My career as a resident educator included teaching in Texas, Arizona, and Kansas. For years my colleagues and I provided consultant services to school districts in the U.S. and Taiwan.
Most field services and my residential teaching jobs were in America. Which was culturally diverse, influenced in surprising ways: race, religion, attitudes toward learning, local diversions, language, population diversity, weather, the economy, and generational traditions.
Much teaching and consultant work occurred when that kind of diversity prevailed.
Before the 2001 imposition of the rigid No Child Left Behind. Before other federally initiated programs meant to micromanage schools. Before the pandemic and rise of today’s political rancor.
The educational era before 2001 featured exploration. Mixed with the joy of community idiosyncrasies. Wrapped in an American spirit that was both unifying and distinctively charming.
Service to educators in that era was relational, conversational, and mutually enlightening. Not procedural or mechanistic. Not advising clients of my nonprofit organization (cliweb.org) how to jump through bureaucratic hoops.
It was a learning experience for both clients and consultants. Interacting in ways that provided new insights and novel ways to solve perplexing problems. Learning new procedures and perspectives that could be useful somewhere else.
Exciting ideas and practices emerged from one cultural setting. Transferred somewhere else for the enrichment of student learning. Give and take. In the American spirit of academic adventure, directed at helping students achieve creatively. Helping them acquire a sense of purpose.
Misguided Definitions of Culture
NCLB was created out of concerns raised in the 1983 Nation at Risk Report. A document and political spark that contained both admonitions for greater academic exploration AND recommendations for controlling what was deemed reckless eclecticism in public school curricula. Both a philosophically expansive idea and a call for systematizing learning outcomes.
Through the NCLB initiative, the philosophically expansive quest was buried under a rigid method for systematizing student learning outcomes to support uniform economic growth.
NCLB codified and indirectly mandated a growing focus on academic benchmarks and standardized testing. It promised federal funding that never materialized. Concurrently, the courts required equalized funding in each state that reduced the availability of discretionary funds for program improvement and faculty training at the local level.
Until those efforts to nationalize school improvement started, I enjoyed the rich cultural traditions of rural districts in Nebraska. The supportive town meeting decision-making environment in Maine. The dynamic mix of opinions in Chicago. The quest for merging native belief systems into the Zuni, New Mexico curriculum. Figuring out ways to consolidate small school districts in North Dakota to give them better ways to serve students. Acknowledging the importance of family and community values by merging them with a Wyoming district’s curriculum.
The distinctiveness of each state and community within America felt right. Even with such cultural diversity, there was evidence of a national soul. A happy uniqueness existing inside an indulgent national family of eccentrics.
NCLB transported a micro culture invented in Texas to the national stage when George W. Bush was elected president. Bush was convinced his state’s school improvement model was effective. That it should be expanded to the national level. A bipartisan group in Congress agreed, thereby modifying the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) provisions.
The state’s model was given birth in the entire nation.
Interestingly, Ross Perot was the prime mover. An influential billionaire and political aspirant who had strong and controversial opinions about Texas education programs. Perot was appointed chair of the state’s new Select Committee on Public Education (SCOPE). Perot and the committee attacked what they considered big problems:
The dominance of sports programs like football over academic priorities.
The 180-day school year, shorter than all other nations.
An inadequately challenging academic curriculum, especially in the realms of basic literacy and math skills.
A need for achievement tests, especially for those students involved in sports programs.
The core value that teachers come from the “dumbest folks in college” and are incompetent.
More money spent for education produces no measurable effect on student learning.
Schools are bogged down in bureaucracy.
No national standards for student learning and no way to measure accountability.
Schools are not organized to meet society’s needs because learning is not a priority.
Parents do not have enough authority over what happens in schools.
Perot and his committee drew those conclusions from the perspective of the business community. I could agree with many of them. Yet strongly disagree with others.
Although Perot’s run for the presidency as an independent was strong but ultimately unsuccessful, Texas governor Bush did get to the White House. And accomplished at the national level what had become the aspirational culture of the Lone Star State.
That new national culture emerging out of Texas prevailed for many years, then began to morph into something different. But with similar features. Now, COVID-19 has and continues to modify the original plan even more.
