Friday, December 9, 2011

Dream Schools

I want a dream lover
So I won't have to dream alone.
-- Bobby Darin, "Dream Lover"

TeacHer asked, in a recent comment:

I've been wondering about this recently: if you were to design the perfect school, how would it look? What about the perfect teacher?

Thanks for the question, TeacHer!

My dream school would combine the best of the progressive and traditional philosophies.  From the best of the progressives, I would take an interest in the child as a complete human being, with physical and emotional needs as well as academic ones, and the goal of developing an independent thinker, with a continuing interest in learning.  From the best of the traditionalists, I would take a true understanding and appreciation of content knowledge, including technical content like math and science, and a respect for linear, well-designed curricula.

So, with the progressives, I would throw out authoritarian classroom-management systems like PBIS and WBT, but with the traditionalists, I would throw out bad curricula like fuzzy math, non-phonics reading instruction, and meta-meta-meta "comprehension" questions that baffle and alienate small children.

My dream elementary school would assign no homework, or optional homework, and never restrict recess as a punishment, or for any reason.  Teachers and administrators would work towards a genuine partnership with parents, not the current Jeeves-and-Wooster farce that passes for "partnership".

My dream teacher would be well-educated and genuinely interested in learning, as well as humane and caring (that's a surprisingly difficult combo to find!).  She would be open to new ideas, and not ideologically wedded to certain techniques (and yes, I understand that a lot of important classroom decisions aren't under the teacher's control any more.)

And here's an impossible dream for you:  just once, I would like to read a newsletter written by a teacher with no grammatical errors. 

Readers, what would your dream school look like?  How about your dream teacher?


  1. And here's an impossible dream for you: just once, I would like to read a newsletter written by a teacher with no grammatical errors.

    lol...and I'm not laughing at teachers, but with them


  2. Hi, FedUpMom. This is a great topic to dream about! I like your ideas, especially the meditations on what you would take from educational progressives versus traditionalists. We disliked Everyday Math in our household, but my real pet peeve was "social studies." I saw teachers who managed to introduce some interesting material under that rubric, but it tended to come in "units" that seemed disconnected from any broader coherent plan about the overall trajectory of the curriculum.

  3. I very much agree with pretty much every point you've made here.

    But the reason our vision can't come true is because of all the very real problems that students bring to school with them. My students come to school hungry, neglected, and in some cases, abused. The vision of a school that is intellectually productive while at the same time not being downright repressive (oh, the RULES!) assumes that students come to school CARING about learning - because all their other physical and emotional needs are being met - and that they have the basic ability get along with one another and with staff.

    Many of the students who attend my school attend for reasons that have nothing to do with education. Some come just to eat, some to sell drugs, some to get away from abusive parents. The needs of these students really should be addressed by social workers and psychologists, but they have to attend classes. Thus, teachers and administrators have to create a whole network of repressive systems to deal with the behavior problems these students cause and, to keep teachers from completely giving up because of the difficult clientele, standardized tests have to be instituted which rob ALL students of intellectual curiosity and access to teachers' creativity. And removing the students who cause the problems isn't an option because all students in our country are entitled to a free public education.

    In other words, the problems that exist in our schools are symptomatic of the many other problems in society that are extremely difficult to fix. It's just as frustrating for the teachers as it is for the parents.

  4. TeacHer, the problems of poverty are very real, and I don't pretend to have the answers. Two blogs I link to that address some of the issues you bring up are here:

    An Urban Teacher's Education

    Blogging From Democracy's Edge

    The real mystery is why public schools in excellent districts are so crummy. Chris at A Blog About School describes repressive, authoritarian classroom management in a district full of well-behaved, middle-class kids. My own district is a fabled "good district", packed with the children of educated, affluent parents, but the education provided by our schools is middling at best. You can't blame the problems of the District of Upper Tax Bracket on poverty.

  5. Doris, ugh, "social studies". I think that'll be another blog post. It seems to be an excuse for vague, woolly, "creative" projects instead of learning history.

  6. Suburban Chicken FarmerDecember 9, 2011 at 2:50 PM

    First, any prospective teacher would be hooked up to a lie detector and asked this question, "Do you like children?"

    Next, most of what I'd like seems so nostalgic- but here goes,
    I'd like all elementary schools to have
    art at least twice a week,
    music in various forms once a week.
    Visit to the school library once a week.

