BOSTON : SCHOOL REFORM SLICED DICED AND…BLAND ?

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^ curriculum revolutionary : Irnerius of Bologna (1050-1125), who introduced new studies of law and so won the competition to draw students to his lectures

—- —- —-

“Today’s lesson, boys and girls, is ‘school reform : its history, its heroes, and its opponents.”

Thus sayeth the teacher. This shall be Part One of a Two-part course. Let the lecture begin :

No societal institution is harder to reform than schools. it has always been so. To take one huge example, when Greek began to be studied by European scholars in the 13th Century, its introduction, as a taught course, into the universities of that day — which taught all in Latin only — occasioned actual riots. Another example : teachers in medieval Europe were independent contractors, competing with each other (often viciously) for students (and student fees) — not collegial at all. Witness the revolutionary curriculum innovations — and career — of Irnerius of Bologna. Only when the advantages of coming together as a faculty showed themselves fatal to independent teachers seeking students did the faculty, collegial system become the standard. It took almost 300 years to make the point. One thing did NOT change : teachers worked on the margins, never far from wipe-out. If students did not sign up for their lectures, their teaching career ended. Something like that is still the case. Courses that attract too few students to pay the teacher’s salary get dropped from the curriculum.

You will of course notice that I am talking about “higher’ education. The situation with primary education was different and still is. Students in primary school learn the basics. These have hardly changed at all since Roman days — because the basics of civilization scarcely change. What does cahnge is the WAY in which the basics are taught, and, again, changes in method have come about only with much controversy and almost always far too late. Thus it is no great surprise to see that, today, in Boston, school reform movements meet big resistance, even counter-reformation.

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^ Cassiodorus (ca 485-585), the Arne Duncan of his day, as chief aide to Theodoric the Great and later, educational reformer. When he retired, his library of over 2200 books stocked a monastic school that he founded on his estate at Vivarium, near Catanzaro in the “boot” of Italy.

There have always been four major constituencies on the battlefield of school reform : parents; students; teachers; employers. it was so in Roman times — but the Roman system was a ducal, bureaucratic one in which schools prepared for only one career : oratory in the senate, oratory as a proctor (litigating lawyer), oratory in imperial administration. Parents fought to get their brightest children into a school well connected to imperial circles; teachers fought to get the imperial approval without which they could not teach in an imperially sanctioned school; students were force-fed and even beaten, learning by rote, marine-drill-sergeanted into a mindset sufficiently bureaucratic to win them a coveted post in the imperial or Senatorial circle. (if you want to taste something of the flavor of late Roman schools, read chapters 3 through 6 of Augustine’s CONFESSIONS.) To sum up ; in the Roman world, the employer entirely dictated what the school would teach, to whom, and how.

Is it thus so odd that today, in Boston, employers want a major say in how the City’s schools teach future employees ? Is it not a huge concern of theirs, that graduating students be able to meet the entry-level prerequisites, at least, of their hiring ? Kids do not graduate from twelve years of primary and secondary schooling just for graduating’s sake. They graduate to employment. Some may, it is true, go into the military — where they will be trained as forcefully as the Roman world trained its legions. A few may move directly to entrepreneurship. but for 80 to 90 percent of graduating students, employment awaits, just as it awaited the graduates of Roman academies.

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^ John Dewey : “learn by doing” — implanting the culture of apprenticeship learning into school methodology

As for employers dominating, even owning our schools, keep in mind that imperial or Senatorial patronage funded and staffed all the Roman world’s schools. Today we would not accord employers such dominance of our schools, partly because we have thousands of varying employers where Rome had only one. But we cannot, and should not, decry substantial employer involvement in the content and method of what our schools teach. We should invite it.

Our schools also teach one other major ethical learning : citizenship. In Rome, citizenship belonged to all, and it bestowed important rights. But citizenship imposes duties as well, and so long as the Roman world held together its schools taught what they taught not just as skills necessary to imperial employment but also as a responsibility of citizenship. The two obligations were not separate. In our world and our schools, citizenship is not so obviously an integral part of employment knowledge. It involves knowing history, the law, cultural diversity, tolerance, inquiry, participation in politics. Yet are employers not concerned that their employees be good citizens ? Young people who cannot accept diversity, or display good manners, or lack social graces, often make poor employees.

