We The People
The famous preamble from our most sacred civic document, the U.S. Constitution, famously begins with We the People establishes five objectives for our government, one of which is “promote the general Welfare.”

Rather than unnecessarily expose myself to risk by addressing the board again, I decided to pen this open letter to the HCPS board members and submit it as my public comment for the record of the special called school board meeting taking place on Thursday, August 6th. Not only is this letter a plea for the board to unanimously vote to do the right thing, it is also a lament about how politically polarized we’ve become as a nation, which is both deeply distressing and disheartening.

Prefer to listen to the open letter? Click play:

Honorable Hillsborough County School Board Members:

We live in trying times and today you must make an important decision that will affect us all, regardless of our individual needs, desires and, yes, even choices. As elected leaders, you have been granted the consent of “We the People” to carefully consider the common good, balancing that ideal with our cherished individual liberty. The tension that teeters on the fulcrum between these two concepts has always existed and should be in balance, but our polarized political ecology as of late has clearly tipped the scale so far over that our county, country, and culture all suffer from the corrosive nature of hyper-individualism. Now, more than ever before, we must seek to unite again. Today, let Hillsborough County put people over politics so that we may move forward together.

Our second most sacred American historical document, The Declaration of Independence, contains the famous line concerning certain inalienable rights, and “that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Notice the order in which those three fundamental rights are listed. Does liberty come before life? Absolutely not. Life must come before liberty because it is a prerequisite for autonomy itself. This simple idea underscores how perplexed I and many of my fellow Americans have been about these claims regarding the use of masks, social distancing, and why we must offer enlightened individuals a choice to send their children to schools in the midst of a public health crisis. But if preservation of life is the highest good, the ultimate aim of what a democratic government is to provide to its citizens, why must some continue to elevate the idol of free choice over the lives of our children, our educators and their families?

Please do not misconstrue what is being said. As Americans, our liberty is dear to us all. But I hope to offer a brief lesson in ethics through two philosophical giants, one of whom is a champion of individual liberty and the author of one of my favorite essays, On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. Although this tract looms large in the minds of many disciples of freedom, Mill is also the philosopher who perfected an ethical approach known as Utilitarianism, which fundamentally argues in favor of “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” The other thinker is Immanuel Kant, arguably the most famous moral philosopher of the entire Enlightenment period, the very same fertile grounds on which our cherished ideals took root before being transported here by our Founding Fathers.

J.S. Mill is unambiguous in his assertions that individual liberty is the paramount good and that in all matters of one’s own body and mind, “the individual is sovereign.” He is the classic liberal who puts freedom above all else, except, like Thomas Jefferson, when it comes to potentially harming or killing others. In the introduction to On Liberty he states, “that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Furthermore, in the concluding chapter regarding the limits of authority of society over the individual, he lucidly claims “there is no room for entertaining any such question when a person’s conduct affects the interests of no persons beside himself.” Clearly, the conduct of those who are politically pressing to open during a pandemic undoubtedly affects others by threatening the health and lives of our broader community, meaning a vote for liberty over life is a moral failure.

Make no mistake, those who continue to tout their individual liberty over the common good and public health are wrong, ethically speaking, especially in light of how our foundational American ideals and values were firmly established on these same philosophical principles.

Beyond the utilitarian argument of “the greatest good for the greatest number” and lone moral prohibition of harming others in the utilitarian way of reasoning, we should also consider another ethical approach, Kant’s deontology. Also known as “duty ethics,” to comprehend the complex Kantian perspective it is perhaps best to think of a coin; the obverse being our “rights” and the reverse of the same coin being our “duties,” both of which are inextricably linked. For instance, if we have a right to property, others have an ethical duty to not steal that property from us. If we have a right to truth and transparency from our government and its elected leaders, then it has a duty to not lie or deceive the people. And perhaps most critically above all else, if we have a right to life, others have a duty to not kill or otherwise deprive any individual of his or her life.

