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Thompson: Musings on This Year's Spring Break Grand Canyon Trip

Brandy%20standing%201[1]I just returned from another Spring Break trip to the Grand Canyon, although my travel companions are now thirty-somethings. It was a reminder of the wonders of teaching in the inner city. Whether it is playing basketball with students, or being schooled by the kids and by former students on cutting edge digital innovations, there is nothing like the joy of teaching.

Being quick (some say too quick) to see something new on a trip and to turn it into an outdoor lesson, I'm reminded of how much I loved classroom instruction. Even so, it is only one part of the job. It is no more than the point of the spear in the war on underperformance. And, that prompted a first musing.

Marveling at the Grand Canyon, I could ignore the problems with teacher evaluation regulations, described by Education Week's Michelle McNeil's Arne Duncan on Who's Winning the Race to the Top.  The RttT, like his School Improvement Grants, and other innovations were drafted by noneducators who did not understand that teaching and learning are acts of love, not the results of rewards and punishment. Those expensive programs were doomed because the wisdom of veteran educators, who understand the need for trusting relationships, were shunned by the programs' architects. So, even though I did my best to not think about school reform while at the Grand Canyon, I could not resist a thought experiment.

How many students' lives could have been transformed if the $5 million SIG grant at my old school of Centennial had been invested win-win solutions to our real problems? Our educational defeats were due to the predictable result of too many poor children, with too few adult role models, being segregated in a world with too few opportunities for hopes and dreams. What would have been the result of well-funded, well-planned, high-quality field trips inside and outside of the city? A series of intergenerational adventures would have nurtured the bonds necessary to learn for mastery and prepare for life after school.

When I returned home, ironically, new reports on the "modest" gains, "disappointing" gains, and/or "mixed results" of the RttT and the SIG were waiting. Catching up on them was a reminder that the architects of those experiments are "not even wrong" about school improvement. Focusing on incentives and disincentives, they are clueless about what really matters in education. And, how could they possibly believe that that improved methods of data-driven instruction could increase outcomes more than playing ball with the kids or demonstrating a deep concern for their extra-curricular activities?

I also returned to stories that were closer to home. The Daily Oklahoman's Jenni Carlson, in Centennial Does a Lot with Little Fan Support, confessed to breaking the rules and "pulling hard" for my old school in the high school basketball playoffs. This is the fourth time in four years that Centennial made the finals, and it lost by one point in double overtime. Carlson explained that the school is nearly 100% low-income and its fans, once again, were outnumbered by a ratio of ten to one. She added, "Compounding issues even more this week is spring break. No student bus. No pep club. No cheerleaders even. And those who know say that Centennial has a really good cheer group."

Also, the Oklahoman's Tim Willert, in Intersession Classes Help Oklahoma City Students Facing Upcoming State Test, reported on 200 students at my other previous school, John Marshall, who attended test prep remediation over the spring vacation. During the break, the kids are provided by incentives such as pizza and the opportunity to play basketball at lunch.

Longtime readers will not be surprised that my final musing comes from the Bruce Springsteen lyrics we heard on the ride home.  Market-driven reformers have been "walkin' tough," but they're "walkin' blind." To improve schools we must "face the ties that bind." No matter how much test data you have, "you can't break the ties that bind, You can't forsake the ties that bind."

In theory, I guess, someone might someday find a shortcut for the journey that is teaching and learning.

Naw, that ain't gonna happen. Reformers should show some patience and enjoy the road trip.-JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.




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