Monday, December 2, 2013

For Some Folks, Life Is a Hill - NYTimes.com

An unfulfilling piece from Charles Blow that tries to find a medium between the politics of blame and the notion of resilient self-upliftment.  I'm reading Sasha Abramsky's, "The American Way of Poverty" right now, though - and I think Blow (and others) continue to underestimate the barriers that poverty presents to social and economic achievement.  Poverty is more like a treacherous mountain range.  A hill wouldn't be that bad....

For Some Folks, Life Is a Hill - NYTimes.com

Thursday, November 28, 2013

I don't know either!

Man, do I have my hands full! 

I make my living as a school change consultant, and I am expected to have answers – but truthfully, I often find myself with more questions than anything else.  Who am I kidding?  I have some outright doubts!  Maybe I shouldn’t be admitting that, but it’s true.  I’m battling the doubts that there is hope for American public education.  God help me, but I’m beginning to think of some of these issues as having a feel of intractability.   I’m actually wondering if we aren’t witnessing the demise of public education as we know it.

Still, I have to make my living.  And I am a person of integrity (at least I try to be) which means that I need to be able to believe in what I am saying to the districts who retain my services.  My integrity requires that I believe in my efforts and the possibility of their being successful.  And as much (or more) than my knowledge of education, my enthusiasm/diligence/effort is the service which my clients come to value the most.

But that is becoming ever more difficult.

Case in point: I have a meeting with a new district this week a couple of time zones away.  The project calls for me and my team to coach a network of school leaders and also train a group of teachers in strategies for culturally responsive classroom management.

And we all want the same thing… I think.  Well, I know what they want. 

What we all want is a system for reforming schools that is clear and unequivocal.  I guess it’s fair to say we all want that.  But they want a checklist.  They want my recipe for fixing “bad” kids and poor performing schools.  They want the system with all its checklists and techniques to improve all that has resisted improvement – but I’m increasingly convinced that such a system does not exist. 

Rather I think our focus must be on putting smart people in situations where they can use their best professional judgment to meet whatever teaching and learning challenges present themselves.  To support that, we need to install processes for deliberate reflection the intentional building of awareness. 

So on Tuesday, I need to convince this district that I have the answers they want – so they’ll sign the contract – but I also need to convey that they are unwise to expect that any consultant has the magic recipe for their success.  I need them to know that my capacity to be successful in their district is a function of our ability to work together to co-construct the change initiatives that will work given the specific context for this work.

The one thing I feel most certain of is that if we have any chance to turn anything around it will only be because the district itself is fully invested in the change effort.  Change is not something that can be done to you.  This is not technical work.  It is deeply spiritual and profoundly human.  While I doubt very much that there are perfect strategies, I suspect there is something like a perfect process.  And by that I mean something that is inclusive, dynamic, reflective, and engaging.

Every strategy, every intervention, every new reform has gaping unknowns – thus making it impossible to be able to predict with certainty the prospect of success.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t continue to explore well-informed innovations in practice and policy that are intended to improve school performance outcomes.  It just means that these innovations can never be guaranteed to be infallible in the way that grandstanding “reformer-types” claim.

When it comes down to it, I am a facilitator and advisor to school leaders and teachers in a process that we must acknowledge – heck, embrace – to be difficult to predict and entirely reliant on the fallibilities of human beings.  The work of schools is anything but predictable because it is shaped by myriad circumstances, many of which are uncontrollable and even accidental.  To say specifically how even one child will behave in any singular teaching experience requires a complete understanding of the world and all its particulars – in other words, omniscience.

I advocate for Culturally Responsive Education as a pedagogy for leveraging the known and unknown for the purposes of fully engaging the humanity of students in ways that are most powerful for their learning.  But CRE is no foolproof method.  In fact, it is hard to even call it a method per se.  It is better to think of it as an operating system than a software package.  It is the Microsoft Windows of pedagogy rather than Office Suite.  Once the operating system is in place, then we can write all the programs that we want, and we can design them so that they interface well with the hardware and other software.  But we must always update the OS.  It is never fully developed.  It is always a work in progress.

This thing is infinitely more complicated than most people want it to be.  There are no easy answers to the difficulties that face American education.  But there are lots and lots of questions.