On both of these ethical points I rest my argument with regard to keeping our schools closed for at least the first nine weeks. I will go so far as to state that anything short of a unanimous vote in favor of keeping our schools closed in order to maximize the preservation of life—especially in light of overwhelming evidence and the urging of our local medical community, the only group who has the knowledge and expertise to guide us through this challenging time—is a dereliction of your duty as a constitutional officer of Florida. Your supreme concern should be the safety of our students, staff, and remaining citizens of Hillsborough County. Any vote that dissents against common sense and the common good sends a strong signal that you, as an individual board member, will continue to put politics over people. A vote of dissent will also be an abject moral failure on your part, and I will never let you live it down.

Now more than ever our county, country, and culture need UNITY. We are supposedly the United States of America, but the reality says we are the Divisive Political Tribes of America. As an NPA who is a fiercely, independently minded moderate, I only want what is currently best for everyone. Unfortunately, this also means shared sacrifice for all, as we must temporarily put aside our individualism and freedom of choice for the common good and public health. Life precedes liberty; by voting to preserve the former, you guarantee the latter for our futures.

Gratefully,

Ryan Haczynski

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Below is a simple template email that you can copy, paste, and send to your principal. Feel free to make any necessary edits, but try to keep the email short and direct. Though they may not remain when copied and pasted, I have linked a few key pieces of information. Please see below the email for additional details or to download the Word Doc version of this email.

Dear Principal ______________,

I hope this brief message finds you and your family well during this unprecedented time. I cannot begin to imagine what has been asked of you by our district. Planning and scheduling two different options within one week must be an impossible task.

Due to the current CDC guidelines meeting the criteria for a high transmission area, I will be attending work remotely beginning tomorrow, (enter date). I am concerned for my health, as well as that of my family, neighbors, and the broader public. I hope you understand and respect this decision.

Governor Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran have both made assurances that educators who do not feel comfortable returning to the brick and mortar setting can engage in distance learning. I have made my request for an eLearning position, yet have not received confirmation. If you can confirm that I have received an eLearning position, please let me know at your earliest convenience; if you cannot confirm at this time, I will await my appointment. In the meantime, I will continue my own learning through professional development, focusing specifically on our new platforms to serve our students online.

I look forward to when the virus subsides and it is safe for all to return to our school.

Gratefully,

___________________________

P.S. – Feel free to edit how you see fit for your district.

Downloadable Word Doc: Email Template

P.P.S. – Here are a few key excerpts from the CDC guidelines regarding why our schools should remain closed until our COVID rates decline. Many continue to simply say “the CDC said…” yet have not read the specifics in the updated guidelines.

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For the last four years I have taught the capstone course of the International Baccalaureate Program, Theory of Knowledge. To be surrounded by amazingly talented and incredibly intelligent young people on a daily basis has fostered so much personal and professional growth, most especially in my own epistemic humility. On any given day I am bound to be asked questions that will be met with what what appears to be an uncommon answer in today’s day and age: “I don’t know.”

Since the COVID-19 global pandemic began, armchair infectious disease specialists, backyard barbecue virologists, and yard sale epidemiologists have come crawling out of the web’s woodwork. Apparently all it takes is reading a few articles about herd immunity to become a self-proclaimed expert on the subject, and then SHOUTING DOWN opponents in all caps to demonstrate why one’s opinion is more valid than the other’s.

Here’s a tip: don’t have an opinion on something that is well outside one’s “circle of competence”. But if an opinion must be held and declared, perhaps put an asterisk on it if there is no expertise to back it up.

Over the last four months, I’ve read about 25 books. All of them have taught me one thing: I am far more ignorant than knowledgeable. Like Socrates, the longer I live the more confident I become in my ignorance–my intellectual humility–not my knowledge. Considering the nature of the pandemic and the pronouncements I continue to see on social media and the web, here are two incredibly powerful pieces of knowledge that can help any person cultivate epistemic humility.

Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets is an excellent read on decision-making when all the pertinent information is unavailable. The key takeaway I will share is this:  human beings are evolutionally hardwired to believe what we hear. As Duke states it, we cannot afford a “false negative,” so for thousands of years when we heard a rustle in the bushes we looked, believing a predator was behind us. Most of the time we get “false positives”, just as our ancestors figured out it was wind-rustling the reeds and not the feared saber-toothed tiger.

But now think about what that fact means in relation to how crazy coronavirus conspiracies are spread by word of mouth before becoming manifest on the internet and proliferating wildly from there.

Not. Good.

The other book is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile (the author himself recommends this as a standalone, but I would encourage all to read the entire Incerto series). One of his most interesting ideas is akin the logical fallacy known as argument ad ignorantiam, but much better sounding when Taleb pronounces “the mother of all mistakes: mistaking absence of evidence (of harm) for evidence of absence.” Although he is specifically discussing iatrogenics in this context, we can see it in the flawed thinking of others. For instance, consider COVID naysayers in the world who claim the virus is a hoax because no one they know (absence of evidence) has gotten sick from it, equating this as “proof” (evidence of absence) for why the coronavirus is not real.

When taken together, these two ideas should make us very cautious to claim to know anything about what is going on with the pandemic. Annie Duke specifically offers a wonderful technique about how to challenge one’s own beliefs, which often go unstated: “Wanna bet?” When our family and friends casually say this phrase after we make a claim, it typically unnerves us and makes us think about how we came to believe what we said aloud in the first place. This mental pause is enough to make us reassess the belief and perhaps give it a quantitative ranking; the lower the percentage, the less likely the person is to be certain the belief is correct–and certainty is a massive cognitive challenge in and of itself (the “I’m Not Sure” above is a nod to Duke herself).

So when you hear our elected leaders or even next-door neighbors claim that they will send their child to school despite the coronavirus, “knowing” that transmission rates are low among kids because they’ve read an article or two, ask them (if possible): “Wanna bet?” (the central question that drives inquiry in Theory of Knowledge is “How do you know?”) When thinking about whether or not to send Florida’s children to a brick and mortar setting, parents must make the ultimate bet because the wager is the lives of their children or their own lives if the kids bring the virus home to them.

I’m not willing to make or take that bet. Are you?

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Do you think it is safe to return to schools based on this data?

In the end, what we claim to “know”–especially regarding all things related to the coronavirus–should be suspect and constantly re-evaluated, both in light of new findings and an awareness of our inability to truly understand them beyond the literacy required to read the words on the page. Every single one of us is far more ignorant than knowledgable about what is happening, and perhaps that epistemic humility will have us all saying my favorite three words a whole lot more…

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P.S. – If you are even remotely curious about Nassim Taleb, please read this wonderful recent profile from The New Yorker. He is the ultimate contrarian and made me realize that I am far more conservative/risk-averse than I ever imagined possible. Back in late January, he and a few other mathematicians were growing concerned about the coronavirus outbreak in China, and published a paper in a journal effectively stating that we should shut down the country, begin social-distancing, minimize movement, and wear masks to slow/stop the transmission and save our economy. As he now laments, “we could have spent pennies and now we’ve spent trillions.” Like me, he is no fan of all this debt, which we will ultimately have to pay for now that the “skin in the game” of corporations has been transferred from Wall Street to Main Street.

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Pretty much that simple.

Hey, everyone.

I hope that all of you had a wonderful extended Spring Break, cultivated your curiosity, and took some time to get adjusted to the “new normal” that will be our lives for the immediate future. Now that “eLearning” is officially here and everyone is returning to “school”–albeit in a very different sense–I wanted to share a bit of advice about your academics.

Don’t worry about them too much.

