Schools Don’t Need to Be Resurrected — They Need to Be Transformed

Can a schoolteacher (and daughter of a schoolteacher) say that schools as we know them should become obsolete? Absolutely. As an educator, I know firsthand that attempts to provide a universal standard education have failed miserably in this nation.

an empty classroom with desks organized into rows facing a black chalkboard
classroom by Wokandapix. Free for commercial use.

As a single parent, underemployed educator, and homeschool teacher for most of this year due to housing insecurity and schools closed because of Covid-19, I have substantial trepidation about putting my child back into school next fall. He attended 1.5 weeks of Kinder at our local elementary school before California began sheltering-in-place. Although I could use the “free daycare,” everything is more complicated now.

Don’t get me wrong. Educators work magic all the time, but there is nothing universal about it. We are exhausted and high turnover is very real. Districts across the country are looking for answers to the growing teacher shortage. Though Governor Gavin Newsom (CA) has proposed $900 million to recruit and retain teachers in the 2020 budget, it will not be enough. Even if we get them in the door, we can’t expect them to stay long. Not in the old normal. Not in this quasi-distance-learning world.

In fact, the hyper-jump to online learning has dramatically exposed the extent of these shortcomings — for students in rural areas, disabled students, students of color, and low-income students. Schools have poured a considerable amount of money into securing standardized curriculum and web-based learning tools. More money will be spent on test proctoring software and other online tools, rather than food, support, and resources for communities falling into another recession or even depression.

While I am impressed by what has been done this past month, it has also been a ridiculous amount of time and money to throw at replicating a dangerous, discriminatory, toxic system. Does this continue through fall? Do exhausted teachers and parents have to keep working in a system that feels futile?

When shelter-in-place orders are lifted, we will still have bans on the number of people who can gather. Our large institutions, as we remember them, will not reach any sense of normality for the rest of the year, at least. I can assure you, I have no plan to enroll my child in another semester or year of online Kindergarten. I would rather work with my community, at a time when we’re already coordinating on an unprecedented level and exhausting a vast amount of time, money, and energy, on a system that works better and is more sustainable.

Throughout history, significant changes to education and learning systems were often prompted by economic, social, and political shifts. Women were (and in some places still are) restricted from achieving literacy until fairly recently. It was illegal for “negroes” to become literate. Don’t get me started on what happened to indigenous American children. Massive learning institutions for children were not the norm until the last century.

Ideally, education systems are established to increase citizen participation in markets, elections, and other aspects of social and political life. Yet in America, only about 60% of the adult voting population exercises their voting privilege. In the last few weeks, new unemployment claims continue to be submitted and we may be looking at a quarter (or more) of our workforce forced out by this global pandemic. How might schools change to increase citizen participation?

…we need a vision for the future, not a return to the past.

Youth organizers this week wrote in an open letter to Joe Biden that “calling for solutions that match the scale, scope, and urgency of the problems we are facing is not radical. If nothing else, this moment of crisis should show that it is the pragmatic thing to do…we need a vision for the future, not a return to the past.”

We will not find our educational needs met in centralized (standardized) institutions of instruction, even with obvious pathways. Ivan Illich wrote, “neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education.”

We must focus our efforts on decentralizing education and encouraging education professionals, as well as community members, to implement learning and development systems relevant to contemporary life, as well as the emergent future. Yes, we can agree on benchmarks, standards, and tools of assessment to determine certification, completion, and progress for multiple literacies. We should also continue our efforts to demonstrate equitable best practices across the nation, as well as utilize enforcement mechanisms, to ensure that school districts fulfill their obligations to their young constituents. All students should receive a quality education.

…we need a vision for the future, not a return to the past.

Now, I am not trying to argue that we all switch to individualized homeschooling or fully embrace remote learning. On the contrary, I am encouraging public schools to provide face-to-face, world-class, secular education not focused on facilities and institutions, but on student and community need.

A large percentage of every district’s budget goes to operations and maintenance. Energy costs alone can be staggering, reaching the billions. Taxpayers continue to pay for bonds to improve facilities and house greater numbers of students and equipment. We spend a lot of money paying for spaces for children to learn and many schools still have inadequate or dangerous buildings. We need to think differently about why we congregate our young people into these spaces, somewhat sequestering them from public life.

West Oakland Farm Park by City Slicker Farms

Education can happen anywhere — in a park, community center, restaurant, zoo, farm, library, urban garden, co-working space, city council meeting, auto body shop, museum, etc. Of course, it’s best with an education professional (or two) who asks good questions, inspires critical thinking, provides opportunities for discovery, and challenges students to solve problems. And it can be enhanced through collaboration with professionals in our communities: farmers, librarians, artists, mechanics, cooks, scientists, park rangers, museum curators, etc.

