The Best Defense is a Good Offense

I understand that it’s necessary for progressives to play defense on so many levels right now: defending immigrants, defending black and brown people against the police, defending public education, reproductive choice, environmental regulation, science, Social Security, Obamacare, the people of the Middle East against U. S. aggression. The list goes on.

The old adage says the best defense is a good offense. One area where I think we need to go on the offensive is in the battle for the content and structure of the public schools. The curriculum of most elementary schools is stuck in the 19th century factory model, where children sit still for six hours while a teacher spouts grade-level standards at them. This model doesn’t work for the majority of students, especially students of color.

The fight for progressive education has a long and glorious history. In 1938, John Dewey articulated the principles succinctly:

  • Emphasis on learning by doing—hands-on projects, expeditionary learning, experiential learning,
  • Strong emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking,
  • Understanding and action as the goals of learning as opposed to rote knowledge,
  • Collaborative and cooperative learning projects,
  • Education for social responsibility and democracy,
  • Emphasis on life-long learning and social skills (Dewey, 1938; Bode, 1938; Pratt, 1948; Washburne, 1952).

In 1965, the Civil Rights movement inspired the federal government to commission a study as to how children actually learn. This panel of experts came up with a program which has been shown year after year to improve outcomes for its students compared with students not in the program. They called it Head Start. The three main elements of the concept:

  1. Low ratios of children to adults
  2. Hands-on, constructivist, developmentally appropriate curriculum
  3. Collegial relations between parents and teachers

In the sixties and seventies, there were numerous attempts to permeate these elements up through the grades, based on the work of Pablo Freire, Herb Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, bell hooks and many others. Many schools adopted an Open Classroom approach. The more open approaches had success in suburban schools, but schools in poor neighborhoods lacked the resources necessary to successfully implement these approaches. Along with Ronald Reagan came the “Back to Basics” folks, who have held sway in education circles ever since, regardless of which party was in power or who was president. The data-driven (off a cliff) high-stakes testing approaches have dominated the conversation, even as they have failed most students. The “reforms” of Gates, Broad, Michelle Rhee, Common Core Standards, the charteristas and now Betty DeVos do raise test scores among a narrow band of students who score between the 40th and 50th percentile, leaving over 40% behind. What do most children learn from all the testing: “I am stupid,” hardly a prescription for success.

It’s time for the pendulum to swing the other way. The beauty of such an offensive is that it can proceed school by school, organizing individual school communities to stand up for child-centered education, to insist that schools hire parents to reduce community poverty and lower the child-adult ratios, to implement the best child-centered curriculums available. My favorite is High Scope because I’ve been trained in it, but there are others like Big Picture Schools and the Project Approach.

It’s time to transform schools as instruments of oppression to vehicles of liberation. (I thought I came up with this formulation until I looked it up. It comes from Nelson Mandela).

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2 thoughts on “The Best Defense is a Good Offense

  1. I agree. The testing is not doing much good. All children absorb knowledge at different rates and Elementary school should be for learning instead of testing.
    The Common Core math had my son very confused. So I showed him how to do it the old way and now math is his best subject. We do not need to reinvent the wheel. Doing so just confuses parents and leaves them less able to help our children. I think a lot of teachers agree and still teach it the old way too.
    I like the idea of schools hiring parents as teacher’s assistants. My son’s school does that, but the budget limits how many people they can hire. In my opinion, the school districts use money for the wrong things and running for a school district board has become a process corrupted by political parties and moneyed interests, either directly or indirectly, of the private prison enterprise. It seems there is more money for programs like S.A.R.B.S., which are only good for lowering a kid’s self esteem by putting them in a different category than the rest. Schools get more money per pupil by finding fault than they do in finding a remedy. In my opinion, if they got rid of the S.A.R.B.S. program and put that money back to the one which provided school buses, the problems of poor attendance would mostly solve themselves. Issues like that will eventually push so many parents into homeschooling that public education could become completely defunded. As it stands now, the only option that will be available for my two kids will be Lincoln Middle School in Oceanside, CA , which is one of the worst shen it comes to getting students into the S.A.R.B.S. program for poor grades and attendance. But the students I know that have gone there all have the same complaints about the math teacher not explaining anything and the faculty punishing students for things that are a teacher’s reslonsibility. The only other school, which is much better, is Jefferson Middle School and it will probably be closed by the time my 8 and 1 year old get to Jr.High. I would like school board candidates to spend more time talking to parents and teacherd instead of having to raise money for elections. Those positioms should really be appointed from within based on merit and not subject to partisan agendas.
    Thank you so much for your post.
    Laurel Kaskurs

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