Back to School. One strategy that progressive forces in the cities might consider is developing a vision for the public schools and then organizing a slate of candidates for school board to advocate for that vision. The schools – pretty much all of them – are in terrible shape and the back-to-basics business model that’s been in vogue since the 1980s has only made the situation worse. This model is stuck in the 19th century, where in most cases children sit down and shut up while a teacher attempts to pour inaccurate and uninteresting knowledge into their ears. It never worked, and it borders on 12 years of child abuse.
Our vision should fully humanize schools. Here’s an idea: suppose the primary metric we used to evaluate schools and teachers was how much joy did the students experience on a daily basis. Easy to measure. Just ask the students “How much joy do you experience at school on a scale of 1-10.” For younger students, we can use happy/sad faces. A school that was deficient in its joy coefficient would be held accountable, forced to have school-wide discussions on how to bring joy to the classrooms. My hypothesis is that if joy was our primary criterion of “success,” most other problems – low achievement, discipline, deathly boredom – would disappear.
Another aspect of the vision might be to address poverty in the school neighborhood. Hiring parents as instructional assistants, one per classroom, would not only do that, it would lower the child-adult ratio, and enhance the level of literacy in the community.
Lastly, instead of punitive programs like No Child Left Behind, we need to take a look at what works. In 1965, with pressure from the Civil Rights movement, the federal government undertook a study to determine how children actually learn. The result was one of the most successful federal programs ever: Head Start. There are three primary components to Head Start’s success: One, low ratios of children to adults; two, hands-on, constructivist curriculum; three, collegial relations between teachers and parents. We need to figure out how to percolate these practices through the K-12 program.
Such a strategy could unite teachers and parents from all backgrounds, few of whom are satisfied with present dysfunctional system. If real progressives controlled our school boards, they could do things like mobilize the entire system to go on a “field trip” to the state capitol to lobby for sufficient funding and to eliminate the many regulatory obstacles to fostering joy in our schools.