Perot was in many ways an exceptional American entrepreneur and political mover. I admire his life’s accomplishments in shaking up a culture that badly needed it. And for creating a new way of thinking and believing.
Where Perot failed was in understanding the inextricable nature of human culture and the value of interacting viewpoints. That public schools and higher education are not meant to have a singular academic focus. Except in those categories of the curriculum that teach skills meant to support survival AND success in a complex society. Which are only tools for applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.
Tools that Perot used in highly effective if controversial ways.
His kind of service is not my kind of service because we define the word and characteristics of “culture” differently. Perot defined it as a substructure of economic success. I define it as a means through which all its members can live with a sense of purpose and meaning derived from faith and strong belief systems.
A FEW THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NATURE OF SERVICE — GOOD AND BAD
Service is never one dimensional. It can be offered and delivered for different reasons, some of which are opposites based on practical, political, or religious convictions. Or what one considers correct or incorrect thinking. We serve what we believe at the moment. No matter where or how that belief originated.
My professional service as an educator is rooted in opening intellectual doors to promote critical and creative thinking, which are the foundation for richer and more productive lives. I do not believe in indoctrination. Especially the kind based on promoting skills or actions designed to fulfill intentions of leaders with questionable ambitions or nefarious goals. Or objectives that are either operationally neutral or just mechanistically useful.
Scientists who invented the atom bomb found the project to be an interesting challenge and service to their country. They only later thought about the social implications of their work.
Engineers who designed and built the RMS Titanic and other ships of its class accepted poorly thought-out principles and techniques. To achieve the look of British magnificence and performance. Accepting shortcuts necessary to impress and compete. Which resulted in an unmitigated disaster.
This article is about such ways of thinking and action in our schools for over two decades.
The impact of COVID-19 on schools seems multidimensional. Student enrollment is down. Learning quality has suffered. Teachers and principals are demoralized. Thousands of educators have left or plan to leave.
Multiple solutions are being considered: salary improvements, reductions in certification requirements, and upgrades in working conditions. All quick fixes to address big challenges.
But quick fixes are merely patch jobs. Repairs to keep the schools from sinking until more substantial improvements are made. If ever.
Lessons from the Titanic Disaster
We know the story about the RMS Titanic and its 1912 sinking after striking an iceberg. The iceberg collision revealed fundamental flaws in the ship’s construction and operation.
An iceberg in the ocean was like the COVID-19 pandemic. A phenomenon of nature that proved our human vulnerability and hubris.
For the Titanic it is was bad metallurgy. The use of rivets to assemble the hull’s plates. Poorly designed “waterproof” compartments. Excessive nighttime speed through a field of icebergs. Above all, the advertised claim the ship was unsinkable gave both passengers and the ship’s officers a sense of invulnerability and haughtiness.
And they paid a horrible price. Similar to what is happening to American young people today.
The pandemic exposed existing issues begun 22 years ago with the creation of No Child Left Behind. NCLB’s inspiring name, just like Titanic, masked serious design flaws. Reducing teachers to the level of civil servants made to comply with bureaucratically created academic standards. Held accountable for student success on high stakes pencil and paper tests. Narrowing curriculum to basic skills, which had the effect of minimizing critical thinking and creative behaviors.
During the worst of the pandemic, teachers were forced to conduct virtual instruction from home. They did not have deep enough knowledge of curricular intentions or modified instructional techniques to maintain momentum. That was the beginning of student learning decline and intense teacher anxiety and depression.
There is no chance of preserving much of anything from the wreck of the Titanic, over two miles under the surface. Only a few artifacts have been lifted from the debris field. Scientists believe the entire ship will disappear by the middle part of the 21st Century.
Is that also the destiny of American education?
What Is Learned from Disasters
Since the loss of the Titanic, much has been learned about the building of large metal ships. And how to save passengers when they founder. Can the same be said for the era begun by NCLB?
Titanic foundered primarily because of inadequate rivets and metallurgical issues with its hull in extremely cold conditions. NCLB foundered because it discounted the value of creative and relational teaching/learning processes. It also placed far too much initial importance on basic skill development in reading and mathematics.