I know that may sound strange coming from a teacher, but juxtapose the following two facts for a moment: 1) as a species, the current anatomic form of humanity has been around for approximately 200,000 years; 2) by comparison, compulsory education here in the United States has existed for roughly 170 years.

Clearly, human beings have made a great deal of progress without the aid of formal education.

But that’s not to say you can or should blow off what you need to get done for the International Baccalaureate diploma. Instead, it is simply to suggest you focus on your humanity first during this challenging time. As I mentioned before we left for Spring Break, one of the best things any teenager can do during this time is try to get as much sleep as possible. This is a critical window of time for brain development, and experts recommend between 9 to 9.5 hours per evening. Getting lots of sleep will leave you feeling refreshed and ready to perform your best during the day.

Beyond sleep, the best thing you can do is organize your day by chunking out time for certain activities. Human beings are creatures of habit who thrive on routine, and establishing a schedule will help you stay positive and productive. On average, home school students spend 2-3 hours per day on “school work”; while you may need more time to accomplish what needs to be done for school, don’t spend your entire day focused on that alone.

Instead, take time for the more important matters. At the top of your list should be your family. During this trying time, do whatever you can first and foremost to help your parents/guardians in any way possible. If they need you to watch your siblings, do it; if they need you to clean up, cook dinner, do laundry or anything else to help around the house, do it. Don’t quibble about when or why, just be of service to others.

But even with these requests you will still probably have time on your hands, and this is where the real learning begins. Did you know, for instance, that much of the time Cambridge was closed due to the plague Isaac Newton developed Calculus? Or that Shakespeare composed King Lear? My point is that now is the perfect time to tackle those passion projects you didn’t feel you had time for due to the hectic IB schedule and all of its extracurricular demands. Why not use the coming days to earmark time for something you genuinely love or are curious about? Perhaps you’ve always wanted to try your hand at something new or develop another skill?

This is the perfect time.

It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Florida’s Education Commissioner, but as Richard Corcoran recently said in the Tampa Bay Times, “They’ll be learning every day. That’s a great thing.”

The truth is we should all be learning lessons every. single. day. Life is one giant lesson if we are lifelong students who are always willing to learn. But now the time is calling us to be human. I’m not one for labels or being reductionist, but if there is common ground we can all agree to in this moment, it is our shared humanity. When we strip away the political identities, the religious affiliations, the claims to certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds, we are 99.9% genetically the same. We’ve all been given this gift of life. We’ve all been blessed in ways we often do not recognize on a daily basis.

And perhaps this is the most important lesson of all.

In closing, I hope that you use this time to learn as much as you possibly can, especially about what it means to be human in trying times. Lean on one another. And never forget my favorite quote from Gandhi that you looked at every day when we met in room 824.

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Best. Quote. Ever.

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Today is the tenth anniversary of my first foray into education advocacy. At the time I wondered if I was a teacher or a scapegoat because, in the midst of the Great Recession, it seemed as if educators were getting the blame for every single thing. Against this backdrop, the first merit pay/accountabaloney bill, SB6, was moving through the legislature and during lunch I scrawled these words on an Office Depot memo pad out of frustration the very same day I had proctored the FCAT.

Now that we stand on the precipice of another economic recession, and with COVID-19 forcing all of us online in a grand experiment that may fundamentally disrupt our education model forever, I cannot help but wonder what the future holds. As always, I am ever the optimist and a curious lifelong learner who sees a number of positive possibilities for what this pandemic can teach us all–most critically, the need for all stakeholders to lean on one another to help all of Florida’s children succeed.

The complete op-ed text is below. I wrote it as a “letter to the editor” and had no idea it would make the front page of the Opinion section in the Sunday edition of the now defunct Tampa Tribune. Only when my phone started ringing that morning did I realize it had been published. The picture above is the lone copy I saved and now hangs in 824.

Am I a teacher or a scapegoat?

I’ve been wondering about that a great deal lately. It seems that every society has them, usually commencing with the recognition of some societal ill.

