Sunday, October 25, 2009

Creativity and education

What is education for? This is a the question explored in Daniel Wolff's new book, How Lincoln Learned to Read. I confess I haven't read the book yet, but I did hear him speak at a book signing last week, and it is in the queue. This question -- what do we want out of education, for ourselves, for our children, for our community ? -- seems to fall into two broad camps. One camp (and where I hang out, or try to) sees education as a self-maximization process, the be-all-you-can-be approach. Economics is secondary, and will follow in one way of another -- more of a statement of faith I suppose, but...

You can identify people from the other camp because the words "economic competitiveness" will likely pop up early on. Education is an economic function, in Marxist terms, the social reproduction of labor power. To be economically competitive in the global market, you need to know (fill in the blank). Pablum about the nature of work today, what employers look for or need to be competitive is trotted out, and then blueprints for "education reform" soon follow. Case in point: Thomas Friedman's October 20 column in the New York Times titled The New Untouchables. The "new untouchables" are the workers who bring something special (dare I say, something human?) to the workplace, like creativity or interpersonal skills, and thus are untouchable (i.e. difficult to replace) in the workplace. This has been a common theme over the past 25 years at least -- jobs that can be done by a machine or by a cheaper counterpart elsewhere will eventually be done by a machine or moved elsewhere. Within the dismal terms of the global economy, Capital will seek out the greatest return with the lowest cost, and Labor will always be an important front in the war to maximize profit. What is difficult to replicate in technology are attributes like (per Friedman) entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.

The two camps do overlap in some areas. Friedman holds that creativity is a key feature of the successful modern worker; a humanist educator would agree that creativity is a very special human potential and should be nurtured. "Entrepreneurship" is a narrow economic term and situates education in terms of the marketplace; a broader conception is to foster initiative, forward thinking, exploration, fascination and a willingness to try things out. Nevertheless, there are common elements in both camps.

The sad irony in this is that both camps are calling for a radically different kind of education than that being forced down the throats of teachers in Chicago and elsewhere. Data-driven instruction may sound scientific and efficient, but at the heart of it, it is antithetical to the kinds of skills Friedman is writing about that today's economy needs. (And Friedman has narrowly conceived of the human being as only a worker -- it doesn't begin to touch on the full range of human possibility.)

Simply put, multiple choice is antithetical to creative thinking. In terms of either globalization (Friedman) or humanism, the approach is wrong and destructive. Our society and planet face big big problems, and time is to critical to be wasted screwing around with wrong solutions.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Huberman's vision for education in Chicago

I heard the Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Office Ron Huberman speak on September 29 to a group of principals and teachers where he once again laid out his agenda for Chicago public schools.

Huberman's plan is organized around themes of "performance management" and "data driven instruction." Like other Mayor Daley appointees, Huberman (who, for the sake of possible non-Chicago readers, came to the school system from the Chicago Transit Authority) in theory brings private-sector style managerial expertise to the sprawling bureaucracy of CPS. George Schmidt, in his front page story ("Data Driven Drivel", sprawling in its own way) in the latest issue of Substance, uses the term "narrative" to describe Huberman's pitch. The term is well chosen I think. "Narrative" captures the essential point that Huberman is telling a story about what is happening. In this case he is framing it within the too familiar story of capitalism and the market, with all of the narrow and limiting assumptions and possibilities that that dismal story allows: In his narrative-story-vision, schools are education finishing plants that add education "value" to children. Value-added is measured by the change in standardized test scores over time. Individual schools are the education providers (not the school system, which only provides infrastructure), and schools, in the Obama-Duncan-Huberman world of "choice" (another marketplace term), compete with each other for raw material to finish. In this story, parents are free to take their raw material to whichever finishing plant is going to add the most value.

Hubeman is very explicit about this. In his September talk, he described each child as having a "backpack" of money, the money collected from taxpayers to educate children. CPS collects about $10,000 per child per year, or $14,000 for Title I schools (schools with large numbers of students from poor families that receive additional Federal money). In Huberman's vision, parents should be able to take that backpack of cash to the school of their choice. Schools will have consumer report cards showing their "value-added" scores to help parents in choosing the schools most successful at raising test scores. Teachers at each school will compete with the teachers at other schools in the city, both public and charter, and through that marketplace competition, their schools, at least in theory, will become better finishing plants.

So what is wrong with Huberman's story? I think that in practice, schools doing well now will catch the best students, and struggling schools will fall further behind. It is the same process of polarization that plays out in the economy at large -- the rich get richer, etc. Likewise, charters skim off the best students, or the students with the most parent involvement in their lives (and there is some correlation there). Public neighborhood schools become the schools of last resort -- they cannot refuse to take a student in their attendance boundaries. The students with the most needs will pool up in the public schools. Their test scores will sink the neighborhood schools, feeding a vicious cycle of increasing privatization. More charters will spring up to snatch the backpack of cash; the teacher's union will be effectively broken; and the concept of public education as a great project of Democracy will die.

Management by FUD -- Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt -- is the order of the day in many CPS schools now as the pace of this process accelerates. It is questionable that that strategy works in private companies; in a school it is disastrous. Teachers feel like they are under siege. They have a difficult-enough time as it is, coping with classes with too many students, with too few resources, no recess, and a steady stream of new mandates from on high. The axe of school closing and unemployment, based on one testing event a year, now swings over their heads as well.

The marketplace model has other problems too. Certainly accountability is important, but it needs to recognize that schools are not separate from social and historic forces playing out outside of the school building. But reducing accountability to test scores is fundamentally flawed. Test scores are a convenient metric, and fit in with the overall quantification of everything that is part and parcel of the marketplace metaphysic. More on that in my next post.