Just Numbers

 Their hope bursts out of a system designed to thwart it.

                                                        –Program Notes, Just Numbers

Darius pokes his head around the corner to make sure the coast is clear.  He holds his breath, all senses on alert.  Is there graffiti warning him of new territorial shifts? Not this morning.  He sprints to the bus, gets on it safely, and can breathe while the bus takes him across the city and drops him off a few blocks away from his school.  He gets off and skirts dangerous territory, passes under an overpass where new tags are going up.  The taggers look at him but don’t follow him.  Darius survives another morning commute.

And gets to school 5 minutes late.  He is sent to the principal, and to detention.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of brains to understand that a child whose commute is anything like this is not in a state to learn.  And that rather than sitting that child in detention, or in a test, or test prep, we adults need to offer healing now and community safety long term.  Once our children are safe, we can turn our attention to education.

Darius’ story is one of six that, along with impressive ensemble poetry, make up Just Numbers, the new Chicago Slam Works play.  Why do adults need to watch other adults performing a play from kids’ perspectives?  Because we aren’t listening to the kids’ voices.  Students are hidden from public view in their schools, in segregated neighborhoods.  But over and over the students in the play remind us: they aren’t blind; they see exactly what’s going on.  They see they are pawns in a game of powerful players whose rhetoric of student achievement masks self-serving economic and political machinations.  Students’ actual lives, interactions, and thoughts are presented against a background of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s speeches on education policy, which sound distant, irrelevant, and offensively glib.

Chicago Public School students are very clear about what they need: safety, health, parents who can be present for them, who are not forced to work multiple jobs, who are not in prison, killed, or deported, and teachers who will not be replaced next year or next week.  And in the classroom: an education that respects students’ intelligence and humanity.

In case white parents in Chicago – half of whose children don’t go to CPS — don’t understand why teachers voted to go on strike next week, this play offers a point-by-point lesson: from the questionable funding, operating, and staffing of charter schools, to the high-stakes testing forced on Black and Brown children.


This is not public education.  Public education means that all children are valued, that people hold accountable the system, its architects and decision-makers, not individual teachers and students.  Many Americans have bought into the education reform emphasis on test scores, but the world’s most successful education system rejects testing — and calls out the testing profiteers.  Finnish education minister Pasi Sahlsberg insists: a successful public education system is based on equity of quality education.  It values informal learning and emphasizes reciprocal trust between students, teachers, parents, and administrators.  “Measuring of what matters in school is difficult, if not impossible. It is character and mind that matter… not being among winners in knowledge tests.”

Public education requires that the voices of people in schools – students, teachers, and parents – are at the center of decision-making about schools, both in the classroom and in the district.  Not bankers, realtors, and politicians.  Let’s act like a public: let’s listen to public school students and teachers, take seriously their stories, their questions, and their ideas, and demand that our leaders stop treating them like “just numbers.”


Democratic Education: Look for Progressive Schools’ Missing Link in Neighborhood Schools

What you need to understand is in our culture, when there’s not enough, we don’t quit, and we don’t close…When our children’s book bags are underutilized, we don’t kick them out, we fill them up. When there’s not enough potatoes, you don’t stop cooking dinner. When there is not enough gas, you don’t give away your car. Goldblatt is not an underutilized building. I’ll say it again: Goldblatt is not an underutilized building. It’s a greatly-utilized school. Don’t get schooling mixed up with the building…If you want to see progress, you got to keep our schools open.

— Marcus Brady, Goldblatt School Security Officer

 Unless local communal life can be restored, the public cannot adequately resolve its most urgent problem: to find out and identify itself…For it will be alive and flexible as well as stable, responsive to the complex and world-wide scene in which it is enmeshed.  While local, it will not be isolated.  Its larger relationships will provide an inexhaustible and flowing fund of meanings.