In the past decade, that malady has become education–in particular, teachers. Apparently, we’re solely to blame.

The phrases “professional development,” “teacher effectiveness” and “teacher accountability” are harped on by pundits and politicians outside the profession.

In what other public-servant sector do we demand such accountability? Do we blame police officers for arriving at the scene of a crime too late? A firefighter for not saving a home from the flames?

Certainly, these public servants do their best. We don’t single them out as the lone variable when life goes awry.

Or how about accountability for our politicians who kowtow not to the demands of their constituents but to the dollars of lobbyists and special interests who truly run this “democracy”?

State Senator John Thrasher, sponsor of Senate Bill 6, is seeking to pile even more accountability on our shoulders while basing our performance as teachers on nothing more than statistics.  Well, I have an interesting statistic of my own: 1.7 percent. As individual teachers (speaking of high school and one 50 minute class period), our students spend 1.7 percent of their time with each of us in one calendar year. If one were to include only waking hours, the number becomes 2.6 percent.

Taken from a collective standpoint, students spend 14 percent of their time in one year with the classroom (again, the number rises to 18 percent if we consider sleep).

Whether it is crime, dropouts, graduation, FCAT, reading proficiency or any other rate or percentage being pinned on our profession, the truth is we take 100 percent of the blame though we comprise only 14 percent of each student’s time.

It is time for accountability to be spread out evenly.

As teachers, we cannot control the 86 percent of the time our students are not within our classrooms or any other of the variables (COVID-19?). Accountability should begin with the student and be buttressed by the parent. It should continue with the teachers, guidance counselors and administrators while in school.

In a perfect world, accountability should be part of a continuum — an unbroken chain in which we all play a part. It is foolish and delusional for politicians and parents to believe we are a panacea for these social ills.

Real progress will begin when our society stops blaming and starts helping. Only through cooperation of all parties involved in the academic progress will it be possible to right the ship of education in the United States.

Senate Bill 6 is progressing in the Senate. I am urging all of you who care enough about our educational system, our collective dignity as professional educators and, most importantly, our students, to engage in your civic duty by writing or calling your state legislators and voicing your concerns about the bill becoming law.

Not much has changed in the decade since this was written. Educators have been put through the ringer in any number of ways, and taking our learning online will be a challenge for many for various reasons. The most essential thing to put at the forefront of our minds during this crisis, however, is our shared humanity. We are all human beings facing an exigent and existential threat, and if we are going to help our children succeed it will require the “continuum” I mentioned above, even if it doesn’t happen in the traditional confines of a classroom.

Stay safe and be healthy, everyone.

JS-Waiting

Another excellent guest post from friend, fellow teacher, and contributor, Michelle Hamlyn.

For the entire fifteen years I’ve lived and taught in Florida, it seems the Florida Legislature has had it in for teachers. Teachers have dealt with tenure disappearing, increased standardized testing, and new evaluation systems. We’ve lived through multiple performance pay shenanigans, including the asinine Best & Bogus, arbitrary and continually moving cut scores, and constant disrespect. We’ve watched as shady charters use funding traditional public schools desperately need, only to close amid scandal after scandal. We’ve seen voucher misuse and abuse, to the detriment of some of our neediest kids.

And we’re still here.

Because we’re actually pretty good at waiting. (After all, we’re the people who sometimes have to wait all day to use the bathroom.) We wait for our students to think before they raise their hand to answer a question. We wait for the “light bulb” moments. We wait for the college acceptance letters with our high school students. We know human growth takes time.

Those of us veteran teachers who have been around for a while also know that in education, there are cycles and arcs. We know the pendulum eventually swings back in the opposite direction. So we’ve become pretty good at waiting.

All of this is lost on the Florida Legislature. They believed that if they could just prove the narrative that public education is failing, it would be quick and easy to privatize education. And then the money would roll in for them and their cronies. Unfortunately for them, they underestimated teachers’ “wait time” abilities. Grossly underestimated them.

