From my jerky knee

Authored by Kilian Betlach

This site–and the larger (book) endeavor it reflects–is about the future. It’s about change. It’s about a massive (re)imagining of how we do teaching and learning. It is, in large measure, about technology and the verbs we use in conjunction with technology:harness, maximize, tailor. I got involved in projects like this, or hear about initiatives like this one, or read comments that champion a wholly new way of structuring education–more and more all the time–and I really want to go off and paint the boat, fist in the air, riding that big white horse of technology into the golden sun(re)rise of public education.

But I have this knee jerk reaction where I also don’t want to do any of those things at all. I want to stay more or less right where I am, both feet on the ground, hands buried wrist-deep in the dark rich mud of teaching and learning. Firmly so. Rigidly (?) so.

And what is the stuff of my strong and strange resistance?

Part of it is rooted in my experience of being a successful teacher. I had four walls, no wireless, 33 desks, and a packet of transparencies. I had a frequently jammed copier, whiteboard markers, and my wits. I taught EL kids and SpEd kids and angry kids and poor kids and I was, by just about any measure devised, very successful. So my knee-jerk to narratives of dramatic-change-now is: Really? and Are you sure? Because I know that I can dramatically improve student achievement in the prevailing educational context, and I know many, many others can do likewise.

My knee wants to take the discussion back to first principles. Do we need to do everything different or do we need to do everything better? Obviously, there’s interconnectivity there, and a lack of mutual exclusivity, but I think it’s an important distinction nonetheless. Like the charter school zealots who believe we should structure an educational system to maximize the principle of choice over the principle of equity, I wonder if we make a mistake of structuring our reform discussions around the principle of change-change-change rather than talk about how to make things better.

My knee wants to say that we’re doing education so poorly right now, that even if we bring about the type of dramatic change to the way kids experience content delivery, or receive services from schools, or interact with adults and each other, it won’t bring about the kind of better results we  need so very badly. Those changes will still be run through the filter of an education system that takes kids who start off with less and gives them less of everything, again and again and again. I’m not reading, hearing, seeing enough from the school 2.0 (or 3.0!) folks to convince me that this will change. What we’re giving poor kids and kids of color may change, but I fear they’ll still get less of whatever that it is, exactly.

My knee wants to say it’s a little afraid that the reform 2.0 folks are lining up with those who promote an excellence agenda, one that says our top kids must be prepared to be better than the top kids from other countries, and never mind what’s happening (or not) in Washington Heights, the RGV, or Deep East Oakland. This isn’t necessarily so, and it isn’t unavoidable, but my knee wants to constantly shout that as we try to (re)imagine what the public schools of 2030 will look, we must do so from the perspective of those schools have never well served.