I had read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities as an undergrad so was curious to see it pop up again, in a budget course of all places.  However, this is a very appropriate place for Kozol’s work to appear as it spotlights the Underlying Issues of education and how they are and are not intertwined with money.

On the one hand, money is everything.  For example, Kozol describes the differences in funding for schools when those funds come primarily from local property tax.  ”Total yearly speding–local funds combined with state assistance and the small amount that comes from Washington–ranges today in Illinois from $2,100 on a child in the poorest district to above $10,000 in the richest.”  How did it come to be this way?  I’m sure Larry can help trace the decisions and it seems obvious to me that those making the decisions are going to protect their own first–thus the inequities.  It infuriates me that, as Kozol points out, privileged society sees themselves as willing to “sacrifice” more in order for their children to have a better education.  Do they really believe that, given the same income, the poorest parents wouldn’t spend just as much on their children?!  I also wonder if there are states that have bucked this property tax system and distribute money equally to all the state’s children.  It seems unlikely we’ll ever be able to convince anyone with a “better” anything to give it up in order for someone else’s children to have more.  Money IS everything when you consider these underlying inequities.

So, let’s imagine the other scenario: that money isn’t everything.  I have to hope this to be true.  I have to look at the charter system, which is generally given far less funds per pupil than the traditional system but often returns better or equal results.  I have to look to classrooms like Mrs. Hawkins where wonderful learning and support are happening.  These are hopeful things.  But money isn’t just about schools, it is about the students’ whole lives.  In neighborhoods with no work, no grocery, no prospects, no support, no educational leadership–how are these students going to compete?  And, most frighteningly, could the American economic/social system even support a 100% well-educated population?  I try to stretch my mind to consider what that might look like…

I’ll close with the analogy of the burning building brought up by Howard Fuller:  If the building is on fire, we must rescue as many as we can while we still work to put out the flames.  I suppose this must be true with school finance too–we move forward knowing that some students are being burned and strive to put out those flames (without igniting new ones).  I’m looking forward to this course!

I chose to read The Book of Learning and Forgetting for my School Reform book group because of the intriguing comments Year 2 students had made about it. Also, the title sums up how I feel about most of my formal education.

The Book of Learning and Forgetting is a short (102) but powerful exploration by Frank Smith into the natural state of learning and the perversions formal education has forced upon students and teachers along the way. The book is broken into three sections:

1. “The Classic View of Learning and Forgetting” in which Smith illustrates that humans “classically” learn without effort from those around us, including authors. We symbolically join “clubs” and learn from fellow club members. For example, we join the “literacy club” by having parents that read to us when we are young and we learn from their guidance, modeling and support. This Classic View is how people have learned for all time: apprentice style. I appreciated this section because it reinforced the “soft” ideas of learning and returned teaching to the art of mentoring and not just the control, test, and tell methods of today. I also liked the analogy of club membership when I think of “struggling” students. How can I better create inclusive clubs as a teacher?

2. “The Official Theory of Learning and Forgetting” developed recently and is heavily tarnished with military and “scientific” terminology. The Official Theory includes ideas like grouping, IQ, repetition, and segmentation of concepts. These are all in direct conflict with the Classic natural way humans are wired to learn. The Official Theory continues to hold ground, however, because it is based on “data” and measurable “outcomes” even though the theories behind these data and outcomes are shaky, at best. One point that struck me from this section is connected to the title of the book: a scientist named ____ studied how long it took people to memorize (learn) nonsense words. His work has since been used to support repetition = learning and learning = hard work. Sadly, the other side of his study is ignored: that subjects forgot words at the same rate they learned them. Thus, what was learned by repetition was really not learned at all since it was rapidly forgotten too.

3. “Repairing the Damage” focuses on Smith’s suggestions for returning education to a more “whole” state. He recommends informing others, starting small, and changing the language we use about schooling. He acknowledges that this process will be difficult but well worth it!