Because no matter how many times they’ve changed the cut scores or the iteration of the standards or the version of the test, most of us have stayed. And taught our students how to play the game. Yes, you were taught to start your essay with a question, but this year you can’t start with a question. Absolutely, you’ll get a reference sheet with formulae on it. Sorry, you’re going to have to memorize the formulae this year. It’s enough to make a person’s head spin, but we’ve persevered.

As have our students.

So now they’ve come out with what is truly ridiculous. The new standardized test administration rules. These rules should have every public school parent in the state calling or emailing their legislators . Because the rules are even more asinine than a bonus based on a test the teacher took when they were seventeen. Make no mistake, the legislature will tell you it’s in the interest of fairness and a level playing field. As if they know what one looks like.

The new test administration rules forbid the following:

  • Waking a sleeping child.
  • Verbally encouraging a student.
  • Telling a student to go back and check their answers.
  • Asking the students if they’re sure they’re done or if they’ve answered every question before submitting the test.
  • Reminding students to write down (before the test begins) a formula or mnemonic device that will help them remember something.
  • Giving out mints or water.

There is absolutely nothing about any of these things that is truly in the interest of fairness. Seriously, telling a student, “It’s okay, you got this” is unfair? Letting them get a drink of water during a two-hour window of sitting in front of a computer makes a student infinitely smarter than “little Jimmy?” What’s next? Telling them they can’t use the bathroom during that two-hour window?

Most of the teachers I’ve communicated with that know of these new rules are beyond flabbergasted. Some are disheartened; some are rebellious. But all are shaking their heads in complete and total disgust. Because we know that this is just one more ploy in a long-standing ruse that just isn’t ever going to be true.

And in the meantime, our kids are paying the price.

Want to help? This petition recently started circulating online, demanding that the FLDOE reconsider these new “rules” that have been issued to educators who will work as testing proctors this spring. Please CLICK HERE to sign and share with others today!

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Ever the consummate gentleman, Wali Shabazz showed up with this rose on my doorstep

“[He’s] a saint, even though you can’t see his halo.” – Marina Pilcher, former chief of Hillsborough’s juvenile probation program.

My next door neighbor and friend, Wali Shabazz, has been advocating on behalf of the African American community–and young males in particular–here in Tampa for over 30 years. Though he readily admits that he has no control over the color of his own skin, he has “all the control over my excellence as a human being, and that needs to be more of our focus in the 21st century.” During this wide-ranging conversation about his advocacy work, we discuss the cultural changes that have shaped the African-American community since the 1960’s; how his program scaled up with a $1.2 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation; as well as the work he has done here in Hillsborough County Public Schools.

If you’d like to learn more about Wali and his work, below is list of articles that have profiled him and his work over the years. Wali specializes in Cultural Integrity Training for teens and adults, Group Sensitivity Training for educators, as well as individual coaching. He can be reached directly by email at wsshabazz1@aol.com or calling him on his cell phone (he also provides this in the podcast) at 813-363-6385.

Thanks for listening, everyone. Please be sure to share with others who may be interested!

Los Angeles Times: “Tampa Experiment: Black Crime: Taking a Look Inward”

Tampa Bay Times: “Program Tries to Give Black Male Students a Foundation”

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Dr. Kim Moore (L), Charity Franks (C), and Wali Shabazz (R)

 

Ethics Complaint

Below is the first page explaining the ethics complaint filed against Representative Melony Bell today. If you’d like to see everything including the timeline and screenshots, click the link at the very bottom. Click this link here to read the column from the Washington Post.

