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Out of the Cave
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Education reform, democratic education
Education reform, democratic education

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Are We Simply Mad?

Bedlam.

The word invokes images of madmen chained to walls, ignored by society, abused by caretakers. We cringe at the idea that places like Bethlem Royal Hospital (nicknamed “Bedlam”) actually existed to isolate the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, under the oppressive watch of “keepers” like Helkiah Crooke and James Monro. You could end up in Bedlam if your behavior did not fit social norms, if you stuttered, if you suffered from strabismus or physical deformity…or just about anything else that might set you apart from society. A lifetime of imprisonment and abuse accompanied the label of insanity.

So, what determines that a person is “mad” today? The recent publication of DSM5, the new diagnostic manual for mental disorder, has touched off a firestorm of debate within the medical community. The National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) has declared that it “will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.” It’s fascinating that scientists are rejecting a cookie-cutter approach to defining mental disorders and advocating for the conscious application of subjective professional judgment when the educational community seems hell-bent on doing just the opposite.

Educators live in bedlam today, and Charlotte Danielson, Robert Marzano, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan and their ilk are our new Helkiah Crookes. The Gates Foundation funding of Common Core State Standards has given rise to a new House of Bedlam, created without any meaningful input from public school teachers. The U.S. Department of Education, eager to subvert the delegated state power over public school curricula, has leveraged Bedlam by requiring states to accept the CCSS or forgo federal funding for schools. The Danielson Group tools for teacher and principal evaluation places educators in Bedlam cells of specific, measurable, attainable, (un-)realistic, and time-bound goals. Bob Marzano’s Professional Learning Community (PLC) scheme promotes itself with quasi-evangelical workshops that demonize educators resistant to the dogmas of standards-based education.

Conservative political lust for objectifying learning outcomes has blinded us to the value that professional judgment offers. When we accept that “standards” should function as an adjunct to qualified discernment—and not as a replacement for it—we will emerge from bedlam.

We’re mad, you know.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

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Truth in Labeling

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”       Inigo Montoya: The Princess Bride

 I hate buying things and finding out they aren’t what they were advertised to be, don’t you? You’d think that when people put a label on something, that “something” should be exactly as described. I either feel cheated or manipulated when stuff like that happens, and I’m unlikely to respect or trust the company or person who treated me that way. I remember accompanying a friend to an auto dealership—he was looking for a truck, and was assured by a salesperson he had talked to over the phone that the “Custom Deluxe” model had all the bells and whistles he’d ever need. Upon examination, it became obvious that the truck’s label ought to have been “Generic Unequipped.” It didn’t even come with a radio or floor mats…you had to select each desired option and wait weeks for the items to be shipped from the factory for installation. Neither of us has ever purchased a vehicle from that automaker since walking (running?) away from the lot.

“Professional Learning Communities” are another good example of mislabeling.  They are neither professional nor learning-centered, and are as likely to be divisive as they are to unify.

When I first heard of Professional Learning Communities, I had high expectations of meaningful dialogue and exploration of ideas in education. I love ideas, and an opportunity to sit with respected colleagues and engage in heated discussion as we debated new (or old) educational initiatives sounded ticky-boo to me. Imagine my discomfort after discovering that no debate was included—I was treated to a PowerPoint on the “correct” way to teach and collaborate. A behaviorist definition of learning was assumed; students have objectives to master, they demonstrate competency or are assigned involuntary “interventions” to assure that they progress in lockstep with their peers. Every teacher uses the same “common formative assessments” so that every student receives a “guaranteed” education. After the PowerPoint, I got to sit down with my peers and “clarify essential outcomes” so that our “achievement data” would be aligned for later “discussion.” Over time, I’ve discovered that challenging the underlying assumptions or the practices of PLC dogma is enough to trigger questions of one’s “professionalism.”

Yawn.

Professionalism, in my book, is a concept that deserves more consideration before being equated with compliance with one philosophy of education or learning. Professionalism means making decisions based on a deep understanding of the history and philosophies related to a discipline; it means autonomy within a range of practice; it means being part of a self-governing body of practitioners. I try to behave as a professional, but I’m pretty sure I’m not treated as one by society, and I’m convinced that the PLC folks have hijacked the term for purposes unrelated to its true meaning. They want to eliminate teacher autonomy and replace it with lists of standards to comply with.