–John Dewey, The Public and its Problems

When Public Education is Under Attack, What Do We Do? STAND UP, FIGHT BACK! This   protest chant illuminates an important source of democratic education that have been left too long untapped by progressive education practice: struggle in community.  This value is at the heart of John Dewey’s writing on education, but its relevance to the progressive education that developed out of Dewey’s work has not been developed, because the people carrying out struggle in community were by and large not in progressive schools.  The fight for public education in Chicago challenges the progressive education community to decide whether democratic education matters enough to join in the struggle in community.

Recent analyses have focused on political implications of the fight over school closings at both local and global levels, exemplifying the kind of critical thinking schools should be nurturing in students.  But the school closings controversy also brought to the wider public voices in the community that teach us precisely the practices that we urgently need for democratic society today.  Coming from a progressive school context, I am interested in the meaning of struggle in community for progressive education.

In the Chicago Public School Board’s “community engagement” process over the past several months, community members spoke to the meaning of the school as a community.   Students, parents, faculty and administrators and staff across Chicago neighborhoods and schools all describe school as a place of belonging, continuity, trust, and safety.  They describe the nexus of relationships at the school: the school is a space where families come together with one another and with other families, in peace and hope.  Children find the protection and affirmation that they need to grow.  Adults find resources and encouragement for employment, health, and financial and reading literacy.  These are real-world supports that schools offer — and that the school closings now jeopardize.

Thousands of Chicagoans of every age, class, and race have been explaining to the Board of Education that school is not just an appendage of the state.  That it is not just a building in which to warehouse, test, and sort children.  That education is a broader field than academic progress — and that the measures by which they are considering academic progress are deeply flawed, with little correspondence to people’s actual strengths, nor to the capacities that are actually demanded by today’s world.  That investing in the economic, social, and physical health of the neighborhoods will improve education more surely than any strategy propagated by Central Office.

Community members’ testimonials describe exactly the kind of schools that the great education philosopher John Dewey proposed for America: community schools.  Dewey saw the school as the living source of democratic society: the closer its connections with the community, the stronger the learning that happened in it.  At the same time, he was clear that education viewed only in terms of academic growth is both rationally incorrect and socially dangerous. In “The School as a Social Centre,” he writes,

The intellectual life, facts, and truths of knowledge, are much more obviously and intimately connected with all other affairs of life than they ever have been at any previous period in the history of the world.  Hence a purely and exclusively intellectual instruction means less than it ever meant before. And, again, the daily occupations and ordinary surroundings of life are much more in need of interpretation than ever they have been before.

Education for today’s world requires breaking down the boundaries between academic learning and the challenges and opportunities of real life.  Over and over again, community members of scores of schools like Lafayette, Jackson, and Stockton, point to the community partnerships that enrich children’s education, like HEART, Merit, and multiple museum partnerships — that the school closings kill.  “Community” is not just being nice to each other and collaborating.  It lives in diverse relationships and in respect for the many parts of the learner — the musical learner, the ethical learner — parts which the School Board doesn’t recognize.

What does all this have to do with progressive education?  Progressive education philosophers knew that community didn’t just exist; it had to be fought for.  As Benson, Puckett, and Harkavy argue, however, in Dewey’s Dream, Dewey betrayed “the dream” of democratic education by shrinking from the battles that sustaining such a model required.  After founding his Laboratory School, he left Chicago and withdrew into philosophy that was removed from struggles surrounding real-life schools in cities like Chicago.  This left progressive schools to develop to spectacular success one dimension of Dewey’s philosophy, child-centered pedagogy — while leaving undeveloped the social implications of his philosophy.

Progressive education is anemic without struggle in community.  Dewey explained better than anyone how schools could and should be the vehicle for social transformation.  “The educational end and the ultimate test of value of what is learned is its use and application in carrying on and improving the common life of all,” he wrote.  Dewey saw schools as the place where people came together across diverse backgrounds, and co-created “the common life.” This necessarily included intelligently standing up to the powers that threatened the common life: “Obviously a society, to which stratification into separate classes would be fatal, must see to it that intellectual opportunities are accessible to all on equable and easy terms. A society marked off into classes need be specially attentive only to the education of its ruling elements.”