Quotes and Questions:

“Schools should be places where students–and everyone else for that matter–can find opportunities to learn everything that is worthwhile in the world outside (the emphasis on the doing, not on the teaching).” p. 98

I LOVE the idea here–but it seems we, as teachers, parents, politicians, and society in general, have wildly different opinions on what is “worthwhile in the world outside.” This is why school choice makes a lot of sense: one size does not fit all. However, there is a reason learning moved from apprentice to mass-education: economy of scale. Is it feasible to return to a more personalized approach to learning on a nation-wide scale? Are schools like HTH replicable financially?

“But today, learning and education don’t mean gaining experience, they mean acquiring, storing, and retrieving information (which is what computers do).” p 74

This quote is in the section discussing online education and the increase of technology over teachers. I find this intriguing as I chose the HTH Flex/online school option for my project. Is it possible to create experience online? Is a virtual experience as valuable as a face-to-face experience? I wonder if there is an evolution of a new kind of communication and relationship happening or if we, as humans, are just cheating ourselves out of “real” life.

I couldn’t wait to graduate my traditional high school and get to college where, I was certain, “real learning” happened. Instead, college turned out to be advanced high school: teacher and text know stuff; I absorb it; I regurgitate it; I have no idea when I would use it after the test and forget it.

I transferred through 4 colleges before finding Prescott College, a tiny (400 students give or take) experiential college in Arizona. I experienced first hand “real learning” which was personal, self-directed, process AND product oriented, and experiential. Somehow, without being formally schooled in education reform, I had naturally known that learning could be flexible, rigorous, and all-consuming (think back to your childhood and the hours you gladly committed to hobbies or day dreams or projects of interest to you). I pushed myself more at Prescott College despite the fact that there were no grades. Brilliant.

Now, I am teaching in an essentially traditional charter school. I am doing all the things I never wanted to do as a teacher; all the things that my high school teachers did that made me want to become an educator so I could NOT do those things. I just did a two day training on the 7th grade state writing test and how to drill our kids to perform better on artificial test questions.

So, what do I think about reform?

I’m halfway through Linda Nathan’s The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test and am thinking she’s got a great point: with a framework in place, quality learning stays consistent even though technique or lesson plans or “curriculum” changes. I wonder if this concept could be applied to the field of education as a whole? Is it possible to develop national frameworks that identify what we value in education? Then, can states and schools be freed to create their own programs to meet those goals? Or is that too chaotic? I can see the value in developing students, nationwide, who graduate with consistent skills. A student should expect that the skills they graduate will be valid regardless of what or where their next step in life may be.

I suppose this is the problem: what ARE we preparing our students for? College? Business? Workplace? Citizenship? What will these things look like by the time our students graduate?

Whew. I am looking forward to (hopefully) creating clearer thoughts as we progress…..

Karen Evans


Philosophy of Leadership

I do not come to leadership lightly. I understand that school leaders are in the tremendous position of influencing the cultural, mental, social, emotional, and physical capacities of our future citizens.  It is a sobering and exhilarating thought.  Add to that the responsibility to staff, parents, and community and one begins to realize the immensity of the job.  Being a school leader is serious business.

In all honesty, I am not sure what form my leadership will take.  However, I am increasingly clear on what I value in myself and in leadership.

Currently, I teach.  I have 120 seventh-graders.  I teach language arts at a traditional school, on an outdated campus, with florescent lights and asbestos-tiled classrooms.  We have 45 minute class periods marked by an obnoxiously loud bell, a 23 minute lunch with no hot food served, and… we have a uniform policy that requires belts and tucked shirts.  The best compliment I ever received from a student?

“Ms. Evans, your room is always so…comfortable.”

My students are humans and I treat them as such.  We are individuals working together.  We make mistakes and learn from them.  We overcome difficulties and strive to become better people.  The ultimate achievement in my room?  Being on “D Level” behavior: doing the right thing even when nobody notices.  I accept my students; they find comfort in my room.

This is what inspires me to lead: my students.  If I have any sort of knack for creating comfort out of the madness we call “education” then I must lead.  Without consciously seeking it, I am always in leadership roles at my school.  I like solving problems and, heaven knows, there are plenty of challenges to address.  However, like a pebble dropped in water, the heart of school leadership is centered first with students, then ripples out to staff and beyond.

