Evolving Education: Looking at Activities and the Consequences
In his chapter “Experience and Thinking” in Democracy and Education, Dewey (1916) notes that humans learn through trial and error, experientially manipulating objects that surround us to explore the world in which we live. “We analyze,” he explains, “to see just what lies between so as to bind together cause and effect, activity and consequence” (p. 80). He also notes, however, that when we are unable to discern the connection between cause and effect, “links are missing,” adding that “action which rests simply upon the trial and error method is at the mercy of circumstances; they may change so that the act performed does not operate in the way it was expected to” (p. 80). Gert Biesta (2006) in Beyond Learning suggests that rather than striving to answer questions, as educators work towards democratic education, they concentrate instead on asking questions. Rather than answering specific questions in this paper, I will ask a series of questions, allowing readers to actively engage with the activity of critically analyzing the observations I made at two Chicago area schools and question the possible consequences of the observations.
Education and its processes rely heavily upon this trial and error, cause and effect, observable fact with measurable outcomes. In an effort to transform American education in the 90’s, Diane Ravitch (2010) and a team of non-partisan analysts set out to establish a code by which the efficacy of American education could be measured. When the activity, the standards or outcomes that delineated the boundaries of transformation did not cause the desired effect, improved education, Ratvich began looking toward what may have been missing links between the required activities and successful consequences. She notes, “accountability…had become mechanistic and even antithetical to good education,” adding that testing “had become a central preoccupation in the schools” (p. 12).
What are the missing links? Can a school’s success be measured by results on a school’s report card? Can it be measured by exiting data such as students’ matriculation into and high scores obtained at higher institutions of learning? Or can it even be measured by the income graduates from a particular institution earn once the students enter the workforce?
Let us first look at the links that may be missing from schools’ report cards, unrecognized factors that may contribute overall to the measurable outcomes. J. Oakes and M. Lipton (2007) compile statistics overlooked by a school’s report card. They note that while 58 percent of America’s student population is comprised of white students, 19 percent are Latino, 16 percent are African-American, and 7 percent are “other” (p. 6). They add that with 33 million immigrants in America today, 10 million students (one in five) “speak a language other than English at home” (p. 7). Additionally, they note that while 10 percent of the white children live in poverty, in 2008, “34 percent of African American children and 30 percent of Latino children” were statistically listed among the impoverished (p. 13). They add “low-income students perform at a lower level than more economically advantaged students, and Latino and African American students do worse than white and Asian students” (p. 23). Moreover, students “with limited English score less well than those who are proficient,” and in 2001, “only 50 percent of African American students, 51 percent of Native American students, and 53 percent of Latino students graduated from high school” (p. 23, 24). They add that among high school graduates in 2003, Latinos were less likely to have completed some college than any other group of students. Although they may be more likely to finish high school than African American students, Latino students are less likely to continue their education beyond the high school level (p. 25).
How do these statistics color a school’s report card? If we look toward the controversial decision made by the Chicago Public School Board affecting 17 schools on February 22, 2012, we can see how Ratvitch’s criticism of accountability comes to life. Seven schools were closed, and ten were slated for turn-around within the next few years (Harrington, 2012). Less than a week later, CPS announced that six local schools would be restructured, joining forces with corporations and the STEM program to offer six-year associate degrees to students who complete the program (Spielman, 2012). These targeted schools’ report cards, regardless of the mitigating factors delineated by Oakes and Lipton that may have been at play, were less than satisfactory, and the Board and corporations were quick to respond, while other schools in the area watch and tremble.
K-8 Drummond Montessori needn’t worry. According to the Illinois Interactive Report Card, in 2011, 91 percent of the Drummond students meet or exceed Standards. Telpochcalli students, however, fall short of their mark, with only 59 percent of the students meeting or exceeding educational standards. Each school spends $7,946 on instructional costs and $13,078 on institutional costs per student. Bottom line, then, indicates that the schools are equally funded and should be expected to perform equally. What are not considered in each school’s evaluation, however, are the elements Oakes and Lipton discuss. Twenty-nine percent of Drummond students are minority and only 39.6 percent of them are “low income,” whereas Telpochcalli students are drawn from 98 percent minority population with 96 percent categorized as “low income.” Statistically, students at Telpochcalli drive home the point Oakes and Lipton make: students of color and lower income historically perform poorly, and because of their poor performance, they are at risk of being targeted by CPS Board for closure or takeover.