To Whom It May Concern:

The following is a statement of facts—including a timeline of events and pictures that
document said events—regarding the unethical behaviors of Melony Bell-R, HD56 that
transpired on January 21st through the morning of January 23rd.
During a public meeting of the House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee on January 21st, while examining HJR157, Rep Bell said the following:

“I’m a believer in Home Rule…but we have a school board member in Polk County, and
I’ll go on record, who most likely needs to be removed and the governor has not
removed him (emphasis mine)…Time after time, he just disrupts the whole School
Board and teachers and the association. With term limits, I could see, this is probably
going to be the only way to remove him from office.”
The “school board member in Polk County” is duly elected Billy Townsend, District 1. It seems both unethical and downright undemocratic for a sitting state legislator to call for the removal of another elected official from office simply because of a difference of views. Mr. Townsend has done nothing wrong and has the support of thousands of citizens all over Polk, both from within the confines of the education establishment and beyond.
This is a summary of the first charge of unethical behavior; it amounts to falsehoods being spread by Representative Bell, potentially undermines the democratic rights and votes of the 140,000+ citizens who elected Mr. Townsend, and could be considered slanderous and defamation of character, both of which go beyond the purview of ethics and are, in fact, illegal.

The second charge of unethical behavior stems from how I was censored on social media. As noted in the Washington Post article that is included beneath this opening statement, you will read about numerous court cases from across the country concerning elected officials who operate on social media and that, by providing a public forum, cannot censor dissenting viewpoints, which is exactly what happened to me when I expressed my dismay at her comments about Mr. Townsend. In the following pages, I have included evidence of said censorship, and I hope that you take all due action to deliberate this matter and censure Representative Bell for her careless and slanderous remarks, as well as to ensure that she no longer censors other dissenting viewpoints from appearing on her Facebook page or any other social media platform she may use as an elected official.

Ethics Complaint – Representative Melony Bell

Function of Education

For the last several years I have thought about this quote on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is fitting for two reasons: 1) most would profess this to be education’s chief aim; 2) a free, high quality public education seems to be the civil rights issue of our day and age. Rather than offer a solution on either of these two challenges–and make no mistake, solutions are desperately needed for both issues–this brief entry is more of a meditation on the first reason and the vexing problems presented by the Florida Education Model.

Much of what Florida education–and this is perhaps true in most states across the U.S.–focuses on is “teaching to the test” in the sense that almost everything revolves around some standardized test outcome, whether for the individuals involved (student or classroom teacher) or the institutions themselves (schools and districts). Though not explicitly taught to do so, by the time students are in middle school they realize the skills they are receiving, perhaps even implicitly, are that of “memorization and regurgitation.” They cram their heads full of facts that they often have no connection to or context for, dump out the ones they remember on the all-too-important state assessment, only to move on to a new subject the following semester or year having learned little to nothing of value.

Many high school students themselves find this incredibly frustrating and want something better, something more.

Imagine if our education system really were about teaching “one to think intensively and to think critically.” What would that look like? While some traffic in conspiratorial plans about reformers intentionally dumbing down our children, the current model is simply the cheapest to implement for the state while simultaneously padding the profits of the Education Industrial Complex, most especially the standardized testing giants. None of this benefits our students, especially as we get further into the 21st century. Now more than ever we need to radically reconfigure our education system so that the outcomes are focused on students who can think intensively and critically.

As a Theory of Knowledge teacher, much of the class is oriented toward producing these skills, albeit they are focused on knowledge itself. But learning how to think intensively and critically needs to be modeled aloud, discovered through dialogue, and practiced often by oneself and among peers–something we have little time for in most traditional classrooms. Moreover, we often get into discussions about the value in knowing random facts about the world if they will have little use or relation to one’s future professional path, regardless of what path that may be. Whether a student becomes a plumber, a pilot, or a plastic surgeon, any adult person living on the planet will need good thinking.