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^ Horace Mann : Massachusetts Congressman and education reformer — citizenship / civics as part of a core curriculum

I present this lengthy background as a platform upon which I now offer the education reform plan posted by incoming mayor Marty Walsh. Here it is as posted on his website :

“Marty’s plan is to immediately build on current strengths within Boston Public Schools, and simultaneously develop and implement a long-term strategy based on equity, access, accountability, transparency and collaboration to provide a top-notch education for all of Boston’s children. Success will require taking a hard look at current practice, the political will to make tough, necessary changes, and the collaboration of families, educators, and partners across the city to realize a shared vision.”

“In addition, Marty recognizes the achievement of students with disabilities can be accelerated by participation in inclusion classes with their differently abled peers. The Walsh Administration will continue support for current plans to expand the number of inclusion schools, and will increase support for principals and teachers to learn about co-teaching models, Common Core Standards and differentiating instruction.

“Embrace and Support the Implementation of the Common Core State Standards – The Walsh Administration will ensure each and every school has a plan to integrate the Common Core State Standards into daily instruction, prepare teachers to teach the standards, and help students demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

“Selecting the next superintendent is one of the most important decisions facing the new administration. It is critical that the superintendent fully embraces the Mayor’s vision and is committed to its success.

“Maintain a Mayoral-Appointed School Committee – Marty supports an appointed school committee. This is the best way to ensure a body that fully reflects all the stakeholders in quality public education, including those with direct experience providing education, and those who understand the importance of prioritizing the needs of the whole child in an urban school setting.

“Central office departments will be redesigned into streamlined cross-functional units and held accountable for how well they provide support and service to schools. School supervisors will closely monitor schools in order to know which school leaders to support, which to push, and which to grant autonomy so that each and every Boston Public School is among the very best schools in Massachusetts.

“The Walsh Administration will focus on “deepening the bench” of potential school leaders who know how to work with teachers to improve instructional practices tied to the Common Core State Standards.

“Strong partnerships with local colleges and universities, and support for accelerated programs that prepare teachers for urban schools, such as those offered at the University of Massachusetts Boston, will be developed to supply qualified candidates. Systems and incentive will be implemented to retain strong principal and teacher leaders with appropriate compensation.

“The Walsh Administration will be aggressive in working with federal elected officials and agencies, the Massachusetts State House, and corporate and non-profit partners to increase revenues for targeted programs.”

— so sasys Marty Walsh, officially.

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^B George Perry, Jeri Robinson, and John Barros — Walsh’s Schools team. Is there a Cassiodorus in this triad ? Or just smiling faces ?

The Walsh plan has aroused plenty of opposition from anti-Common Core advocates. (Even though Massachusetts school standards are stronger than Common Core, which is thus irrelevant to Boston schools.) it also disappoints many who want a much more comprehensive overhaul of Boston Public School methods, curriculum, student assignment, and partnering. For me, the plan’s face is its blandness. It is cardboard. It avoids all of the difficult issues. It hardly mentions the most controversial or necessary. you won’t find in it the terms ’employer,’ “charter school,” “teacher evaluation,” “teacher selection,” “school competition.” It really is not a plan for reform at all. What I take from it is a message that we should TALK about reform. This, the City is doing. But then what ?

I find especially unfortunate the plan’s entire avoidance of competition. I know of no dynamic school system in which competition between schools — between teachers within those schools — was not an integral condition. Uncompetitive schools teach uncontroversial knowledge. Competition can be imposed upon schools and teachers only by employers — in the Roman world, the Emperor demanded, and that WAS the competition — or by the students and their parents, who, as in Abelard’s Paris and in the teaching city that was contemporary Bologna — pay their teaching fees to the best teachers. The competition then — years 1080 to about 1270 — was brutal, but knowledge advanced daringly and hugely. (we don’t call it “the Renaissance of the 12th Century” for nothing.) Much of the advance in knowledge was brought into those schools by independent researchers, often working in Muslim lands. The same is true today. Innovation Districts and their collaborative competitors are our era’s version of 12th Century’s wandering researchers. They and their knowledge, gathered from everywhere, should inform, revive, reconstitute our City’s public schools — curriculum, evaluation and pay, responsiveness to a rapidly evolving world of employers.

Or we can choose stagnation, blandness, and loss of the innovative daring that made Boston so different a city for so long.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

Tomorrow : the teacher and his or her career in a system committed tyo innovation, citizenship, and employment.

Author: hereandsphere

Here and Sphere is an online journal of news, opinion, reviews, advice, & bits n' pieces of everything else - from HERE to SPHERE...... Co-founded by Michael Freedberg, a long-time Boston Phoenix journalist, and Heather Cornell, a South Coast Massachusetts columnist and editor.

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