    I'd like the first few weeks of school to be focused on developing relationships between teacher and student.
    I'd like room within the school year for a teacher to have special projects or interests- and no curriculum, assessments or tests to get in the way of that. For instance, my fifth grader's teacher has a special interest in Cesar Chavez. Her mother, who died when the teacher was a very young girl, participated in many marches with Chavez etc. The teacher got to know about her mom's activism through family members retelling the stories. Really touching, meaningful stuff, right? But the teacher didn't not have time, even within social studies, to really delve into her special knowledge and unique experience. So my kid, and all the other kids missed out on what might be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

    I'd like the school budget to cover the costs for art class, not the teachers having to constantly fund so much- because it's just basically unfair but also has the potential to cause teacher resentment towards the kids when they destroy supplies etc.

    This one might sound weird to some of you,
    I'd like to have a list from the school for classroom materials my kids need. (As a parent in a low SES school, it really irks me to hear how the school is providing "free" education- like I'm getting a handout.)

  7. Suburban Chicken FarmerDecember 9, 2011 at 3:13 PM

    I'd like people to drop the pernicious attitude that generally poor children have neither intellectual curiosity nor capacity.

  8. I second SCF's last comment in particular. I don't think it's right to blame what's wrong with schools on the "problem kids." Yeah, sure, some kids pose more challenges than others, and some pose a lot. But, in a public school at least, those are some of the people the school is supposed to serve. Serving them has to entail meeting them where they are, and not just punishing them for their failure to be like the kids who have fewer issues. I also think that doing whatever it takes to raise those kids' standardized test scores is a very impoverished way to think about what is good for them educationally, especially if it kills their curiosity, makes them see learning as a chore, or makes them see themselves as pawns in someone else's project instead of active participants with something to contribute.

    Much of what TeacHer is describing sounds like frustration with the fact that we can't force all kids, against their will, to learn exactly what we want them to learn. But so it is. What's the right response to those kids? More and more force?

  9. I actually wasn't referring only to poor children, that was FedUp Mom's interpretation of what I was saying. There are plenty of middle class children who don't want to learn or who don't have the "capacity" (whatever that is supposed to mean), and there are plenty of kids who aren't "bad" but who just don't like school, have a hard time dealing with all of the rigidity, and act out as result. Accordingly, there are plenty of poor kids who are very intellectually engaged and very driven to succeed. Which isn't to say that poverty doesn't matter when it comes to educational outcomes - it does - but that wasn't germane to the point that I was trying to make this time.

    The point that I was trying to make is that public schools have to cope with the PUBLIC and all of the good and bad that the public (especially the still socially immature public) bring to the table. Unfortunately, the solution that public schools have come up with is stripping away critical thinking activities from students and autonomy from teachers to make sure the students are getting ready for some standardized measure of success that will come at the end of the year for ALL students.

    This, obviously, is not the solution. But when the needs of students are so incredibly varied and budgets are too tight to hire enough qualified teachers to keep classes small enough so that teachers can actually give kids the time and attention they need, I'm not sure what the solution is.

  10. Sorry, TeacHer, I hear what you're saying. As a description of how the schools are thinking, I'm sure there's a lot of truth to what you're saying. It's just frustrating to watch their response.

  11. I would love a school with no grade levels. You are in the class where your ability takes you. This is fluid and kids can move between levels. The level you are in one subject might be different than another subject. So from 9-10am the entire school does math.....with every classroom at different levels and you go where you are and move up thru the levels as quickly or slowly as you need to. Speeding through....that's fine.....need extra help.....that's fine too! No one gets left behind or is forced to stay behind while others catch up!

    No state testing which would lead to no state testing practice tests!!!!

  12. Have a heart about the social studies curriculum! It can encompass everything that ever happened in any part of the world; making it "linear" is almost impossible. Units or similar arrangements can at least teach such skills as organization, note-taking, critical thinking, etc., as well as certain geographical and historical information. The major goal should be to develop responsible, knowledgeable, thinking citizens of this country and the world.

    Fed Up Mom's Mom

  13. Hi, Fed Up Mom's Mom. I don't think my comment about social studies was heartless--and I didn't say that the problem is that it isn't "linear." My thoughts are more in line with those of Fed Up Mom's Mom's Daughter (:-)): I think that at least some of the frankly limited time they use in social studies would be better spent on actually introducing the study of history.

    In our district, for example, some of the social studies time is given over to Junior Achievement, where local business people (to the best I can tell) are invited to come in and talk with the children for several weeks in a row. If the school is going to give over that much time to people in the community, I don't see why it should be restricted to this one narrow group (usually bankers, maybe?).

