB, the tests were the packing tape that kept the box together. With ESSA, the packing tape is now reinforced by several sturdy strips of duct tape, some Gorilla glue, and a few dozen industrial strength staples.

In short, nothing short of parent action (Hope!) will prevent us from being permanently enclosed in this box of artificial accountability.

I don’t want to use space now to explain in detail why standardized tests measure what matters least. For now, I want only to make the simpler — and, once again, I think, indisputable — point that anyone who regards high or rising test scores as good news has an obligation to show that the tests themselves are good.

If a test result can’t be convincingly shown to be both valid and meaningful, then whatever we did to achieve that result — say, revised standards, a new curriculum or instructional strategy — may well have no merit whatsoever.

It may even prove to be destructive when assessed by better criteria. Indeed, a school or district might be getting worse even as its test scores rise. Because if a school’s test scores increase, it may be because they have eliminated arts and music and recess so that students have extra time to complete worksheets and other test-prep activities.

Think about this issue in context of the frequently changing standards and assessments we have endured over the past half-dozen years in Oklahoma—from PASS to CCSS to OAS, back to PASS, and then to the “new and improved” OAS.

Yet, over this same period of time, we have continued to hold children accountable for their performance on tests based on assurances from our state department that they are, in fact, valid and accurate measures of student achievement. And every year, we tell one in five third-graders they are unsatisfactory and have denied hundreds of high school students a diploma because they didn’t pass a single EOI test.

This fills far too many students with despair and causes them to lose hope and confidence in their value as human beings. But I have written extensively about testing before.

Here’s the part that might make some readers uneasy.

Regrettably, some in our profession view this box as comfortable. It keeps things safe, orderly, and predictable. In fact, some work to reinforce the box with their own instructional traditions, institutional constraints, and limitations imposed by our own poorly conceived policies. Despair!

Even though we are compelled to stay in the box on issues we cannot control, schools and teachers still have significant latitude to evaluate and reform our own established practices. I am speaking of things like grading and homework policies, instructional strategies, technology usage, classroom management techniques, and methods to engage and inspire students in meaningful learning.

Some educators seek to escape out-of-date paradigms relative to teaching and learning, but are pulled back into the box, similar to the crab in a bucket metaphor. (Sorry, I’m mixing metaphors on you again!)

Fishermen learned many years ago that to keep a crab from escaping out of the bucket, you don’t need a lid. You simply need a second crab in the bucket who will pull the other one down anytime it gets too close to getting out.

Some are addicted to the comfort of the box and terrified by the unknown. And this phenomena is not usually the fault of the people. Rather, it is sometimes the system and institutional culture which keeps people locked into inefficient and unsuccessful habits.

By now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Gee, Rob, when are we going to get to the meaty, hopeful part of your burrito/box/bucket metaphor?”

Right now.

Here is my hope.

I believe a growing number of educators have grown weary of permanent confinement in the box. Working in this box has become unfulfilling and contrary to what we know is best and right for the kids we teach and lead.

Many teachers I know are fed up because parts of the box interfere with their ability to be creative and innovate. They have new ideas, embrace the potential of technology, and recognize the brilliance in every child. They are unafraid to go against the grain and do things differently. Hope!

Instead of pulling others back into the bucket, they are combining their skills and passion to lift each other up. They are not afraid of the unknown and instead relish the opportunity to stretch themselves, make mistakes, and question the status quo. Hope!

Because of their attitude and infectious enthusiasm, they also inspire children to reach levels beyond where they thought they could go. They’re focused on creating learners, not just better test takers. They make kids feel safe, valued, and respected in spite of the overemphasis on testing and other absurdities of the system. They are able to “think themselves” into the hearts and minds of their students and do whatever is necessary to build relationships and foster success with each child. Hope!

This growing movement of these types of teachers and school leaders in our state in reaching a critical mass. If you doubt this, check in for a Sunday night #oklaed Twitter chat. It is like a weekly pep rally where the passion and commitment of hundreds of Oklahoma is on full display. Hope!

Please understand, I also recognize that a big strength of our educational system is traditional, high quality instruction delivered by teachers dedicated to their schools and profession. We have many fantastic educators who are masters at their craft and willing mentors for younger educators. Not every should strive to be Dave Burgess and Teach Like a Pirate every day of the week.

At the same time, we should also celebrate the uniqueness in each of us and be willing to allow others to climb to the top of the bucket without pulling them back based solely on our perception of how things should be done. Hope!

Amazing things are happening in Oklahoma. They happen every day in thousands of classrooms, in the course of hundreds of thousands of individual interactions between educators and children. I have the good fortune of being able to observe this on a daily basis.

And this gives me a level of hopefulness that I cannot fully articulate with words.

Whether we’re talking burritos, boxes, or buckets, HOPE will always be encapsulated by the quality of the product inside.

There will always be cause for despair in public education, but I remain confident that hope, and courage, and love will always prevail in the long run.

Image Credit: http://www.alittleraeofhope.org/hope-prevails/

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