Pearce Middle School, Austin, Texas is threatened with closure due to "unacceptable scores" on the state-mandated, criterion-referenced, high-stakes standardized test, the TAKS test. They held a community meeting with district reps, state reps, students, teachers, parents, community, etc...Comments were welcome from the audience of all these groups, and I had some thoughts.
Thoughts on Pearce Middle School Meeting, 11/11/2008
“United we stand, divided we fall.”
-Aesop (620-560 BC) from The Four Oxen and the Lion
Okay, simple enough. I think I get it. Actually, wait. Yeah…no, I don’t get it.
The process of classifying a community, sports team, nation, or even globe seems fairly straightforward when provided the two options articulated by Aesop and repeated by countless thereafter, most notably Patrick Henry. However, I witnessed this evening a group of persons simultaneously united and divided. Allow me a word to clarify.
I attended the Pearce Middle School event tonight, whose goal was both singular and multifold. Here's the overview.
State Representative Dawnna Dukes, alumnus of both Pearce MS and Reagan High School, another East Austin school threatened with closure, spoke eloquently in support of keeping said schools in operation as well as pledging to do her legislative duty to speak out against the current system of school accountability that has been criticized nationally since its inception and subsequent reworkings.
District and School Board members, including Superintendent Pat Forgione, represented their respective offices and positions in voicing their backing of Pearce’s students, teachers, and community members in this tough time.
Community members and former teachers spoke with passion about the positive effect Pearce has had and will hopefully continue to have on their lives and the lives of others in the community, as relates to academics and beyond.
Education activists discussed the need to recognize the failure inherent in a system that expects the least from our children in terms of self-motivation, creativity, curiosity, empathy, and self-efficacy.
Beautifully eloquent and clearly motivated and dedicated students from Pearce spoke with intrigue and wonder at how their school, which they believed was serving them in indelible ways, was deemed a low-performing school, nay, a failing school, by media outlets and folks outside the Pearce community.
At first glance, the common threads are obvious. First, there is the courage and the passion with which all these persons have imbued their conveyances. Furthermore, there is a unified goal that binds the aforementioned groups of agents in the Pearce situation. Each and every person included above has a genuine and well-intentioned desire to see children "learning" as a result of attending school. Reaching this goal implies some sort of "educational improvement," a language that infers a currently existing problem that must be addressed at Pearce. Unfortunately, the unity extends no further.
The coming together of many like-minded persons under the banner of a unifying ideology, goal, or mission generally represents an opportunity to create a great deal of power, both political and social. This is especially important in the political sphere when that ideology, goal, or mission is one that aims to change the status quo. However, the goal that unites the folks involved at Pearce is one that is almost universally accepted in its ambiguity. Therefore, without critical discourse about the definition of “successful learning” and discussion of possible means to those ends, the collective mission of Pearce is threatened – threatened under the very division that Aesop so succinctly spoke of. Allow me to provide an example from the Pearce meeting to highlight this division.
As I mentioned, Dawnna Dukes offered her riveting and personal message about challenging the system of unfair accountability that is threatening communities, both state- and nationwide. Immediately following her speech, the principal of Pearce, James Troutman, under the guise of the same ideology and mission, bombarded us with statistics from Pearce, pointing out the great improvement made over the course of the last year with regard to state tests, as well as providing this year’s state goals. (Interestingly, one of the AISD representatives was quick to remind those in attendance that the standards will continue to increase year after year, part of the law's aim at universal achievement. This aspect of NCLB presumes that we have discovered all there is to discover about how to educate. All that is left is application.)
These two messages - that of Dukes and Troutman – are simultaneously united and divided. Unity is found in ideology. Division is found in definition. In fact, the definitions of success and the means to achieve that success that the aforementioned two folks offer are diametrically opposed to one another. State representative Dukes speaks of the inaccuracy and bias which poison the state’s quantitative data. Literally moments later, Pearce’s principal uses these very numbers to not only point to inspiring improvements, but also to remind us of the challenges yet to come. Again, ideological coexistence is possible; pragmatic coexistence is not – in our situation. This is just one of the many telling examples wherein folks agree wholeheartedly in a basic and worthy ideology, though not far below the surface, have polarized views regarding what needs to be done and how we should get there.