    What else? I think your invocation of "critical thinking" as a goal is actually precisely the sort of thing I find to be a problem. And I'm an English professor! Yes, we English profs. talk all the time about how we teach "critical thinking" this, that, and the other. And I believe we do. And I believe that good elementary and secondary school teachers do as well. But if the teacher only has as a goal the teaching of "critical thinking," or the teaching of "geography," then a given child can end up being taught overlapping "units" several years in a row while missing out on very important areas of study because no individual teacher happens to decide to cover it.

    Similarly, I disagree strongly about the idea that it doesn't matter what subject matter gets covered because the goal is to teach abstract "skills" such as note-taking, organization, etc. Basically, I'm disillusioned with the idea that the goal of teaching--at any level--is to teach "skills." I think that these kinds of arguments start at some point to function as a justification for the refusal to do the very hard work of talking together to decide what content we think children should be studying in school. That's where we'll have some productive conversations--because that's when we can really hash out our different values: who should control what children study--children, teachers, parents, the state government, textbook publishers, etc.

  14. By the way:

    I do, though, take Suburban Chicken Farmer's point that teachers at all levels also need space to teach their passions. That's a key reason why a prescripted curriculum simply doesn't work. I tried that myself one time--teaching from lectures originally prepared by a colleague. Total disaster.

    One of my kids had a teacher who had a strong interest in Korea, and she taught several "units" on Asia. It was clear that the teacher was passionate about this topic, and so I'm glad my (Asian-born) child was exposed, but it's also the case that at the time my child had never been formally taught much in school about the countries on any other continent--and so I'd like to hear the justification for why she should know how to find Seoul on a map before she's been taught how to find, say, London.

    Again, my own teaching specialties have not been focused around the traditional literary canon. I don't think I'm some sort of cultural reactionary. But the specific content of what is studied matters.

    Wennix: Paradoxically, perhaps (?), I agree about letting go of grade levels. My kids now are in a group home school program that serves K-8 (mostly K-6, but sometimes kids stay on). They can work at their own pace, older kids can work with younger ones, they group off in different ways for different subjects, etc. It's heaven compared to rigid public school models.

  15. Wow, so much going on!

    @TeacHer, I thought you were talking about poverty because you mentioned kids dealing with hunger and neglect. I don't think we have much of that here in Upper Tax Bracket. But whatever population we're talking about, the fact remains that the public school gets the kids it gets. What's the best way to teach them?

    Like Chris, I'm tired of this issue because it's used as an excuse so often. In any case, in my district the population of kids is close to ideal, and the school is still underperforming.

  16. @Wennix, I am very interested in ability grouping. The public schools are terrified of it because of historic problems with tracking, but I think if it was done well it would be a huge improvement. For instance, if my younger daughter could be put in a remedial class that would do intensive basic reading and math for a year, getting her up to speed by next year, I'd be all for it.

    I think the key is flexibility, so we don't stick kids on a lower track and just leave them there forever. Remediation should be intensive and as brief as possible. The goal should be to move kids on to the regular classes.

  17. @Mom (Hi, Mom!) and Doris: I'm heavily pro-content these days. It's not that I'm against teaching critical thinking, it's just that when teachers see "teaching critical thinking" as their goal, they wind up with what Diane Ravitch calls the "contentless curriculum."

    I see contentless curriculum everywhere -- from watered-down constructivist math to vague and woolly social studies projects (Older Daughter is, as we speak, making a poster on the subject of advertising for her social studies class.)

    Sure, critical thinking is important, but it's best approached in the context of learning something that's worth thinking critically about.

    Similarly, study skills are best learned in the context of content that is worth studying. This is a well-known problem for gifted kids, who can get right through high school with no study skills at all (this was true for me.)

  18. "My students come to school hungry, neglected, and in some cases, abused..." I can see why the conclusion was reached that you were talking about low income children. At my daughter's middle school, many students arrived at school hungry. But not because there was no food in the cupboard but because school started so darn early, the children had no time to eat breakfast. The only way my 12 year old could scarf down some food is if I drove her myself. One year of that 7:23 am start time was enough for me, we ditched it for homeschool.

    As for neglect, the Washington Post did an excellent review of a book that same year. I wish I had bought it and could remember you the title. The author detailed a large problem I have seen but something no one ever talks about. The neglect of children from what you would consider "good" homes.

    On the surface, they appear to have everything. They come to school with nice clothes, gadgets, shiny new school supplies. And we aren't necessarily talking about the upper middle class. These are your suburban middle class kids. The reasons are more complex than both parents working. I'm a feminist so you aren't going to see me deride the wave of women entering the work force when I did.