The Titanic’s engineers and builders knew about oceanic conditions and weather-related threats. But, like the inventers of NCLB, discounted the underlying importance of variables. Variables like unusually large icebergs with huge subsurface masses. Or human learning needs that are multitudinous and eclectic.
Titanic’s captain and crew understood the threat of icebergs. They accelerated anyway, because they were told their ship was unsinkable. NCLB theorists believed that high stakes tests designed to assess teacher accountability and promote a competitive spirit between and among schools would improve the quality of student learning.
Both assumptions have been proven wrong.
Titanic sideswiped an iceberg and sank. Schools lost whatever effectiveness they had when teachers were micromanaged. Reduced to the level of civil servants. Required to excessively narrow the curriculum.
Before running into a pandemic.
Restructuring our schools based on what we have learned will take more time and effort than learning how to build better ships. Good ships need a better understanding of their component parts and how they are assembled. Plus crews that know how to effectively pilot them.
Schools need autonomously professional teachers well prepared in both curriculum and instructional design. Teachers given the authority to stimulate and regularly assess the quality of creative learning.
Preparing teachers in such a comprehensive manner and giving them a work environment that allows them to perform in ways that produce quality 21st Century citizens, is no small task.
Nor can it be based on old mindsets as to what teachers are and do.
The professional status of teachers must far exceed what it is now. Not simply in monetary compensation. But also in terms of how well they inspire students as purposeful future citizens who have the potential to live meaningful lives.
Exceptional and Courageous Teachers Inspire and Lead
American schools are suffering. Reeling for many reasons: misguided governmental policies, a devastating pandemic, inadequate funding, mismanagement that allows organizational priorities to supersede academic excellence, and a misunderstanding of what quality learning is and why it is important to the health of our nation.
Most egregious is the diminishment of the teaching profession from a dynamic force for guiding students toward authentic and multifaceted achievement, to a group of civil servants expected to comply with expectations from special interest groups, lawmakers, and bureaucrats.
Many organizations recognize those problems and attempt to find ways to solve them. The most influential is the National Teachers Hall of Fame. The rationale behind that declaration is the fact that it attacks today’s issues not by starting with top-down structural reforms like better funding, higher salaries, more enlightened laws, and other kinds of administrative tinkering.
Those changes ARE necessary. But the essential kind of rethinking must focus on who teachers are and what they do. The Hall of Fame does that by recognizing and honoring exceptional career teachers, encouraging excellence in teaching, and preserving the rich heritage of the teaching profession in the United States.
The Hall of Fame also enhances the public’s awareness of the vital role of education in society by working collaboratively with national education organizations. Building linkages with other national teacher recognition programs. It recognizes and celebrates the accomplishments of exceptional career teachers. Preserves their careers in museum and virtual formats Utilizes their skills and experiences to elevate teacher quality and student learning through integrated programming.
The book, The New Learning Infrastructure: Educators with the Courage to Reform LocalSchools (scheduled for publication, Spring 2023), is an effort to examine schools from the inside out. Looking at school reform as a people endeavor, not just organizational restructuring. The book’s format is meant to convey that idea. The author gives the background of challenges schools are encountering. But uses key characters in a fictional story to show how their transformation is essential to upgrading educational effectiveness and quality.
While the story is fictional, the plot is based on over thirty years of working with real public schools and educators throughout the nation. All remarkable and inspiring people. Much like the teachers selected as members of the National Teachers Hall of Fame. The book is dedicated to those classroom-based leaders. To what they have done and continue to accomplish as models of active service to their profession and students.
To illustrate why the book is dedicated to the 150 members of The National Teachers Hall of Fame, check out these examples of what these extraordinary career teachers continue to do inside and outside the classroom:
Jennifer Williams (Class of 2016), a high school art teacher from Nampa, Idaho, created a classroom to inspire creative thinking, self-discipline, dignity in work, doing something well, and promoting curiosity and respect. She relates the knowledge to the lives of her students while planting seeds that giving back to society is important and art is the perfect way to do that. Her “Project Van Go” has taken art lessons to thousands of students in rural schools in Idaho for four decades. She allows students to be teachers of the day, using art to bridge age and ethnic barriers. Even after retirement, Williams and her former students, now art teachers themselves, continue to share the joy of art to a new generation.