Additionally, the umbrella ideal of “school improvement” has been stripped of any practical, and therefore useful, definition over the years. It is as if the idea of “improving education,” which once was a multifaceted and jagged, but powerful, rock, has been eroded over time by lofty, yet impractical and vague, expectations and goal statements. Parents, teachers, and educators have accepted the latter ambiguity, many unknowingly, failing to see the problematic nature in the application of a goal simply called “educational improvement” or "school reform." In this way, meetings can exist in which people representing polar opposite ideas in terms of pragmatics can seemingly agree, if only in principal. Agreement in a principal that is so utterly and hopelessly ambiguous can and will lead to absolute stagnancy. People who think they're working together are in fact pulling in opposing directions. This is the worst thing that can happen to Pearce Middle School and other schools trying to avoid closure under the national high-stakes system of accountability.
If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s posing problems without providing solutions. In having gone to college and read hundreds of critical articles, I realize most people’s disdain for such an open-ended offering. In a departure from my personal norm, I offer the following as a partial solution.
We, as a community committed to Pearce Middle School, need to problematize the goal of “improving education” at Pearce. The desire to improve schools and education is virtually universal in its ambiguity, and thus provides no foundation upon which to build a reform movement. We problematize by participating in democratic discourse in which we collectively challenge our own personal assumptions about a few things.
First, we need to understand, on a personal level, what we consider “meaningful learning.” We need to figure out how this definition fits into our understanding of what kinds of learning need to take place in schools. Upon coming to a personal conclusion here, we need to set up some criteria for determining success, both in learning and in schooling. Only after we have developed and internalized our ideas thusly can integrate and contrast our personal pedagogical ideologies with our peers. As we do this, we will naturally develop action groups and specific plans united beneath and driven by a usefully specific ideology and mission. We will not always agree. This is okay. In fact, that’s the point. In this way, however, we will avoid falling into deception by challenging the premise that all those who want to “improve education” have something of utility in common.
All this said, I want to also comment on the effort of the people and the general atmosphere of the meeting. As much as I enjoy conspiracy theories, I don't think the divergence of goals I spoke of is an intentional plan crafted by some wizard who has power over our all of our minds. The fact is that all the people at the meeting, especially those who made their voices heard, are genuinely interested in helping the students at Pearce. This includes state and district reps, professors, pedagogues, teachers, students, and community members. In fact, I applaud all the folks at the meeting for taking the time out to make an appearance and show support. That said, I’m not surprised that there is a scarcity of profound understanding of the pedagogical, social, and political issues at stake. I won't claim to understand fully the depth of the issue myself. Furthermore, there are folks with whom I earned education degrees who haven't undertaken the task of dissolving their assumptions about learning, schooling, education, and pedagogy. Many of our understandings of schooling are derived from the experiences we had as youngsters, a derivative which lacks a critical analysis necessary to make change. Inasmuch as this represents the majority of actors, we'll be perpetually speaking as if in agreement, while deep down, at times unconsciously, we'll be championing opposite approaches to what might prove to be very different goals of improvement and success.
An inspiring meeting, indeed. It very much leads me to contemplating the best and most democratic way to introduce such an abstract, though necessary process to a persons with not much outside of their own schooling from which to draw inferences, who likely work one or two jobs, and who might not be interested in challenging the truths that might have been galvanized over the course of a lifetime. This process can be difficult for many reasons. It is not clean, easy, linear, or quick. However, while said metamorphosis can be very tiring and shocking, it also allows us the opportunity to become free from the societal assumptions that retard progress.
In addition, the process must also be twofold. First, there is the becoming aware of oneself and one's ideology and assumptions within a cultural, social, and political framework, which Freire called conscientizacao. Second, there must be the application, or praxis, thereof, to the problem at hand. The result of this discourse, both internally and with others, is also twofold. What decreases in quantity will surely increase in quality – that is the bonds that we have with other agents involved in the cause that we all see as necessitating address.