The 21st-Century Classroom | Field Notes | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
The 21st-Century Classroom
Hillary Harvey
Katie Zahedi, principal of Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook

Multiple groups of four or five people sat at Conversation Tables or lounged in Adirondack chairs on the lawn of the Taconic Retreat and Conference Center in Red Hook. Hosted by the Avalon Initiative, an independent education think tank with offices in Chatham, the Enough Already! conference in April was attended by the same broad coalition of public, private, homeschool, university, and research individuals who have banded together against Common Core and are opting out of state testing. Gary Lamb had used registration info to assemble the small, diverse groups so each represented all walks of education. They were discussing the soul of education. "We're creating a unique venue to have conversations that focus on child development and needs," says Lamb, Avalon's Projects Coordinator. "We want to help build a new imagination for education around that."

What's been driving national education reform since the beginning of the millennium is a push toward standardizing achievement. Since 2001, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been publishing the results of worldwide tests administered to 15-year-olds around the globe, gauging their proficiency near the end of compulsory schooling. With 43 countries participating in 2000, input has grown to 75 countries in 2012, and governments eager to jump in the ranks use PISA to promote education policy reforms. No Child Left Behind (2002) used high-stakes testing to assess school district performance. Race to the Top (2009) policies continued that trend by tying teacher assessment to testing and grant funding to the adoption of Common Core standards. With one eye on global PISA scores, politicians turn to corporations and tech companies for solutions and open a new market for corporate-based strategies.

The US generally ranks somewhere in the middle of the PISA list. And Katie Zahedi, a presenter at Enough Already!, thinks the middle is just fine. Zahedi is principal at Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook, and says, "We [at the conference] have a shared vision for how schools should be: that all children feel cared for, watched, and valued, rather than set up for high-stakes competition where there'll always be winners and losers. We don't think there should be any children who are losers. They shouldn't even be worried about winning and losing."

Fine-Grain Dictates

When we spoke by phone, Zahedi was riled. She had just received a memo from the New York State Education Department about training she would receive, which would allow her to administer field tests to her students. The purpose was to let test designers analyze the validity of their test questions. Zahedi had contacted another principal and the superintendent to discuss her concerns. She has grave reservations about handing corporations student data. "They're given free access to our schools and our children to design the products that they sell to us," Zahedi scoffed. "It's obscene."

Zahedi says administrators are buried in policy dictates from the state that seem to only benefit corporate interests: memos stipulating the use of approved vendors; rubrics created by the state to rate her teachers that require her to check prescribed boxes. In the past, she would visit the classroom, observe the teacher, and write it up based on her professional discretion. Just like the state tests administered to students and used to evaluate teacher effectiveness, the purpose is to take a snapshot of a teacher's performance. But what that type of evaluation doesn't take into account is the relationship that develops within the school community. Zahedi takes stock of her teachers' strengths and weaknesses every day of the year. "My job is to motivate, inspire, lead, and evaluate. I'm not a compliance officer," she sighs.

Zahedi suggests that education reform encompass general goals, and that schools be responsible for designing how they're met. In the face of technology industrialists who hope to update the 21st-century classroom, that solution can feel like a return to simpler times. But there is a movement of people who are trying to make it possible. "Fine-grained dictates coming from politicians and business leaders is entirely inappropriate, and it represents a huge overstep of their qualifications into a domain which already has experts." Zahedi says the people who should be designing policy are teachers, school leaders, and education scholars. "We're not producing widgets on an assembly line, and so our work is much more complex than a business-minded perspective or even a political perspective. We work over the long view with children." For the average public school, education is a deeper process.

Stop Blaming Teachers

Written into the the New York State Common Core curriculum modules is this: "Feeling invigorated, students take their seats for Sprint B, ready to make every effort to complete more problems this time." It's a scripted math curriculum, and many, especially veteran, teachers have concerns about specifying student responses, not to mention their own teaching. Math teachers find problems with the chronology and compression of the learning, feeling they have to rush the kids along and suppress their own expertise and training. "Good teaching is about knowing the children in front of you—knowing where they're at and where you want to take them," says Marla Kilfoyle, a teacher at Oceanside High School in Long Island. She wore a T-shirt that read, "Stop Blaming Teachers," when speaking at Enough Already! Kilfoyle says the creation of a lesson is like a work of art. "You spend a lot of time building up to points and making sure that at the end of the year you've met this framework of standards." But with corporate reform in the driver's seat, the teaching profession is being relegated to the back of the bus.