Writers and thinkers from Dewey’s contemporary George Counts to present-day philosopher Maxine Greene have lamented Progressive Education’s failure to take on the fight for the democratic work of the schools that Dewey envisioned. In “Dare the School Build a New Social Order,” Counts writes,

If Progressive Education is to be genuinely progressive, it must emancipate itself from the influence of this class, face squarely and courageously every social issue, come to grips with life in all its stark reality, develop a realistic and comprehensive theory of welfare, fashion a compelling and challenging vision of human destiny, and become less frightened…Progressive Education cannot place its trust in a child-centered school.

Counts, along with other progressive philosophers, seeks to change the paradigm of education.  Schools, according to this paradigm, are not for preparing young people for success in the real world.  Schools are for changing the world.

Progressive education has not made much progress on this goal in its 100+ year history.

But community schools have.  Built up by people in the neighborhoods separated from the schools Dewey founded, community schools offer wrap-around supports for the improvement of the neighborhoods.   They grow community. 

Dewey said, “Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighborly community,” but he didn’t know how to actualize the neighborly community.  People in the neighborhoods did, and do.  They repeat over and over again that the measures that CPS uses are don’t fit the real work the schools are doing to strengthen communities, that these measures are limited, low, and ignorant.  As Andre Perry explains,

When we remove our eyes from the higher standard of community, we don’t see the intersectionality of community problems. When you’re community focused, you can’t be vigorous about school reform without being spirited about prison reform…When we have faith in community, we can never believe in a theory of improvement by deletion. Community members don’t go away. They may be literally locked away in jail and prison, but people are still here.

The people closing the schools (many of whom, of course, send their children to progressive schools like Dewey’s Laboratory School) are viewing public schools in a narrow and anti-progressive light.  Meanwhile, the people in the neighborhood schools are growing the potential of schools for furthering social change.  They know how to strengthen the school’s function as a social anchor of the community.

The people in the neighborhoods fighting together for their schools have been fleshing out the democratic implications of progressive education, which have been largely missing from progressive schools.   Their teachings offer a vital resource for a society struggling for democratic community.  The Chicago Public Schools Board didn’t listen: they summarily closed 50 schools yesterday.  I wonder if people in progressive schools can listen better — to foster democratic education in solidarity with our public schools communities, and STAND UP, FIGHT BACK!

Standards vs Audience, or: what good is a student, anyhow?

I wouldn’t fit in very well in a public school.  I don’t do benchmarks and I draw up rubrics haphazardly.  Nobody has ever asked me to work with externally imposed standards, nor did I, when I was English Department Chair, ever ask anyone else to do so.  Our school is old-fashioned: we don’t talk about standards but about students.  We talk about what they’re thinking about, and how different young people think and how different adults think and what’s the relationship between us.

When I was asked to participate in a forum on testing in Chicago schools, for some wider representation, I asked my colleagues, “how do we assess at Parker?”  (Here’s another blogger’s report on the event.)  Here are a few snippets from their responses:

“I don’t give traditional seated exams of any kind in my classes, with the possible exception of in-class essays.  Normally, I do projects, papers, and presentations that are heavily scaffolded in class.  There is a lot of guided work, revision, peer feedback, and one-on-one guidance from me.  Generally, I try to focus student assessment on analytical work and helping them refine their ability to effectively express themselves.”

 “In my classes, assessments come in multiple modalities — analytical writing, multiple-choice reading comprehension exams, performance-based research projects — and are rolled out in a sequence that employs assessment as a teaching instrument to support skill-based expectations in precise and rich language usage.”

“I ask myself: What’s going to be useful in the world they are inheriting, and that leads me to:
Exposing them to multiple perspectives as readers, then supporting them as thinkers, speakers, and writers to bring forward their thinking in diverse contexts for a diverse audience. So I assess on the basis of clarity and polish and thoughtfulness of expression so that they may gain an audience as speakers or writers, and I assess on the basis on whether or not they have cast their language and their writing in a way that will gain the audience they seek and deserve.”