Christopher Albrecht (Class of 2019), a fourth-grade teacher from Brockport, New York, infuses his classroom with core ideas: Creativity allows for the expansion of ideas, breaks the rules of conventional thought, and prepares students for complex problem-solving. Students must take productive risks as failure is an effective pathway to learning. Productive learners will come to have faith in themselves. Learning should build a student’s willingness to work hard. The focus of effective teaching is focusing on how students learn best rather than teaching the standards. Working together is a valuable way to learn.
Andrew Beiter (Class of 2020), a middle school social studies teacher from Springville, New York, and his students started the Springville Students for Human Rights in response to the genocide in Darfur. This group was the catalyst for the Summer Institute for Human Rights and Genocide Studies for Buffalo area high school students. The summer institute over the years has morphed into the Academy for Human Rights (http://www.academyforhumanrights.org/), which focuses on putting knowledge into action for students and educators in western New York. In addition, Beiter co-founded the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights (https://www.eihr.org/), devoted to supporting educators who rebuild communities around the world.
Dr. Melissa Collins (Class of 2020), a second-grade teacher from Memphis, Tennessee, and her students have educated the community through active engagement such as Carnival Physics. Participants, dressed as marchers of the Civil Rights era, learn about physics through carnival rides and a civil rights march from the Civil Rights Museum to the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. Dr. Collins has collaborated with teachers around the nation and the world. She has brought the world into her classroom through Zoom sessions with teachers and student-to-student exchanges.
Donna Gradel (Class of 2020), a high school environmental science teacher from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and her students have been change agents in their school district and around the world. Based on student research, the board of education approved a district-wide energy policy and installed energy-efficient lighting and a new ventilation system. In Kenya, Donna and her students brought clean water and protein to orphans. They constructed an aquaponic system to raise tilapia for food. After learning the food for the fish was too expensive, they obtained a grant from MIT and invented low-cost sustainable fish food and the system to produce the ingredients. Subsequent classes have created affordable designs for chicken coops and cost-effective chicken food to provide protein at a school in Kenya that rescues victims of sexual abuse. Gradel and her students have traveled to Kenya to build the coops and the system for the food, extending the classroom across the globe.
Kareem Neal (Class of 2022), a high school special education teacher from Phoenix, Arizona, transforms his classroom into a strong community of learners. He builds on his student strengths and inspires them to give their full effort as they make progress toward the goals of the Individualized Education Program and learning employment skills. For fourteen years, Neal has also sponsored a student organization that aims to eliminate the biases/pre-judgments that prevent people from connecting with peers and fellow humans. His belief in his students gives them the skills and confidence to be employed and not have to be cared for by others. His goal is to make all his students feel welcome, wanted, and valuable.
Robert Fenster (Class of 2022), a high school history teacher from Hillsborough, New Jersey, creates “labs” in his classroom where students are given a set of learning goals and a variety of options about how to achieve them, including working individually and in groups. The option gives students choices about their learning. At one of his labs, Bob teaches mini lessons to help students struggling to grasp a subject. At another lab, students are creating podcasts about race in the US. One of Fenster’s collaborations has resulted in an exchange program with teachers in Sierra Leone to create global connections between students on topics around slavery.
Gary Koppelman (Class of 2014) taught fifth grade for forty-six years at Blissfield Community Schools in Blissfield, Michigan. His classroom, which he called the “World of Wonder,” featured challenging, creative activities connected to the BELL, a climatically controlled greenhouse at the cutting edge of life science investigation. He envisioned and raised the funds to create a hands-on, minds-on approach to learning, and he continues to oversee its care and growth, even after retiring. The BELL lab has challenged young minds to explore new worlds of plants, animals, and habitats, resulting in many scientists and science teachers added to our society. Koppelman received the 2013 National Science Teachers Association Shell Science Teaching Award. He continues to serve the 4-H community in Blissfield.