When I was a graduate student at San Francisco State, I lived and worked across the Bay in Oakland. During the day, I was a teacher in East Oakland, and two buses and a train later, I was sitting in a night class in San Francisco. Spectrum Center is a special education organization that works with differently-abled students who are not mainstreamed into traditional public schools for personal and/or social safety. Most of my job consisted of teaching students necessary communication and life skills: riding the bus, buying chips at the neighborhood store, using pictures and word cards to communicate, etc.

When a colleague went out on paternity leave, I was privileged to substitute for his class: COW, the Classroom On Wheels. Each day, my co-teacher and I met six teenage students — who were invited into the program after meeting specific benchmarks — at the school. We jumped into our 12 passenger van and traveled all over the Bay Area. We had weekly scheduled stops at the students’ workplaces — mainly the local McDonald’s, where one of them bussed tables during the lunch hour while the rest of us hung out and at the local SPCA where all of them volunteered to socialize animals. We spent four hours each week playing with cats. We washed the van at self-service car washes all over Oakland at least once a week. Some days we checked out resources from the downtown library. Other days we went to the San Francisco or Oakland Zoos. COW was a fabulous program and a great example of a thriving community learning group (not confined within an institution) tailored to special education students.

Many of our district personnel can manage and support these programs (or we can hire more — let’s call it Education Corps). We can work with families and community leaders to increase the number of spaces in the community that can host students and the logistics of transportation. After this shutdown, I imagine many small businesses will want the foot traffic that small groups can bring. Let’s identify more internships and apprenticeships in our district’s service area, and partner up with local companies, mentors, and government agencies to train young people to perform principal roles in the community. Regional Occupational Programs (ROP) in California have been very successful in training workforce ready adults. Many community college partnerships and multi-regional programs already exist. We should explore how we scale up and adopt these programs into more communities.

However, there should be strong consideration and informed discussion about how students are grouped and classified. We should remain cautious of how those in power might “track” our students. In the current system, students are split by age into groups or grades. Say there are 75 kids aged 9–10 in our community, we typically split them into three groups of 25 (which really should be less than 15). This split isn’t random. Students are placed or tested into “low-level,” “advanced,” etc. assignments. Each classroom may have a limited number of staff members to accommodate Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) so assignments are adjusted. These groups of 25 are looked at as “fair” and “uniform.” But in general, they are crowded with unique children who we expect to perform in similar ways on the same metrics, typically reading, math, physical education, and writing.

…we need a vision for the future, not a return to the past.

It may be beneficial for some communities to stop separating children by age and ability (or perceived ability). In fact, research demonstrates cross-age tutoring, or children teaching other children, can have significant positive impacts in academic and social development. We also know that bilingual immersion education with culturally-mixed learners (both native speaking and second language development students) can provide outstanding outcomes, including community multilingualism and strong cross-cultural connections. Some may suggest we develop groups based on geographic tracking (which might be segregated), linguistic tracking (again probably segregated), or coronavirus tracking (having an elderly or immunocompromised person in a student’s household may be reason to limit the size of their cluster).

We must consider the implications of how we create learning clusters and whether these groups are regressive or constructive for our communities, especially as we are limiting social contact. We can and should hold one another accountable to provide high-quality, equitable education in this country without increasing unnecessary risk to our most vulnerable community members.

Education professionals have exhausted countless hours over the last month attempting to replicate a deeply flawed system into a functioning web-based one. Efforts to continue doing this without addressing the issues it exacerbates aren’t worth it, when we can construct something much more sustainable.

At this point, 2020 will always have an asterisk next to it. The year without testing. The year without graduation. The year of crisis. Who knows what 2021 will hold? My hope is that instead of perpetuating this insanity (doing the same thing and expecting different results), communities create new ways to meet the needs of local learners.

Learning clusters and project-based learning are solid vehicles to help us move forward. If our students can leave their homes, but not congregate in an institution, we can still serve them ethically and equitably. Perhaps, small groups of students immersed throughout our communities will help stimulate a much needed economic recovery. Let’s build systems that don’t centralize knowledge or congregate students in dangerous, toxic environments but instead, substantiate existing partnerships and create new connections, preparing young people for their future and not our past.

Christine M. Warda (M.A., Communication Studies) is an education and communication consultant with over 20 years teaching experience. She founded See Dub International to facilitate dialogue across differences and to utilize communication skills training and public advocacy to increase access, equity, and dignity.

You can also connect with Christine via LinkedIn.

Communication. Civic Discourse. Critical Thinking. Self and global. Mother. Teacher. Friend. Traveler. she/her

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