This year, I have accepted the role of Lead Mentor for our 1st and 2nd year teachers going through the BTSA program.  During the first meeting, one of my “mentees” jokingly bowed like a student in a kung fu movie and said to me,

“Yes, Mentor.”

I know he was kidding around, but I flushed with honor at the title.  A mentor is not an iron-fisted leader, but a trusted guide.  It is truly an honor to lead through mentorship.

With 9 mentees it is not possible for me to address all their needs and questions, so instead I strive to help them help each other too. I am learning how to empower them so that they become stronger without relying on my support.  I am learning to ask more questions than answer, to delegate efforts, and to bend to the needs and passions of my peers.  To me, mentorship is about flexibly weaving outside pressures and requirements with the passions and wisdom of each individual.  Often, it is about unscripted encouragement, empathy, or advocacy.  As a mentor and leader, my job is to enhance those around me.

Looking forward, I can envision my leadership role expanding beyond my classroom or BTSA meetings to students, staff, and community–what I think of as a school’s Team. I know the practice and growth I’m gaining as a Lead Mentor will serve me well as I seek to nurture others.  As an unknown author once said:

“A good leader inspires others with confidence in [her];

a great leader inspires them with confidence in themselves.”

This is how I want to lead.  The key to developing confidence and trust is establishing and maintaining an environment of security.  Of course, this means the bare minimum of physical safety and functional facilities.  However, these alone do not create a school worth leading.  The security I seek has to do with belonging and being heard. This is the less tangible dimension of emotional security: trust, respect, inclusion, support, and guidance.  With these “soft” tools in play, a Team could overcome the setbacks of physical danger or dysfunctional facilities;  I think we have all seen a fair number of movies inspired by such true life scenarios.  No one, however, is making inspirational movies about physically safe, highly functional facilities filled with disrespectful, exclusionary, chaotic individuals.

It is easy enough to write about the importance of emotional security and much more complex to put it in action.  There are a few guidelines I believe are critical:

Be Human–When I am in a leadership role, I don’t want to be seen as “separate” from my Team.  I think it is important for them to see that I feel frustrated, make mistakes, misunderstand, dream big, and have a life off campus.   Likewise, I must remember and value that my Team is made of humans who, too, feel frustrated, make mistakes, misunderstand, dream big, and have a life off campus.  Communication and actions should strive to be humane.

Be a Learner–How often I have been at professional development for teachers where the very advice we are supposed to use in class is not followed by the presenter.  “Teach with visuals!” they lecture.  “Teach in small chunks!” they ramble for the third hour.  A goal I have is to remain the kind of passionate, life-long learner I hope our students are becoming…and to expect the same of the adult members of the Team.  To achieve this, I encourage reflection, risk-taking, collaboration, new ideas, and honest feedback.

Be a Listener–I don’t have a crystal ball or magic wand.  I can’t read minds or puppet-master others.  I can listen.  Really listen.  Then, I can think, reflect, and guide.  Ideally, I will listen more than speak–something of a personal challenge for me 

I do not come to leadership lightly. I am not sure where I am headed with it.  Sometimes, it intimidates me.  In many ways the seven years I have been in education have been like the seven years I played soccer as a child:  Starting in kindergarden, I faithfully attended practices, ran laps, devised drills to practice at home, and cheered on my teammates.  During games, I ran like a gazelle, up and down the field until my face was bright red.  I was a great supporter.  From the sidelines, my mom would call, “Kick the ball, Karen, kick the ball!”  But, I could probably count on my toes the number of times I actually kicked the ball during a game.  I was too afraid of making a mistake, not being good enough, or not knowing what to do next, so I made sure other girls made it to the ball first.

Now, “kick the ball” has become a little code between my mom and I.  Whenever I am bogged down in the what ifs, maybes, and yeah-buts of life my mom will remind me to

“Kick the ball.”

I think this is brilliant leadership code too.  Often times, no one else is going to get that ball rolling.  In many cases, the ball seems headed toward the wrong goal.  Sometimes the Team will work together and other times a leader is going to have to take risks.  If I am going to put the effort into running up and down the field of education, I best be a full member of the team.  Wherever my leadership journey may take me, I am ready to kick the ball.