Schools on Trial And What Does Progress Mean?

Jose VilsonJose3 Comments


I don’t have rules posted in my classroom.

I’ve been issuing mandates asking students to respect each other, respect themselves, and respect the classroom and environment around them. As steward for the environment around me, I haven’t had many challenges to these rules from the students themselves. I don’t know what exactly has triggered their good behavior (though I have hints). I do know that I’m trying to make my classroom as open as possible while working within the well-defined parameters of what it means to be a “good teacher.”

This is where I want to root some early thoughts about Nikhil Goyal’s Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice.

In the intro, he has every intention of vexing the casual reader:

Every forty minutes, [students] are shepherded from room to room at the sound of a bell. They sit in desks in rows with twenty to thirty other people of similar age, social class, and often race. They are drilled in facts and inculcated with specific attitudes and behaviors. They are motivated to participate in this game by numbers, letters, prizes, awards, and approval of various authority figures. If they get out of their seat, talk out of turn, or misbehave, they risk being drugged to induce passivity. Their day is preplanned for them. In a world of increasing complexity, there is little critical thinking expected of them. To succeed, orders and rules must be allowed. The fortunate ones have recess. [Emphasis mine]

As a teacher in a public school system that openly disavows recess, ouch.

He continues to hammer home how inequitable our schools are. From my purview, education reform plays a game of inches. As I’ve said plenty of times, No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, and Every Student Succeeds Act are the same set of blocks shifted to different players in the same circle. Policywise, there’s no sense that anything is markedly different or will be for children in America. While we argue overtesting, standards, and school funding, Goyal plays in another stratosphere, asking us to poke holes in our ideas of schooling itself, and why we actually have it. As an admirer of John Taylor Gatto (you’ll remember this), Goyal uses his own background as a student who graduated a semester early to anchor why hating school isn’t just for people who don’t do well in school.

The worst part of reading this book as a teacher is twofold: I’ve seen both what’s possible and what’s real, and the contradictions are stark.

For example, I spent a weekend at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA for EduCon, an unconference hosted in one of the most popular progressive schools in the country. Principal and friend Chris Lehmann had every intention of limiting the number of rules in his school, and tempering the hopes of restrictive adults by allowing for student voice to flourish. In conversation, he often aspires to MacArthur genius and world-renown educator Deborah Meier. In that vein, he’s brought the STEM magnet idea to a student population that is truly diverse and a staff that’s also among the most cohesive and committed to the school’s vision that I’ve ever seen. As a teacher, I had a hard time being in that environment because I felt too free. I call so many of the adults in that building friends and colleagues, and I always leave incredulous that this place exists.

No sooner do I think that do I realize that the city of brother/sisterly love and its state are in serious money troubles with its schools, so, no matter how Elysian the vision, it must still exist in a country that hates critical thinkers.

Why would America want a school like SLA to survive? Lehmann’s school is not perfect, but certainly, the popularity of EduCon speaks to a yearning for better. Perhaps it also gives us a break from our own schools, institutions confined in both structure and vision. Schools are asked to have a mission and vision, adopt a set of foreign standards, collect and cull through rooms-full of data, comply with 50 or so offices and their demands, and wring students of their youth via achievement scores. Schools must always make the case for why they exist, and if they don’t, they must not be adequately complying and are inherently bad for kids.

This is why Goyal had to write this book. Because an autonomous thinker could easily see schooling as a form of oppression.

Goyal and I disagree plenty, mind you. When he published some of these thoughts on Facebook, I bristled at the idea that his idea was the equivalent of prison as some of my cousins who were in prison at the time would have relished a degree from a pretty school in Syosset. He also asserts through some research that we’re much more illiterate as a society now than we were in the 1800s, but, for most of the country at the time, literacy was illegal, so this is indeed apples and oranges.

Yet, as anyone who’s read this blog knows, the writer must challenge, early and often, regardless of what their actual beliefs are. The fight for schooling doesn’t necessarily mean we come to one specific vision per se. Yet, we must always keep a critical eye on our school. Those of us seeking a different vision for schooling would be wise to see schooling as a set of systems that crushes visions for what other types of schooling might look like. With all the disenchantment and frustration there is about our public school system, there is hope.

You just need to take a weekend and go somewhere else. It’s worth the price of admission.

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

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