Back to School 2016 – “it’s a DIY moment”

People in my professional world are heading back to school these days. I know, because I’ve been getting calls to plan projects and activities, conduct trainings, coach leaders and even give the occasional rousing speech.

Here’s what I say when I’m asked, and even when I’m not: 2016 is the year to grab the educational reins back. Right now. Starting this month. This is your classroom, your school, your school district. It’s your DIY moment.


Why am I so convinced?

We’ve already lost a generation to NCLB and other such b.s.

Paraphrasing the Beatles, it was 20 years ago today, or thereabouts, that we educators gave ourselves up to top-down standards and the allure of master planning. Consider this: this year’s high school seniors have lived their entire scholastic lives under No Child Left Behind. 

And so have educators. We weren’t capable of choosing methods and materials, we were told; the details needed to come from a higher perch, far “above” the school and classroom. With luck, the bureaucrats thought they could teacher-proof methods and materials. Jal Mehta’s The Allure of Order, the title of which pretty much says it all, is essential reading.  It will help you understand the folly of this policy as well as the essentials of our educational history.

How have we done after 20 years under the thumb? Results of recent NAEP scores, the nation’s “report card”, are some of the least hopeful since the early 1990s, particularly given the massive expenditures and smothering effects on schools, especially those who serve largely poor students. 2015 high school reading scores are lower than 1992, as one example. The Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust, supported by the major foundations one would guess, and which bills itself as a “fierce advocate for high achievement”, called the NAEP results “sobering”, and “another wake-up call”. Does that language sound familiar? The fact that this comment comes from a group staffed and led by a board of academics that have been “promoting and supporting federal and state policies” for the past generation brings with it no small irony. For added interest, check out Marion Brady’s essay.


Some want to believe that our schools just haven’t squeezed hard enough, or that we just haven’t put all the plan’s ingredients in order. I reply, “Hardly.” Strategies and policies cannot and do not “correct” for real, live people and the idiosyncrasies of individual learning.


Further, I say, time and energy spent pursuing fantasy targets such as SLOs or parsing DIBELs is largely wasted. Such notions are contrived and artificial, and although organizing them may make us feel productive, they are routinely trumped by values and culture, and have shown little enduring impact in meeting the social and intellectual needs of young people.


When we bother to ask, kids are responding in almost every survey, that the longer they are in school, the less interesting and meaningful it becomes. Even those who do well academically – gaining status, honors and scholarships -- say school is boring and largely irrelevant to their lives.


Many teachers and principals with whom I work are hesitant and uncertain. The top-down standards and testing slog has left many with a spent feeling.  It’s hard to muster enthusiasm to do more of the same. Those are breeding grounds that threaten to de-energize us or, worse, to incubate cynicism.


There’s one remaining element of why we need to own our schools again, starting today. The students in our classroom have changed. How? Social scientists and observers conclude that notions of “family” have changed. Marital and parenting bonds are looser, incomes are down, and adults are working more for the same or less money. Family time has become a scarcer commodity. Kids absorb the results and they bring them to school.


And twenty-five years ago, kids more likely sat around the TV in the living room, where Mom or Dad controlled the programming. The present generation may be spending 20 to 30 hours or more a week (especially if you include smartphones) on recreational screen time. The brand of direct parenting of yesteryear has largely been replaced by a new, more diffuse environment where kids are in their rooms, wrestling with Facebook. They’re outdoors less, and far less involved in neighborhood, multi-age group play. The brain’s quest for novelty and stimuli contribute to making school, with its list of standards, and its five-paragraph essays on topics unrelated to their lives and interests, a disconnecting yawner.  We can hardly compete for real interest and enthusiasm. As B.B. King said, “the thrill is gone”.


It’s up to us….


So, I’m telling school people that in 2016, the only promising way forward is muster the will to do it ourselves. To renew our profession and our communities by building skills and capacity, improving culture and systems, in the way we know that work needs doing. That’s our advantage – we know the work at the granular level.


On the upbeat side, we educators understand that, despite the external forces, young people still come to school every day wanting to do well, to use their minds, to connect. They ask themselves, “Does this teacher know me?”, “Is she interested in my future?” They’re making an overarching daily calculation, “Can I work with and learn from these adults?”  School folks have to account for, and own, that calculus.


What does ownership look like? First things first. The adults “in the room” must determine the fabric of the school, in reference to their own bonds with the institution and with each other. We’re asking our own questions about our situation: “How committed are we to each other’s success and to this fragile institution?”  “Do we have the time, freedom and support to work deeply with each other with the right menu?” and, perhaps most important, at the individual level, “How much am I willing to invest?”  If school administrators and teacher leaders commit to creating a culture where the answers to these questions are the right ones, the odds are largely in our favor.


There is no way around these issues. No policy advice survives this rarified air. These are the real questions that move people, and schools, forward. That’s why this fall I’m telling educators that the only promising way forward is to do it ourselves. To renew our profession and our communities by finding the will, by building skills and capacity, refreshing culture and systems, in the ways we know it needs to be done.


In the 1980’s, Judith Warren-Little gave us the elements of a simple and elegant recipe for making a school great: teachers planning lessons together; teachers talking about their students’ learning; teachers watching each other teach and making improvements; and teachers rooting for each other and their students. There they are – the conditions we need to restore our faith in each other, in the young people and their families-- the conditions to do it ourselves.


If you'd like to take action in your school, consider TREK" go to this link.


Dr. Larry Myatt
Education Resources Consortium