Recent posts (see here and here) have noted the repressive and depressing realities of much of American education.  Much of the school talk these days reflects a surprising ignorance about those realities.  Politicians and business leaders offer shockingly naïve reform proposals for schools, to which every good teacher responds, “This guy hasn’t set foot in a real school since he graduated.”  In this post, I’ll try to offer a detailed look at what happens in real schools.  I’ll argue that a truly progressive education is possible, but it must do more than simply try to change one classroom.  It can and must work in two ways.  First, educators must work to divest themselves of dictatorial authority in the classroom.  This is not due to any touchy-feely desire to be nice; it is a hard requirement of effective schooling.  As I’ve argued in recent posts, when students see learning as an imposition from above, they will resist it accordingly.  Teachers and students must work together to build a classroom culture in which students buy in to the work; students must shift from seeing classwork as breaking rocks to seeing classwork as working with a personal trainer.  But this cannot be done in isolated classrooms by isolated teachers.  Educators must work to change the structure of education itself.  That is, educators must work as citizen activists to even out the funding of schools, no matter where they are.  They must work to change the administration of those schools.  Schools can’t be run effectively as stalags; they must become places in which students embrace the rules.  Neither of these two things can be achieved independently.  A classroom teacher crammed into a classroom of 35 students, in a school that encourages students to see themselves as targets of a cruel and bureaucratic authoritarian school regime, cannot have much hope of transforming her corner of that school into a garden of authentic learning by empowered students.

That doesn’t mean that teachers don’t try.  In my career as a middle- and high-school teacher and teacher mentor, and now working with lots of people training to be teachers, I have seen a depressingly predictable pattern.  A new teacher steps into her new school, determined to be a different kind of teacher.  She wants to guide students to embrace more than just the dry facts and regurgitative lists of historical details.  (My experience is mostly in history and social-studies classrooms, but I’m guessing it is similar no matter what the subject.)  She attempts to empower students, but finds that both the school administration and the students themselves reject all of her attempts.

For instance, instead of simply telling students about the Civil War, she plans a research project in which students will develop their own research questions and use primary sources to explore the authentic past.  She is not trying to do it all on her own; she devised a practical teaching unit based on student use of the incredibly rich resources at the Valley of the Shadow website from the Virginia Center for Digital History and the University of Virginia Library.  This website is the answer to her prayers, she thinks.  In one place, it offers military records, letters, newspapers, and even battle maps of various units in the war.  She devises a clear step-by-step guide in which students will select one participant in the war and track his or her experiences throughout the Civil War.  Her plan is to entice the students to generate their own questions about the Civil War.  Why did so many Virginians oppose secession?  Why did families go to war?  What did it mean for their lives?  The new teacher’s hope is that many—in her fantasies she imagines most—of her students will jump at the chance to find answers to these questions, once they see that the Civil War was more than just a chapter in a book.

What happens?  First of all, the school gets in the way.  Second, the students themselves reject her attempts to empower them as learners.  Here’s what can happen: In order to run this unit, the teacher needs students to have access to the website.  They need computers.  Over the summer, the teacher made sure to familiarize herself with the school’s technology.  She was thrilled to hear that the school, thanks to a federal grant, has three laptop carts with fast new computers.  Great.  She reserves the carts for the days her class will need them.

Some of the students, however, can’t log in.  They forgot their school username, perhaps.  Or the laptops have not been maintained properly and they won’t turn on.  With a classroom of twenty-eight students, the teacher can’t adequately help each student figure out how to get online.  When students can’t sign in, they start doing other things, non-educational things.  Soon the teacher is fully occupied with the frustrating task of telling students they can’t just poke each other with pencils, or worse.  Meanwhile, those students who have managed to get online notice that the teacher is not really paying attention to them, so they begin to check their Facebook accounts, ESPN, or other non-Civil War-related websites—whatever sites young people find interesting these days.  They’re not allowed to see those sites, and the school has put in place an online screen to block access to non-educational sites, but every student knows how to circumvent that screen.  When a teacher wants to use Youtube, however, the block will prevent that.  Meanwhile, of the class of twenty-eight, there may be a few students who persevere in following the directions the teacher laid out.  They may be exploring the Valley of the Shadow website.  But when and if they have a question about it, a question about the nature of the Civil War or the organization of the website, they can’t get the teacher’s attention because she is busy keeping other students from punching each other.  Soon enough, they realize there’s no real reason for them to keep at their assigned task.  The more polite ones may just wait for the bell to ring.  The more energetic ones will join in with the pencil-poking and punching.  Two days later, the new teacher is called in after school to the principal’s office.  The principal has been told that students in the new teacher’s class have been using laptops to access porn.  Turns out the laptops had mementoes of their surfing experiences that popped up the next time a teacher tried to use the laptop cart.

What can the teacher do?  When she tried to make the regime more useful and less dictatorial, she was beset from both sides.  The school culture made it difficult.  First of all, with a large classroom and not enough technical support, there was no way for her to get all her students up and running on their laptops within the class period.  But more important, since most of the classes in the school functioned with a stern authoritarian teacher, students viewed her attempt to loosen that discipline as an opportunity to be exploited, rather than as a chance to engage in learning.  Even worse, even when some students managed to access the website, they tended to avoid engaging with the material.  Instead, they did the very minimum amount of work they could do to get by.

What can the teacher do?  She can quit.  And lots of new teachers do.  As Barry Farber called it twenty years ago, the high rate of teacher turnover is a main cause of the “Crisis in Education.”  In the 1980s, over a third of new teachers left the field after four years or less.  More recent surveys by the National Education Association indicate that the number of teachers who leave the profession within five years hovers around forty percent.

More depressing, like the students who stay in school but disengage from the dictates of the school regime, the new teacher may keep her job but accept the necessity of dumbing down her teaching.  Instead of exploring the Valley of the Shadow, she may revert to stern, authoritarian recitations of historical facts, punctuated by perfunctory examinations of student knowledge.  The students won’t learn, and she won’t teach, but she and they will get through each day.

In order to avoid this outcome, a truly progressive solution has to do more than transform classroom methodology.  It must transform institutional education itself.  This will mean that all teachers must act as more than classroom leaders; they must become political actors as well.  It will also mean that all adults become active educators by engaging with the educational regime.  It will mean that all adults, teachers and otherwise, must demand and enact changes in the ways schools are funded.  They must change the ways those schools are operated.  They must demand that teachers in all classrooms and administrators at all levels put student engagement at the top of their lists.  Even if their children are not in those schools.  Even if they can afford to move to a higher-income area in which these problems are not as glaringly apparent.

A single teacher in a single classroom has very limited options.  In order to make each classroom more progressive and more effective, we need to change the entire system.  Schools, after all, are the collective public institution of our society.  We must shape them to be the vision of the society we want, not merely the holding pens for young people trapped in the society we have.


FURTHER READING: Barry A. Farber, Crisis in Education: Stress and Burnout in the American Teacher (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991).