Over the last week or two when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” and Bill Gates and D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee were on Oprah, I have been reading Deborah Meier, Brenda Engel, and Beth Taylor’s wonderful new book, Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground. The book is a record of children playing during recess at Mission Hill School in Boston. A simple framework and a simple focus: What do kids do when they play? The resulting book, though, is anything but simple, for the authors demonstrate the intelligence and imagination that is tapped during play, and they use this rich record to argue for a capacious and humane understanding of the role of play in children’s lives. And this argument, in turn, is embedded in a broader one about the need to acknowledge this intellectual and imaginative richness in current education policy, a policy that seems hell-bent (my phrasing) on advancing a very different approach to education and child development.
As I read Playing for Keeps, I keep thinking about how little we see in current reform efforts that reflect Meier, Engel, and Taylor’s view of children. You won’t find much of school life in NCLB or Race to the Top; in fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a single example of a teacher thinking through a lesson or interacting with a child or a child learning a scientific concept or being engaged with a book. What we do have is a technocratic and structural approach to education, and sadly it has become the coin of the realm.
I recently read a school district’s strategic plan that could, with minor changes, have been the plan for a corporation. I saw a document from a major foundation about its school reform agenda, and there wasn’t a classroom in it, not a mention of learning as any teacher I know would define it. I attended a conference on reform and viewed endless flow charts and grids and bulleted power points — and heard lots of talk about systems of electronic technology. I started reading Playing for Keeps a few days after that conference.
I’ve run programs, so I certainly understand the need to think organizationally and to take the broad view of purpose and goals. Of course. But organizational, structural language and ways of thinking have crowded everything else out of the schoolhouse. Ironically, the organizational perspective is not even a forward-looking one. At a time when the best thinkers about organizational life are trying to incorporate an understanding of teaching and learning and the complex human interaction that enables it, education policy embraces older simplistic models.
No doubt, this is an unusually charged time for education; it is big news on many fronts. As a friend of mine said to me last night, all this attention creates many possibilities for things to get better. I take his point. I do. But what eats at me is the fact that without a deep and specific understanding of the way children learn and the skill and art of teaching and how that skill and art develop, all the structural/technical reform in the world won’t be effective. It’s like trying to cure cancer without knowledge of cell biology.
The current crop of high-profile reformers can create a good deal of activity that looks dynamic in the moment but doesn’t take hold and has the potential to create further problems. NCLB itself is a recent example. And parallel cautionary tales about foisting big ideas in the absence of on-the-ground knowledge run throughout the histories of urban renewal and third-world agricultural development programs. Education reformers should be reading that history.
Break big schools into small ones; create more charter schools; wire schools; fill them with technology; test students early and often; link those scores to teacher evaluation; hire ass-kicking principals and superintendents; infuse competition into the system; have districts and states vie for resources – none of this will work if at the center of it all if there is a superficial grasp of education itself.
One of the frustrating things about the current reform program is the way the media, with few exceptions, has either embraced it or reported it with little scrutiny. What a breath of fresh air, then, to read Nicholas Lemann’s lead “Talk of the Town” column in the Sept. 27th 2010 New Yorker.
He writes what a lot of us have been writing and saying for a long time, but it sure is nice to see it expressed so precisely in the pages of the New Yorker.