Here Is Where The Heart Is

In a time of profound polarization, one issue that has elicited bipartisan agreement is that the recently released results of the Nation’s Report Card are grim.  Pundits, lawmakers, wonks, and activists disagree sharply on the causes – depending on who you ask, it’s lack of funding, or the loosening of accountability standards, or too much testing, or school choice, or not enough school choice.

Arriving on the scene just in time to complicate everyone’s narratives is Robert Pondiscio’s new book, How The Other Half Learns.  He seeks answer a deceptively simple question:  what do the kids actually do in school all day?

Education policy people, as Mr. Pondiscio accurately notes, are often curiously incurious about this fundamental question.  Exceptions to this rule tend to be former teachers, as Mr. Pondiscio himself is. 

Teachers know there is not a single answer to this question – it’s just about as messy as the human condition itself.  Understandably, then, it’s hard to imagine many schools being as willing as Success Academy’s Bronx 1 was to fling open its doors to a reporter for an entire school year. 

Success Academy was founded in 2006 by Eva Moskowitz, and has grown to 47 campuses, serving 17,000 students across The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.  Prior to reading this book, your perspective on whether these charters are shining paragons of academic achievement in urban public schools or they are paternalist institutions of factory model education would likely depend on your underlying moral foundations, a framework described by Jonathan Haidt and others.  Like authority over subversion? You’re gonna love the classroom management that Bronx 1’s teachers execute (mostly) consistently. Value care over harm?  You’re gonna hate what happens to Adama. 

And guess what – this book won’t change your mind about Success Academies, or about “no-excuses” charters, or about “teaching to the test.”  It might cause you to do something even more essential, which is to question why your preference for fairness and equity trumps a working-class family’s preference for authority and safety.

What kids do in school all day — what they do at Success Academy, or at elite preparatory schools, or homeschool co-ops – they live in community, learn norms, forge identity, create, blow off steam, and yes (as Mr. Pondiscio vividly reminds us), vomit.

These are things that humans do in community, and they are the essence of what it means to be in a political order, with all its tensions and limitations.  Take these lucid observations from the closing chapters of the book:

1) “…We expect too much of schools.”  2) “If a government takes its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, so does a school.”  3) “But schools are not values-neutral.”

What would it mean if school reformers contemplated the implications?  On the one hand, we’d understand immediately that no community can achieve perfect equity of outcomes without systemic violence and deprivation.  On the other hand, we’d quickly see that no political order endures without the generally shared agreement that “this is how we do things here.”

These are, in fact, fundamental lessons most engaged citizens would hope that civics courses would impart to students (that civics education is in crisis is yet another point of consensus between the factions).  But Mr. Pondiscio’s sights are set higher: he wants us to note that schools themselves serve to teach these lessons implicitly and indelibly.  In a setting where their individual gifts are as a matter of policy neglected, as Tiffany, one of Mr. Pondiscio’s early students at a district school experienced, what lesson do they learn about whether their contributions matter?  On the flip side, for students who have behavioral challenges, what lesson do they learn if their teachers are afraid of them because they lack the specialized skills to address their needs? 

Success Academy is unapologetically focused on academic achievement as measured by state standardized exams.  Mr. Pondiscio concedes his own ambivalence about this, an ambivalence which I share.  But the parents who are there want that thing.  They don’t have to worry that their child will be marginalized for caring about learning.

Schools that are formed around a distinctive set of values or mission “vastly increase the odds of students acquiring academic and civic knowledge, skills, and sensibilities,” according to Ashley Berner. Spoiler alert: school culture turns out to be the secret sauce at Success Academy. Mr. Pondiscio goes one step farther than this anodyne assertion and reveals the ingredients that make up that sauce – family self-identification, sweating the small stuff, making hard decisions, and the full buy-in of all the grown-ups.

What are the kids doing all day?  They are learning how we do things here

Education is Curation

What we select, what we leave out, what we do, what we don’t do.  These are the essential ingredients of education.

We are swimming in an ocean of information.  But there has always been more to know than any one person can possibly know.  We are just more aware of that now.  We have better tools to access the far-flung, abstruse, and recherché.

Which calls into question our notion of what “knowing” anything means. The classic argument against teaching that focuses on particular content (“knowledge rich”) is that it’s pointless to spend time in second grade learning about, say, the War of 1812 when a) who cares and b) if you need/want to learn about it, just ask Siri.

Book: Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras – This illustration is from the 1816 book, The History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Volume 1 by Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras. The source holder of this book is the U.S. Library of Congress., Public Domain, Link

This argument doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and mostly because background knowledge is just another way of saying “literacy.”

Allow me to make a stronger case for the “knowledge acquisition is a waste of time” crowd than the one above.  This one is based on the idea that we don’t know what we think we know, and that if you think you know everything about the War of 1812 because you had a unit on it in second grade, you will be less curious/more falsely confident.

Now that is a good point.  Which is why I think (and I think most people on either side of this issue do) that education has to be about more than just the facts.  But here’s the thing – the facts are a pretty darn good starting point to discuss the big ideas and questions that have been part of our human experience for millenia.

There is a lot of belly-aching about fake news these days.  And it mostly comes from people who are worried that we no longer have any consensus on the facts.  These are sometimes the same people who (under different political regimes) argue in favor of constructivist models of education – i.e., students learn best through discovery and through constructing meaning with their peers in groups.  The same crowd that gets worked into a lather about the “industrial model” of education.  The same crowd that hopes the government will regulate speech because we’re all just too stupid now to distinguish truth from lies.

Hmm. I wonder if there is a correlation between schools de-emphasizing knowledge (as opposed to “strategies” or “skills” or “critical thinking” or “practical” subjects) and our sense that there is a crisis of both civic life and civics education.

I don’t believe that all schools have to teach the same curriculum for schools to do a better job of teaching citizens that facts matter.  It’s not the explicit but the implicit curriculum of schools that has taught Americans to care less about facts, knowledge, or what a person says that matters, and to put a far higher premium on subjective interpretations or constructions of reality.

Learning that there was a war that happened in 1812 may seem pointless.  But if a school’s curriculum is otherwise healthy, it will use this fact to help students understand, as they grow more mature, that our republic is fragile.  It has been from basically the beginning.  Sometimes the threats have been external, sometimes internal.  And this realization should point us towards the virtue of moderation.  And a shared sense of moderation is a pretty good basis for a civil society.

What we select, what we leave out, what we do, what we don’t do.  These are the essential ingredients of education.