Each teacher takes a different approach, and this is encouraged in an environment where teaching is understood to be an art, not a trade.  Yet I see a common theme across the board in my colleagues’ responses: a view of students as subjects.  In these remarks, my colleagues don’t even mention teaching and learning.  Their orientation is unequivocally toward what students do with the material, experiences, and ideas they encounter.  They talk about how young people express themselves and about audience.  When we think of people as subjects, we talk about their audiences – who their words affect and how – this is part of living in a democracy.  Members of democratic society are always understood to have an audience – what we say and do is not separate from other people; always must speak to other people.

When we talk about standards, however, we’re using industrial terminology; and if that’s all we’re talking about, we risk relating to people as objects, not subjects.  When students’ value is measured by standardized tests, this means that students are not seen as actors in the world, responsible, thinking contributors to democratic society.  What is valued is the standards.  The genius of democracy – a world not just lived in but shaped by all members of society – is not served by an exclusively standards-based education.   Young people – in all school environments, not only private schools — are valuable and necessary contributors to society.  The policies of our democratic society must be grounded in this recognition, and unless standardized tests directly foster democratic citizenship, their place in the education of our children should be strictly limited.

strike lessons

“If we can’t teach history, we’ll make history!”

–the sign of a striking teacher

I have been asking teachers on the picket line how they addressed the strike with their students in the days before it started.  A teacher this morning said that the administration had told them that they could teach students about labor history and the concept of strikes, but they couldn’t mention the current strike.  This is a good example of the mandated disconnect that puts real learning out of reach in many schools.  When we don’t teach the strike, we’re telling students that learning is supposed to be about other people and other times, not about engaging intelligently with the matter of our lives here and now.  Your current reality, we tell the students, doesn’t count, doesn’t figure in to what you know, what you can do, what you learn.

I’m sure a lot of teachers are wondering how they’ll teach about the strike when they go back to school.  I know hundreds of teachers who incorporate civic learning into their English, Arts, Language, Math, Science, and Social Studies classes.   They know that first and foremost students aren’t learning how to parse a sentence or write an equation; first and foremost students are learning how to make sense of their world.   Students are learning to look closely, to ask questions, to listen to one another and to speak clearly.  Teachers want students to understand the social conditions and historical forces that impact their lives – and to develop creative, healthy, and wise ways of shaping the future.   The key text is the student’s own life, and her relation to the larger community.  Any day in any neighborhood in Chicago offers plenty of material for civic learning.  But a civic learning approach to the strike yields especially potent implications for education for democracy.

I’m particularly interested in what the teachers are modeling for their students by striking.  They are stepping outside of the school; they are joining together and supporting one another; they are taking risks; they are analyzing and sharing that analysis in compelling and creative ways.  They are striking for and with the students.  They are each giving voice to the hundreds of students they work with.

The teachers on the picket lines are also addressing questions that are central to students’ lives:

How do you respond when you’re being threatened?  Teachers are modeling civic power: they have talked, argued, thought, decided, and are carrying out their decision.  They have sought and found power in community.  They are showing students a way of responding to threats, bullying, and disrespect that isn’t violent or fear-based.

What does it mean to work?  Strikers make it abundantly clear that work is not just about doing what’s right in front of you, keeping your head down and your nose to the grindstone.  It’s certainly not about doing what you’re told.  Working must also include putting your head up and looking around and responding to what’s going on.

How do I prepare for the future when things are uncertain?  The striking teachers have to take things one day at a time, very literally, and they manage it by keeping track of what’s going on around them, keeping in communication and collaborating. Every moment brings change, but by holding this moment in a bigger frame of the long-range vision, the teachers keep focused, strong, and brimming with the grace and humor that makes life good all around.

When classes resume, the lessons of the strike will live on.