Karen Lewis, Chicago Teacher’s Union President, argues that rather than looking at school report cards, parent voices should be heard when the Board makes their decisions. On December 3, 2011, she addressed the recently published “hit list” released by CPS, which included the schools identified for potential closure. “If you are going to close a school,” Lewis notes, “then you need to go to that community and sit there and listen to the people as opposed to reviewing the hearing officer’s recommendations” (Labor Beat). If the board refuses to do that, perhaps they should step into the schools themselves.
The contrast between the schools is marked, exposing more than statistics, report cards or neighborhoods could ever reveal. Drummond students are expected from three years old on to be responsible for their own decisions, managing their time, and structuring their learning with hands-on-manipulatives that follow them throughout their education, tools designed to teach both simple concepts and later used for advanced lessons in physics and mathematics. They set goals and are expected to work within those boundaries, receiving approval from facilitators. While there (April 19, 2012), I noted interaction between students is limited, and classrooms are marked by a silence Assistant-principal Sonia Lopez claims is peer enforced, though I often heard teachers whisper “Shhh…” when students spoke too loudly with one another.
At Telpochcalli (March 29, 2012), in each of the two learning situations I observed, students worked in pairs or small groups, creating a sense of communal support. Collaboration was the key component in the myth-writing class in which older students huddled around laptops composing myths. A sense of community was also nurtured in the shared reading time during which older sixth graders congregated around an iPad with third graders, an inter-age interaction I did not see at Drummond.
Art, Dewey (1934) notes, “celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reinforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what now is” (p. 17). Art pictorially represents current interpretation of past events and predicts the direction in which a civilization may go in the future. Student-produced art lines the hallways of Telpochcalli, and art supplies are found in every nook and cranny. The most recent mural celebrates a past that has influenced the majority of its Hispanic students and projects what they envision for their future; a narrative beginning with early creation myths, rise of Central American Empires, conquest by European settlers, and how the students now have assimilated science and math into their own lives. It doesn’t overlook the oppressive forces both within their own tradition (human sacrifice is clearly depicted in the mural) and within the more recent past (Pancho Villa is depicted standing defiantly next to his own Wanted poster). Nor does it unnecessarily romanticize its history. Instead, the art looks toward the future, culminating in an observatory placed on top of a hill as a Mayan Temple once was.
Drummond halls, rather than being lined with art celebrating their culture, were lined with neatly computer-generated signs encouraging peace, the overall theme of Montessori schools or encouraging political involvement in a number of issues. The art room was as neat and tidy as the other classrooms, with each object in its designated place. There, the laminated posters were as telling as the computer-generated ones that lined the hallway. In Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education, Susan Cahan and Zoya Kocur (2010) are critical of traditional multiculturalism that tends “to subsume art from every culture and context under narrow formal or technical concerns, which are themselves derived from European modernist aesthetic frameworks” (p. 7). They add that the “superficiality” of this approach “is apparent to students, who rightly question why they should care about issues that appear to be fabricated simply for the purpose of classroom study” (p. 7). Although artifacts from nearly every culture may be found scattered throughout Drummond, the laminated poster in the art room depicts art history from a western civilization perspective, an attitude that is evident in the single student-generated work in the Drummond hallway. It was a seemingly playful depiction of cats, possibly an illustration drawn from one of the many books that could have been found prominently displayed in a classroom. Rather than being allotted the permanence of the student-generated murals that line Telpochcalli, it was a slab of butcher paper affixed to the wall; a temporary ornament to the otherwise pristine walls. On it were two cats, painted in livid, primarily contrasting dark and light colors, and between them, in the shadows, lurked a single word: “Warrior.”
The tale of conquest, in one form or another, whether through wars or overlooked “missing links” of cause and effect, historically has always subtly remained a tangible part of education. Will this trend continue? Alas, the sign outside Drummond may say it all: “Funding Our Future.”
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