In Dilbert cartoons, everything always makes perfect organizational sense to that famously clueless manager with the pointy hair. But the workers in their cubicles know that whatever the manager cooks up, actually will make no sense at all in the workplace.
What makes the cartoon so funny is how confident and how wrong the manager is. Dilbert appeals to us because we have all had the frustrating experience of recognizing the stupidity at ground level of policies directed from on high with such swift certainty. And while most of us value sound support and guidance from above, we all legitimately rail against directives that we must carry out contrary to our better judgment.
The history of American schooling could unfortunately be drawn as a series of very funny (and very sad) Dilbert cartoons, with the cluelessness and power of the pointy-haired man growing ever more dire as we progress toward the present. But the pointy haired man is us. He represents the impulse to create a tidy plan in order to serve our own psychological satisfaction instead of the needs and abilities of those impacted by it. The pointy-haired man is the worst sort of bureaucracy, the off-the-shelf school reform “model” ready to be “implemented.” It is the teacher-proof curriculum, the kid-proof lesson plan, the endless conveyor belt of classroom worksheets, and the endless lists of what children should know, annually produced by state commissions, congressional committees, scholars and school committees. It is the notion that good schools may be “replicated.” It is “professional development” by the consultant who blows in, blows hard, and blows out. And in all these cases, it is the systematic theft of the opportunity to think for those whose thinking, thoughtfully deployed (teachers in the classroom), would powerfully enhance their own learning.
We ought to regularly ask, does this practice or that policy, this curriculum or that school reform model really enhance learning or does it just look nice from afar?
For more on this subject, see, The Practice of School Reform: Lessons from Two Centuries. Go to “Books” right here on my website for more information.
The New York State Department of Education reported in August that twenty percent of students in grades three through eight were absent from the annual state test without a “recognized, valid” reason.In New Jersey, nearly fifteen percent of high school juniors refused to take the state exam this spring, according to NJ.com, citing a New Jersey Department of Education memo to Superintendents. In Indiana, the Superintendent of the Year counseled parents to home-school their kids during test week.
In August, the New York Times reported strong “test opt out” movements also in Colorado, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington. United Opt Out, a national umbrella organization will hold a conference in Philadelphia next February. The Opt Out movement is clearly having an impact on the accountability regime that has dominated American education for two decades.
Meanwhile, public officials charged with enforcing test mandates are growing nervous. Their reactions range from denial (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo) to threats (Federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan). On Capitol Hill, Congress is backing off strict testing requirements.
But where do we go from here? The forces against our national testing mania are an odd coalition of libertarians who want “government off my back” along with progressives driven by a vision of education for “the whole child”, and civil rights activists who are split on the merits of testing as a means for addressing inequality.
I believe the way forward is to summon into public prominence the wide array of excellent schools and educational institutions that are virtually waiting in the wings for just this moment. These are institutions that have been pushed to the margins during the last two decades and have quietly, tenaciously, subversively insisted on excellence in the face of the overwhelming industrialization of schools.
If we can inform this opt out moment with the good work being done by such places around portfolios, juried exhibitions and peer review, we stand a chance of moving public education in the direction of high quality teaching and learning for all students. Such practices and the principles that guide them could become the new direction for public education in an emerging post-industrial era. But we need to get the word out. Each of us needs to talk up exemplary schools in our own communities that are already engaged in thoughtful and educationally sound assessment practices.
To help move the conversation along, here are three such schools in my neck of the woods:
Mission Hill School (www.missionhillschool.org) a Boston public pilot school (K-8)
University Park Campus School (www.universitypark.worcesterschools.org) a Worcester public secondary school
Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School (www.theparkerschool.org) a public secondary charter school in Central Massachusetts
There are also organizations that support good work. Here are two examples.
The Coalition of Essential Schools (www.essentialschools.org)
The New York Performance Standards Consortium (http://performanceassessment.org/)
Please do your part by getting the word out about great schools that you know.
We need a social movement to re-make our public schools as an engine of democracy, a source of economic uplift for all our youth, a lever for social justice, and places of joyful learning. We can do this!