Conformity (Andrew McNamar)
I stood at the service counter of my local Starbucks waiting for my annoying to make White Mocha with a few modifications. The barista was a friendly young woman who went about her task without any appearance of dislike for her job. As I waited, I overheard a second barista, a little less friendly sounding, announce, in front of guests and the management, that my barista was out of dress code.
I looked. Nothing stood out to me, the customer. It turned out she had forgotten to take out her tongue ring that morning.
I stared at the less friendly barista, confounded by her actions. Why would she do that? No one would have noticed, or really cared.
Back at the school, I thought about education policies that try to make schools and teachers conform. No Child Left Behind comes to mind. I thought of Thoreau’s drumbeat and Frost’s diverging path. I mostly thought of how controlling the education bureaucracy has grown. I wanted to grab a notebook, a pen, and a good book so that I could march my students, to whatever drumbeat we heard, out into the woods of education and learn simply, suck the marrow out of education. I wanted to leave the system to fail without me.
I had recognized that the education system, the bureaucracy, needed direction. Good companies have rigid policies; great companies have a degree of flexibility. Good schools make teachers march in line; great schools tap into the ingenuity and creativity of the individual. Let me illustrate from my own classroom. I teach a somewhat scripted reading program. I was doing as the curriculum demanded. My students didn’t understand. It was my obligation, as the teacher, to ensure that these students understood the concept, so I punted. Only when I punted, I also became the return team, able to adjust in game to reach the goal.
The danger, of course, remains in the unpredictability of human beings. Renegade teachers serve their selfish desires, and education suffers. School districts cater to the wealthiest neighborhoods to secure financial support. But, education also suffers when it forces every school to be the same, to conform to a preset notion of results and methodologies. There is no better example of how dogged rigidity affects students than the ongoing tension between the central office and the classroom instructors.
In our quest to meet AYP and conform to NCLB, the gap between the central office and classroom instructors has widened. It reflects the growing polarization that exists in the political climate and the religious climate of our country. We have become so adamant that our way is right, it seems as though the Middle Ages and Salem, Massachusetts have reincarnated into this millennium. This separation should not happen. We should be focusing on collaboration of classroom experience and wider research data.
Ultimately, we must, all of us, return to the heart of education: the students. In order to do so, we must be willing to put aside our selfishness and our political slogans. What finally brought about the fall of corporate indulgence was the conscience of a few who realized that the good of the people was not being served. Unfortunately, there is no whistleblower loud enough to stand up to the Federal government. Who is going to listen? President Bush? Ted Kennedy? Fat chance—they’re too busy with the mid-term elections.
No Child Left Behind is the equivalent of an overbearing corporation, who, in search of commercial viability, forgets what matters most: the customer. Corporations make policies that they believe will benefit themselves and perhaps the customer; no one questions this. No Child Left Behind creates polices that are intended to benefit the student but fails to recognize that every location, every customer, is different.
When a company finds that their business plan needs alteration, it honestly evaluates the plan. I fear that Capitol Hill, in an effort to undermine political advancement, has failed to evaluate NCLB. Holding schools accountable for their students’ success is an appropriate concern for a government that is investing into the system. Placing all of the blame for student failure despite the efforts of the school, is nearsighted at best, and crushing at worst.
If the current reality is going to continue, where the federal government has control over public education, then it must revisit its approach to helping schools succeed. It must begin by disengaging politics from its decision making. Once partisan rhetoric dissipates, then the system can function like it is meant to. A failing franchise in a location that should succeed will be given time to improve, but more importantly funds and vision. Our current mode of operation under NCLB is to inform schools that they are failing, as if they somehow weren’t aware, and tell them to improve. No additional funds. No vision. Just a statement.
As No Child Left Behind journeys towards reaffirmation, the edusphere can only hope that critical thinking, a skill we teach, and credibility of evidence, another skill we teach, has more influence on our leaders than the current political climate poll. Here’s to hope.
Andrew McNamar teaches English in Washington. He blogs at The Daily Grind.