    But these kids are neglected. It's benign neglect. In many ways. A lot of these parents don't mind the early high school start times, homework overload. They don't seem to be engaged with their kids. These parents who fussed over them as children and toddlers would be hard pressed to name their son's teacher or whether their child was taking biology or chemistry in 9th grade.

    That said, the last thing I want to do here is disparage parents. Especially since the ones commenting here are fully involved.

    But...I still don't think you were talking about those kids. I think the conclusion we jumped to is spot on. We often hear from teachers who blame dysfunctional schools on disengaged families and children. We heard it on StopHomework. Teachers defended homework overload by telling us those kids would probably not pick up a book unless forced.

    But what about a school I'm about to link you to? My daughter attended a selective magnet. It pulled together the best and brightest from five counties and a few more cities. The homework was out of control. These are kids who'd be reading and going to museums and imagining and pursuing their passions anyway. So the argument doesn't hold that schools have no choice because the kids and parents are loser slackers. And as FedUp rightly points out, your reasoning does not justify why so many schools in very high performing districts are rather crappy.

    Take a look at this school below. It was a jewel. I know people who graduated from there and Stuyvesant and it was the best years of their lives. This principal couldn't ruin it any better if she tried.

    A friend defended this piece when I posted it on Facebook, saying, but look, she promotes inquiry, sharp writing and analysis! Yes, she does. But overall, she is browbeating the kids and I can only imagine the mountain of homework they are buried under. All no doubt, to lift her ranking from the abysmal 58.

  19. Didn't link. Please cut and paste and it'll come up.

  20. I agree that trying to teach critical thinking skills in the absence of real content is ridiculous. But determining what content to teach can end up being a real political football – maybe that’s why it often ends up seeming so drab. I’ve often thought that my kids would learn more just from reading the newspaper, and having a conversation with an adult about it, than they do from the social studies “units.” It would certainly provide many opportunities to model critical thinking, if a teacher was so inclined.

  21. Who ever said I proposed content-less social studies curricula? I only posit that choosing from the wealth of material is difficult. Some curricular problems I've observed: too many iterations of American colonial history; history courses never "getting through" the material (i.e., never reaching the mid-twentieth century); senseless and passion-less isolated information; efforts at including South America, Russia and Asia very spottily.
    Political pressure does have an effect. The influence of Texas policies on textbooks is notorious. And then there's local pressure too, and state legislatures ...
    It's a wonder that our kids learn anything at all in social studies, and they don't learn much. (Look at the figures on how many know the 3 branches of government, etc.)

    -- Fed Up Mom's Mom

  22. Right, I'm sure you're not in favor of content-less social studies. The problem is that, in real life, when you encourage teachers to promote "critical thinking", you wind up with no particular content. It doesn't have to be that way, but somehow that's how it always turns out.

    "too many iterations of American colonial history" -- absolutely right. Older Daughter was complaining at the beginning of this year that she's sick and tired of the American Revolution.

  23. I'm a social studies teacher and I certainly don't understand the whole "don't worry about content, just worry about teaching skills" philosophy. I understand the idea that skills we tend to carry with us while content fades ("you can always look up facts!") but why not teach skills WITH content? Right now I'm working with my ninth graders (government students) on writing good thesis statements. I'm not going to have the kids write thesis statements about any old topic in government class - they're writing them about the expanding power of the chief executive.

    See, content and skills can go together easily!

  24. I had to laugh at this: "too many iterations of American colonial history"

    We had a running joke for years in our house. At the beginning of each school year we'd ask our kids what their social studies class was about and before they'd get a chance to answer we'd interject "let me guess...US History from the Colonial era to Reconstruction???" And that's what 6 out of the first 8 years of social studies are.

    This would be an interesting era for US Government as TeacHer pointed out. My oldest is in 10th grade US Government Honors, but I don't recall them tackling anything interesting, unfortunately.

  25. Re: FedUpMom's Mom's comment about "history courses never 'getting through' the material (i.e., never reaching the mid-twentieth century":

    I teach a class on Vietnam in the colonial & postcolonial cultural imagination (we look at works by French, British, American, Vietnamese, & overseas Vietnamese writers and filmmakers). At the beginning of the semester I usually ask students why they enrolled. About half always say that they never managed to get past WWII in their high school history classes and were curious to find out what happened!

  26. Hello!

    I just stumbled upon your blog this morning and I like this post.

    My daughter is in Kindergarten and next year I will take her out of school and teach her at home. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of education I would like to give her and stumbled upon this school:

    This is my idea of a dream school! It sounds a lot like what you are describing. I will be using their educational philosophy as my guideline when I create a curriculum.