Kilfoyle is the general manager of the Badass Teachers' Association (BATs), which started as a Facebook page in June 2013. Within the week, it exploded to 10,000 members, and to date there are almost 60,000 in the group. The BATs staged their first event right away: calling for the resignation of then Education Secretary Arne Duncan by flooding the White House with calls. The following year, they staged a protest outside the Department of Education in Washington. It resulted in a meeting with the Civil Rights Department, where they outlined how education reform policies were violating the civil rights of urban children (through school closures), children with disabilities, and English-language learners, to start. Halfway through the meeting, Secretary Duncan joined them, and Kilfoyle says the BATs let him have it. They said his strategies transformed education into a billion-dollar market.

Tech 101

The Alt School in Brooklyn Heights was founded by technology industrialist Max Ventilla and recently profiled in the New Yorker. Students explore curriculum through specially developed software playlists on tablets and laptops. The idea is to create a personalized learning experience where data is collected in minute detail on each student's progress as they work through digital tasks. AltSchool's curriculum is roughly aligned to Common Core Standards but enjoys an independent school's freedom to operate outside the system. In fact, as Rebecca Mead reports, "AltSchool's ethos is fundamentally opposed to the paradigm of standardization that has dominated public education in recent decades, and reflects a growing shift in emphasis among theorists toward 'personalized learning.'" That idea of streamlining individualized instruction through new technologies holds appeal for champions of progressive education. The school meets its needs through tuition but also receives funding from investors. "None of these backers want merely to own part of a chain of boutique microschools," writes Mead. "Rather, they hope that AltSchool will help 'reinvent' American education: first, by innovating in its microschools; next, by providing software to educators who want to start up their own schools; and, finally, by offering its software for use in public schools across the nation, a goal that the company hopes to achieve in three to five years." But tendering it to a public school setting has its challenges. As Kilfoyle points out, "Districts can't always afford the type of technology that they're going to be expected to use. And they can't afford to sustain it."

Teachers want technology use to be balanced. In a computerized, 21st-century classroom like those at AltSchool, students sit at screens for 30 percent of the day, clicking on lessons while the teacher tracks their progress. Kilfoyle feels that lack of human interaction and creativity impacts a child's ability to work with others, compromise, and problem-solve—important nonacademic skills learned in school. "Teachers don't mind technology," says Kilfoyle. "But they want to be able to use it to enhance what they're doing with children. They don't want it to replace what they're doing with children."

When the BATs' Quality of Work Life Team collaborated earlier this year with the American Federation of Teachers, 30,000 teachers participated in their national survey. "Basically what we found is, teachers are superstressed, and they're feeling demoralized," Kilfoyle says. They're concerned with increasing understanding around teacher working conditions because of their effect on students. "This is what a lot of people don't understand—public education teachers are the advocates on the ground for children. We're the ones who speak up when we can about the conditions of our schools." Kilfoyle says protecting teachers' rights protects their ability to advocate for students.

For teachers, the 21st-century classroom would not revolve around high-stakes testing, efficiency accountability, or competition with other countries, and respect for teachers would be attached to education reform movements. Kilfoyle would like to see serious conversation following Enough Already! around the lack of funding and support for urban schools, and around the best interests of all children. She laments the appropriation of educationese like "individualized instruction" by corporate interests. "Child-centered means that kids have a rich array of experiences while they're in public school. We're going to expose them to things and allow them to develop a passion, so they can take that when they graduate and do something good in their adult life with it," says Kilfoyle. "That's what you develop in a public school and through all of these interactions with the adults who work in the school, who have a passion for children and are showing them that light. We need to respect that process."

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