Dr. Rebecca Palacios (Class of 2014) taught for thirty-four years in early childhood, dual language education in Corpus Christi, Texas. She now serves as the Senior Curriculum Advisor for Age of Learning, Inc., the premier online learning tool for pre-school through high school students. She also mentors area teachers and is a co-founder and former Vice-Chair of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She is a nationwide professional development presenter and has served on committees for the National Science Foundation, the Education Development Center in Boston, and Scholastic, Inc. Palaciosis a published author, with her latest book entitled Being Your Child’s Most Important Teacher: A Guide for Families with Young Children. She retired from teaching in 2010, but she has not retired from the education profession.
Linda Evanchyk (Class of 2010) taught English and Journalism for thirty-eight years at Choctawhatchee High School in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. After retiring in 2017, she decided to continue her dedication to the district that provided her own education as well as her teaching career. She ran for the Okaloosa County District School Board and was elected in 2018. Evanchyk was recently re-elected for another four-year term. She was one of the first Okaloosa County teachers to attain National Board Certification. She was designated as a Master Journalism Educator by the National Journalism Education Association, and she was named Florida’s Journalism Teacher of the Year in 1995 and 2009. She co-authored the book Those Who Teach Do More: Tributes to American Teachers. The community appreciates her passion for making the district everything it can be, as she attends school activities, supporting the students and staff.
Dr. David Lazerson (Class of 2008), more affectionately known as “Dr. Laz” to his colleagues and students, is still in the classroom after forty-five years, as a Special Education teacher and music director at The Quest Center of the Broward County Public Schools in Florida. He is one of the founders of Project CURE the World, a racial harmony group that has become a force for positive change regarding racism and stereotypes. Dr. Laz and the group were selected as the recipient of the 2022 National Education Association’s Rosa Parks Memorial Award, awarded each year to an individual or organization who inspires others to champion the cause of human and civil rights. The Showtime original movie “Crown Heights” is based on Dr. Laz’s book Sharing Turf, which documented the New York race riots of 1981. How he helped to bring the people together with music. He continues to perform and use music to enrich the learning process for his students with autism and Down Syndrome. His latest project, the H.E.ARTS Project focuses on empowering individuals with special needs through the Expressive Arts.
Norm Conard (Class of 2007) taught high school Social Studies for thirty-one years in the small town of Uniontown, Kansas. His hands-on, minds-on approach to learning history challenged his students to explore history through the eyes of unsung heroes. His students inspired him through their research to find little-known names that had changed the course of history. When a student found the name Irena Sendler in a footnote, she became interested in the woman who had saved Polish children during the Holocaust. Discovering the woman was still alive but living in poor conditions in Poland, the students and Norm worked to bring attention to what a heroine Sendler was. The Polish government took note and provided for her until her death in 2008. The story brought attention to the difference one person can make. That led to the creation of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes in the nearby city of Fort Scott, Kansas. Today, the Center trains teachers to help students explore all facets of history, features a museum and a new park. Under Conard’s direction, the Center has reached three million students in its fifteen years of operation through virtual and on-site presentations. Since retiring from teaching, Conard’s classroom has grown exponentially.
Dr. Francis Mustapha (Class of 1994) taught Biology and Life Science in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for twenty-seven years. He believes all students can learn and should be life-long learners. He confronted students who did not have confidence in themselves to succeed in science classes. He also helped to ignite the love of science in young women who felt it was only a man’s world. He mentored dozens of aspiring science teachers to pass along his love of the subject matter into good hands for the future. Born in a small village in West Africa where no one could read or write, Mustapha’s life changed when he was able to attend a new school that opened in a nearby village. His dream of providing a building for a new school in the village became a reality in 2013. He now serves as the Executive Director of Madina Village School in Sierra Leone. He and his wife Bobbie, now residents of Sierra Leone, are building a hospital in the village to further the idea that teachers can, indeed, change the world.
Recognizing selected teachers for their outstanding contributions to students and the profession is important. There will always be such teachers, and they deserve recognition. They are excellent models for what the practice of teaching should regularly be.
The education system must systematically close the gap between exceptionality and standard practice, making stories such as those above closer to the norm. To show how a new learning infrastructure can help make that happen by removing bureaucratic hobbles and limitations on teacher professionalism that are a disservice to our nation and its students.