But even beyond the college and career readiness aspects of focusing on teaching students how to think intensively and critically, the second part of the MLK quote is equally essential: “Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.” Obviously thinking hones intelligence, regardless of the type, but character is an interesting word choice. The root is the ancient Greek word for sharpening, as if our character is something to be worked upon, whittling away that which does not benefit our personal moral code and leaving behind what is most essential. Does our education system explicitly promote that? How might our students benefit from this type of education? Would it not truly leave them better prepared to face any challenge life might throw their way in the future? All of us face a future full of uncertainty due to technological innovation and disruption, and being able to think clearly and lucidly about events as they arise, in conjunction with the strength of character, would be the best skills and traits we could impart to our students.

We need to make this seismic shift in our educational approach much sooner than most think. The regressive model of education we currently use is antiquated and built upon ideas that were important 200 years ago, but couldn’t be more irrelevant today. The future of education must be more human and more humane. We must focus on what makes us unique as a species (art, play, creativity, communication, etc) and leverage those skills over and above those tasks that can be done by machines. Education must become focused on thinking for its own sake and to instill a love of learning that is lifelong and directs each student to further investigate his or her passions, none of which can be found by filling in letter B on the bubble sheet.

 

Testing Anxiety
An all-too-common sight for teachers looking out at students taking high stakes tests/exams.

Friend and fellow educator Michelle Hamlyn returns with another timely guest post about what it is like to silently sit in a room with over-tested teens who are anxious and stressed about earning a certain number / grade on their semester exams. If you didn’t catch any of Michelle’s previous guest pieces, Why We’re Here and I’m Angry are highly suggested. For now, please read and share her latest reflection on what education has become…

As I sit here for the third day in a row, watching my twelve- and thirteen-year olds take their sixth semester exam, I am once again reminded how far public education has gone off course. Some of them sit and stare like zombies. Some of them have at least one body part perpetually in motion – a foot tapping, fingers drumming, a leg bouncing up and down. Some of them just sit with the most resigned, discouraged looks on their faces. And we expect them to be able to sit and be quiet for almost two solid hours. I know successful adults who can’t manage that.

It didn’t used to be like this. Learning used to be enjoyable and interesting. Students used to be able to feel wonder and curiosity and success. But now, it’s just about finding the “best right answer.” Although I’d like to claim that phrase, I can’t. It’s been used in more than one professional development course I’ve taken.

How exactly is a twelve-year old, who can’t remember to bring their PE uniform home to be washed and back again, supposed to pick the “best right answer?” These are the people whose interests change more often than the latest technology. The people who today are “going out with” Bubba, but tomorrow find Earl more attractive. The people who think armpit “fart” noises are hysterical. (All of which is developmentally appropriate for this age group, unlike a two-hour semester exam in seven subjects over three and a half days.)

What does it do to your spirit when over the course of four days, you take seven nearly two-hour exams in which you have to find the “best right answer?” How does any of that feel rewarding? How does it show your intelligence?

More importantly, what has happened to teaching children to think for themselves? To know that there is more than one way to do things and that sometimes there is more than one answer?

With all the posturing over test scores and a push for creativity, you’d think that someone in charge would understand that the more rigid the answers become, the less children ask questions. The less they enjoy learning. The less they are, in fact, learning.

I hear all the reformers and legislators talking about kids being college and career ready. Those terms didn’t even exist back when they were children. And they shouldn’t exist now. That’s a fine goal for high school students. But it has no place in our dialogue about kindergarten through eighth grade.

I wonder how many of the reformers and legislators were college and career ready in elementary school or middle school. Those are places where you are supposed to learn, not just your numbers and letters, but also who you are and how to manage learning. They are not places where you only learn one thing or the “best right answer.” They are places where you explore, you make mistakes, and you learn from those mistakes.

But today’s students don’t want to make mistakes. They can’t afford to. Because their scores depend on it. Sadly, they’ve been taught to believe these scores actually define them.

And parents have bought into this narrative. Your child MUST take this standardized test to prove they’ve learned. To prove their value. To show that they can handle the next level. That they are college and career ready.

Even if they are just twelve- and thirteen-year olds. Taking seven two-hour exams where they have to find the “best right answer.”