On July 1, education leaders in Burlington, VT removed from her post a school principal who was, by all reasonable accounts hugely admired and wildly successful at loving and educating the pupils in her charge. According to the New York Times, Joyce Irvine of Wheeler Elementary School…
[W]as removed because the Burlington School District wanted to qualify for up to $3 million in federal stimulus money for its dozen schools.
And under the Obama administration rules, for a district to qualify, schools with very low test scores, like Wheeler, must do one of the following: close down; be replaced by a charter (Vermont does not have charters); remove the principal and half the staff; or remove the principal and transform the school.
Do yourself a favor and read the entirety of this excellent Times article by Michael Winerip. Its distinguishing feature is a true diversity of stakeholder voices, and a true willingness to question official pronouncements, both increasingly rare in daily journalism.
I read Winerip’s piece on Monday morning. By Wednesday night, googling the three words “principal,” “Joyce,” and “Irvine,” yielded a million and a half hits.
This story has spread like wildfire through every one of the overlapping circles my life intersects: artists and arts educators (Joyce Irvine had successfully transformed the school into an arts magnet, accelerating educational vitality and improvement); human rights advocates (the Times reported, for example, that “37 of 39 fifth graders were either refugees or special-ed children”); and everyone with heart enough to care more for actual existing children than serving a system that has been allowed to fail them over and over again. In our cycle of failure, each new initiative or policy sounds good enough on paper to generate official approval and public hope, but only until its real impact becomes evident and another bright, top-down idea eventually takes its place.
This story has seized so much attention because it is a perfect illustration of the madness of the system, in which absurd ideas are granted a sort of logic by being enacted. In this case, the key element is measuring educational improvement. In Vermont, as is most other states, standardized test scores are used to evaluate a school’s performance. Of course, here on planet earth, schools don’t perform, students (and teachers, staff, and administrators) do. And the only sensible way to evaluate a student’s performance is to assess that individual’s progress: it’s how and how much Jenny or Jamal learned that counts, not how many questions each answered correctly on the standardized test. But:
Under No Child rules, a student arriving one day before the state math test must take it. Burlington is a major resettlement area, and one recent September, 28 new students — from Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan — arrived at Wheeler and took the math test in October.
Ms. Irvine said that in a room she monitored, 15 of 18 randomly filled in test bubbles. The math tests are word problems. A sample fourth-grade question: “Use Xs to draw an array for the sum of 4+4+4.” Five percent of Wheeler’s refugee students scored proficient in math.
The twisted logic behind these rules is surely well-intentioned. Understanding the disparity among school districts’ capacity and resources, federal policymakers believe they can help level the playing field by imposing national pressures and standards, rewarding those who comply and compete for supplemental funds (like “Race to The Top,” a testing-based competition that has garnered an amount of attention and approval vastly disproportionate to its size, which equals about one percent of aggregate education funding). There’s an intention of fairness (however disembodied and limited their idea of fairness) in applying the same rules to all school systems. And a naive faith in competition as the driver of progress.
But it’s exactly the opposite of what’s needed.
We are caught in a crazy mind-warp in this country. Intuitively, experientially, absolutely, we know that the best way to nurture a healthy society is to pay attention to individuals and communities, allowing room for adjustments, supplements, and alternatives to large systems and their economies of scale. Possibility resides in human particularity of difference, not in treating all of us like units in a vast machine. No one in a position of power would voluntary submit to the interventions they typically prescribe for the rest of us. In fact, if we want good schools in this country, all we have to do is apply a single rule: offer the same education to every child, even the poorest, as is provided for the children of elected officials, corporate executives, and others who wield social power.
I’ll quote James Lawson again, because he articulated best the goal of a humane society: “A social order of justice tempered by love.”
Love isn’t dispensed by federal authorities. It has to be delivered to children at ground-level, as Joyce Irvine reportedly did with such excellence and integrity. In any decentralized system, the ideal role of the highest level of authority focuses on the things no local authority can do alone: support sharing, exchange, and collective learning; carry out research; provide resources to equalize disparities at ground-level (so that every school is given the ways and means to provide decent education, not just those that conform to federally imposed pressures); and protect free expression and human rights that may be at risk in localities.
At a time of epidemic unemployment, when public spending is almost the only proven remedy, why aren’t we employing legions of teachers, teachers’ aides, teaching artists, and other educators who could engage all students as Joyce Irvine has evidently done in Burlington, VT? Why, instead, are we creating the conditions for her removal?
There’s a madness to the system that seems to sever policymakers’ brains from recognizing real experience rather than the gross generalizations and numeric scores to which it is so often reduced. Statistically, formal education confers certain social advantages (i.e., by definition, the educated are more likely to advance in professions and corporations, leading to economic gain). So we try to reduce education to simple, measurable elements—test scores, curriculum standards, etc.—extracting and reproducing perceived indicators, hoping for shortcuts to advantage. As almost always, the system fails to recognize the difference between correlation and cause-and-effect. As almost always, the human story gets left behind.
Apart from the necessary acquisition of technical skills (which can be accomplished in many ways), I judge people educated if they have learned to use their hearts and minds to something like capacity, if they cultivate curiosity and enjoy satisfying it, if they question their own biases and assumptions along with those of others, if they are capable of knowing and expressing who they are and to whom they are accountable in this life, if they resist being domesticated into the system. I don’t find these qualities much more present in our school systems than on our street-corners or a hundred other locations. It is insane to think you can get them by pulsing children through imposed educational processes and standardized tests, let alone by removing talented educators from their jobs to make way for these things.
I love the writings of Raymond Williams, considered the father of engaged adult education. In his wonderful essay, “Culture is Ordinary,” Williams writes of the contempt he encountered at university for the people he grew up with as the child of a Welsh railway worker, the feeling that they lacked a special and necessary kind of cultivation that earned social privilege:
[A] few weeks ago I was in a house with a commercial traveler, a lorry driver, a bricklayer, a shopgirl, a fitter, a signalman, a nylon operative, a domestic help (perhaps, dear, she is your very own treasure). I hate describing people like this, for in fact they were my family and family friends. Now they read, they watch, this work we are talking about [i.e., commercial culture]; some of them quite critically, others with a good deal of pleasure. Very well, I read different things, watch different entertainments, and I am quite sure why they are better. But could I sit down in that house and make this equation we are offered? Not, you understand, that shame was stopping me; I’ve learned, thank you, how to behave. But talking to my family, to my friends, talking, as we were, about our own lives, about people, about feelings, could I in fact find this lack of quality we are discussing? I’ll be honest—I looked; my training has done that for me. I can only say that I found as much natural fineness of feeling, as much quick discrimination, as much clear grasp of ideas within the range of experience as I have found anywhere.
Our educational goal should be to bring all students the means to recognize and develop their own gifts, to become fully alive and fully aware, to understand their own capacity for action in the world and feel able to fulfill it, to acquire the skill and knowledge that equips them for this task. This is labor-intensive work, and we have the people to do it, and the madness of the system stands in the way.
I’m laid up with a cold today, sniffling and coughing and generally feeling sorry for myself. But sometimes the change in perspective that comes with being stuck in an ailing body concentrates one’s vision, allowing you to see past the extraneous to the heart of the matter. Do that google search—principal Joyce Irvine—and click on some of the deeply outraged editorials and other commentaries this scandal has engendered in just a few days. You never know when even a small incident may begin to trigger a tipping-point. May we use this opportunity to awaken from the madness of the system!