Learning, as a concept, has also been corrupted by the PLC folks. If you accept their limited definition of learning (“what you know and can do”), you’re likely to accept the rest of their dogma without question. I don’t accept it, because I believe that their definition is only one of many ways to parse the term. Humanists often describe learning as an ongoing process rather than as attainment of a particular goal. To constructivists, the act of imparting meaning to the world by assimilating and accommodating experiences is an internal process a teacher can assist, but only occasionally trigger.  There are many other definitions, but it’s sufficient to say that the PLC brigade rejects them all because they do not focus on utilitarian outcomes open to measurement. The absolutist attitude of this behavioral stance should be repulsive to anyone who wants to treat education as an interactive journey of exploration rather than a prescriptive march to an unwavering end.  Try suggesting an alternative to the PLC definition at a staff meeting—it’s guaranteed to cause administrators to blanch and assessment supervisors to gasp at your heresy. They want certainty, and any suggestion that acceptable alternatives exist endangers the house of cards they are building.

Community is a term that connotes kinship and identity, but that’s not what is being created by PLC. I have kinship with my family, and they certainly provide me with an identity, but I am not expected, by virtue of my family membership, to believe or behave in exactly the same manner as my parents or siblings. The advocates of PLC demand exactly that. No? Then why is there an entire book devoted to the subject available for sale on the Delusion Tree website called Working With Difficult & Resistant Staff? If you’re not on board with every detail of the PLC belief system, you will be plastered with a label. You must be one of these:

An Underminer (Or are you just digging a hole to jump in and hide?)
A Contrarian (Because you must be a negative person not to drink the Kool-Aid…)
A Recruiter (“Come to the dark side of progressive thinking, Luke…”)
Challenged (…you can’t possibly be “normal” since you have an alternative viewpoint…)
An On-the-Job Retiree (You’re just bellying up to the public trough, aren’t you, you slacker?)
The Resident Expert (Hey, that master’s degree on your wall isn’t really yours, is it?)
An Unelected Representative (Gee, and you hadn’t even considered running for office…)
A Whiner & Complainer (Just stick a hanger in your mouth before the next meeting, huh?)
The Spanish Inquisition comes to mind as I peruse the list. There is no room for dissent if you call yourself an educator! True believers will burn you at the stake. Straw man arguments like this do not bear up to the slightest examination, and are insulting to those who think deeply about education—but think differently than devotees of the PLC cult. PLC is a belief system akin to a religion, requiring the faith of believers rather than the contributions of thinking skeptics.

Just as the truck my buddy and I went shopping for deserved a truthful label, so does what is now termed “PLC.” Let’s call the initiative “ABC,” or Amateurish Behaviorist Congregations. After all, it advocates a sloppy and un-professional treatment of the multi-dimensional concept of learning according to behaviorist maxims, requiring unthinking obedience from the converted.

I claim religious freedom as my ticket out.

If that won’t work, just burn me as a heretic and scatter my ashes on the doorstep of the Gates Foundation.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

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Does Music Lie?

“Music doesn't lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.”  Jimi Hendrix

But what is music? That might sound like a ridiculous question, but I wonder how our history might have been different if Standards Based Music Education had been the focus of schools in the 1940s or ‘50s.

I can only imagine what “standards” would have been imposed on little James Marshall Hendrix. Who would have been selected to write the standards? Certainly not the musicians that led the way in jazz, blues or bluegrass—Duke Ellington, McKinley Morganfield and Bill Monroe need not apply. The more likely candidate — Will Earhart, a music educator who you’ve probably never heard of. Earhart was convinced that the “beauty” of music should be appreciated by all students. Appreciate beauty? Great idea, isn’t it? But how would it be measured or described? Earhart’s standard for beauty clearly excluded the amplified instruments used in rock and roll or the loose approach to rhythm that characterizes blues music.  Jimi would have failed according to such standards—his playing was frequently ahead of or behind the beat, his amplifier distorted, with feedback shrieking. Some music educators today might still side with Earhart.

Standards tend to be written by academics, and the standards they produce are essentially conservative—they preserve the status quo rather than encourage learners to challenge accepted practice or extend the boundaries of a discipline. A standards-oriented musical academic of that era might have told Jimi, “You’re right, music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, it better happen outside of music. And what you’re doing isn’t music.”

History has spoken on that subject. Jimi changed the face of popular music, and had to do so entirely outside of the academic scene. How many other “Jimis” have been made to feel inadequate, unwanted, or inept at school because their interpretation of content, concepts or skills lay beyond an accepted academic norm?

If you’re a parent of a student, consider the impact that a standards-based education may have on your child’s ability or desire to “think outside the box.” The more we reduce knowledge or skills to a list of arbitrary standards, the more likely that we pre-empt constructive and creative change because we lie to students—we lead them to believe they have “mastered” a subject if they can check off the various boxes on whatever list we proffer.

Does music lie? No. Neither does mathematics, history, or any other field of human endeavor. The truth is that no field of knowledge will ever be complete, nor can a list of “standards” encompass any of the disciplines. When we reduce knowledge to a set of “standards,” we not only encourage students to view education as a finite experience, but also encourage teachers to eliminate anything that didn’t make the cut.  Education then ceases to be that open-ended journey that both students and teachers might contribute to.

Don’t lie to students. They deserve to explore the truths we have discovered thus far, and to add their discoveries to the ever-flowing river of learning.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

A Declaration of Independence from Corporatist/Behaviorist Education

When, in the course of a teaching career, it becomes essential to break from excessively rational beliefs and schemes and to begin thinking openly and freely, disregarding the dictatorial influences of political hacks, the insidious prodding of education gurus and the bleating of complacent peers, it is necessary that the thinking educator admonish the world with the whys and wherefores of their intended independence from those scourges of productive learning, Corporations and their Behaviorist lackeys.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that education is best described as a journey, not a destination; that education is not a medicine or treatment to be inflicted upon learners; that a partnership between willing learner, skilled teacher, and supportive guardian forms the foundation of productive education; and that a democratic society sustains itself by practice of its ideals within the educational environment. Numerous corporations and anti-public education fronts—including, but not limited to, the Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, ALEC, State Policy Network, Teach for America, Stand for Children, and Teach Plus— plot and contrive to dictate educational policy, conduct and beliefs. When unelected billionaires use their financial clout to promulgate a destructive vision for American education, it is the right—nay, the obligation—of every educator to break all the Windows® they can, chop down every Solution Tree that stands, consign their Common Core lesson plans to the reformatorium, and renew their commitment to student-centered instruction in order to preserve their claim to professional status, ensure their future happiness, and maintain their present sanity.

A glance at the attempts by corporatist forces to deform public education provides ample evidence that ideas and opinions formed in the business world are all too tempting to politicians who rely on corporate funds for re-election. Behold: political narrow-mindedness, focus on data rather than humanity, the tendency to blame those who teach for the ills of society, and an unwillingness to consider humane methods of instruction as acceptable alternatives to techniques of indoctrination serve as warnings to the nation’s teachers and learners that they, too, are doomed to a future of boredom and inner turmoil if they do not act against the domination of Corporations and their Behaviorist toadies in public education today.

When narrow-mindedness reaches that point where afflicted educators are shamed for considering alternatives to the shallow reasoning and attitudes taught them by the nefarious Dufour Duo, their uprising is most justified. So have I and my fellow educators suffered. We rise above this morass of ridiculous ideals today to present several of the offenses of the Corporatist/Behaviorist Cabal for consideration:

They assert a corporation’s right to legal status as individuals in order to exert unrestricted financial influence over public policy, while also enjoying exemptions from the obligations which citizens affected by those policies must endure.

They degrade democracy by excluding teaching professionals from the process of creating standards and imposing those standards without public debate.

They devalue the professionalism of teachers by demanding the surrender of all autonomy in favor of scripted lessons and prescriptive standards.

They claim without evidence that setting “standards” will transform education for the better.

They threaten the privacy of students and seek to transform public schools into another source of profit.

They demand unswerving loyalty and obedience from educators, rather than encouraging professional discourse and promoting respectful dialogue.

They vilify the professional associations of educators and encourage citizens to view teachers and other public servants as parasites on society.

They use non-profit fronts to conceal profit-seeking enterprises.

They alienate youth from their educations by placing undue emphasis on outcomes as opposed to personal investment in the process of learning.

They reduce the beauty and complexity of academic endeavor to atomistic standards as part of their crusade to deprive educators of professional discretion.

They strip seasoned professionals of dignity and destroy their morale.

We, therefore, educators of America, straightforwardly and without dissembling, appealing to the Master Instructor for the iGeneration, do, in the name—and assuming the authority— of public school teachers throughout this Land, brazenly publish and declare that we are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent of Corporate Influence; that we are absolved of allegiance to Arne Duncan and his ilk, and that all connection between educators and Bill Gates’ connivances is hereby dissolved, and that as Free and Independent Tutors, we have full power to offer learners a democratic environment, disregard the CCSS, ignore John Hattie’s latest work of fiction, and do all things that free-thinkers of the world might do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of the dearly-departed Socrates, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives (such as they are after semester grading), our meager salaries and 403(b)s, and what little honor we have left after attending PLC conferences.

WE SIGN OUR NAMES…

David Sudmeier

© Copyright 2014 by David Sudmeier
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