Monday, April 14, 2014

Let's Stop (re)Inventing The Committee of Ten: Getting Over School

Committee of Ten History & Government Subcommittee from here.

1. A Story, A Story

What if we have it mostly wrong? 
What if our assumption that school grades and state tests are apt indicators of academic success?  
What if our assumptions that learning discrete subjects as the means for becoming 'college and career ready' are too narrow or misinformed?
What if the goal of becoming 'college and career ready' is narrow, naive, or perhaps inappropriate?

I think about these questions each and every time I read a narrative by someone who 'failed' at school and is now successfully writing for a living.  I wonder about the dissonance between school failure and being a writer.  In the Times there was an interesting essay, The Art of Distraction, by Hanif Kureishi who writes:
As a teenager, in particular, I wanted to be good at things, to shine, but like the Ritalin boy, I fell badly behind at school, finding myself not only unable to learn but at the bottom of my class. I walked out of secondary school, and a semi-skinhead violent street culture, with three “O” levels, feeling as if I’d been badly beaten for five years.
What does it mean to be at the bottom of a class? How is such a position even allowable, let alone the conditions that would give rise to exiting high school feeling as if you had been badly beaten?  What does it mean to succeed at high school?  'School success' as measured by GPAs has a lot to do with compliance: the dutiful student who completes the assignments on time (or ahead of schedule), regurgitates teachers' language for the Friday quizzes and tests, pays attention in class (or at least looks that way), keeps a 'good notebook' filled with the notes the teachers have given, scores well on State assessments, completes test prepping packages, and doesn't cause any trouble or fall asleep in class.  One might argue given the current emphasis on accountability as measured by single tests, that a similar 'compliant' teacher may be more prized than one who 'causes trouble, agitates for a different system.'  Excellence may really be noting more than compliance.

2. Getting over Readiness

Art By James Yang
I have spent a fair amount of time in K-12 schools and recently I was walking through the hallways of a school I had not been to before.  In room after room the same two scenes were occurring: in some young people sat at single desks and whether they were in rows or small groups--they all were watching the front of the classroom where the teacher talked and talked.  In other rooms, young people sat at single desks and looked busy doing seat work while a teacher sat at his/her desk and did seat work of some sort too. Occasionally the monotony of the scene was broken with a student standing at the teacher's desk or a teacher standing at a student's desk.  In several rooms some students rested their heads on top of folded arms on their desks.  Almost always these were young people seated towards the back of the classroom and usually they were boys.

Room after room.
Floor after floor.
Nary a difference.

In recalling this school and others like it, I think about the irony of readiness, a pernicious concept, if ever there was.  How can we say to parents, "Based on our readiness tests, your child is not ready for school...." Ready for what?  To watch the adult? To fill in endless worksheets and work assignments? To be bored? To fall asleep day after day? To feel as if you had been badly beaten for five years?

3. The Committee of Ten Again, Again 

I know there are aspects of education we are doing wrong, even as I acknowledge that there are wonderful exceptions to the classrooms and school I described above. I have been in schools and classrooms where learning is vibrant, dynamic, thoughtful, edgy.  In conversations with many of these educators though they openly talk about the countless pressures they face to stop the excellence they do with students in order to attend to the given and sanctioned curriculum; the state test content; test prepping and other absurdities.  Excellence cannot be had outside of the now, the ever emerging present.  Excellence does not occur via a sealed past, an epic construct.  It emerges alongside people making and doing, failing and figuring out.  It is inherently idiosyncratic as it is communal.

The standardization of teaching, learning, and measuring that corporations, governments, some school and district leaders, as well as some parents seem to be embracing with increasing interest will only lessen student learning and interest in learning. It will confuse, not illuminate, what excellence looks and sounds like--as we will be in the business of producing a country of Harrison Bergeron's.

In Democracy and Education, John Dewey (1916) wrote:
Schools are, indeed, one important method of the transmission which forms the dispositions of the immature; but it is only one means, and, compared with other agencies, a relatively superficial means. (Kindle Locations 139-140). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
55 years later in Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich (1971) stated:
Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting (p. 18).
In thinking about Dewey and Illich, I believe that the idea of a place called school as the single method for formal learning may well have outlived its usefulness. Since NCLB & reiteratied through RTTT, the standardization of schools, curriculum, teaching, and learning methods has alarmingly increased and now with the Common Core State Standards, the upcoming Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing, and the standardization feels even more exponential. We are now faced with a product that will be the basis of measuring what constitutes privileged academic performance at most schools: a single set of standards, preferred instructional methods (close reading), learning materials, curriculum maps, professional learning modules, and continuous high stakes, national-state testing of children throughout their entire school careers. 

You only have to revisit the assumptions made by the Committee of Ten to understand that inclusiveness in groups who want to standardize, may not be in the best interest of learners or a democracy.

Found on Pearson Website here.
Achieve, Inc. photographs from their Facebook Page
I often wonder how different school might be had the NEA task force, Committee of Ten, (a group of 90 elite men) determined that observation, reasoning, and judgment could be cultivated through multiple methods and studies as opposed to tying each to a discrete subject. I often wonder how different their recommendations might have been had a few women, some newly arrived immigrants, some
people of color, some students,  and representatives who hailed from work other than teaching been part of the committee.  How might the recommendations have been different?  Replacing 90 elite men who served on the Committee of Ten in the 1890s with corporations in the 2010s who are informing the Common Core really isn't much of a change. I think here of Marx who wrote, " must become conscious of how an ideology reflects and distorts ... reality ... and what factors ... influence and sustain the false consciousness which it represents -- especially reified powers of domination."

If you take 90 men, hailing from elite schools (college presidents, headmasters, professors) and ask them to name what an excellent education contains--we should not be surprised that their answers (all were in agreement) will reflect their lives, their truths. Habermas told us that without a metalanguage to challenge the given assumption, power tends to  serve up itself as the model of excellence. Today it is Achieve, Inc., Pearson, McGraw Hill, ETS, state DOE, federal DOE who are the new Committee of Ten. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss...

4. Alternatives
  • Imagine if 'school' was organized not solely by discrete subjects, but by people--local, indigenous to a common ground and connected across physical, social, economic, and political geographies. Decisions about learning are made in such places, at such locations. 
  • Imagine a curriculum based on rich conversations engendered within participatory cultures where connecting, collaborating, creating and contextualizing are norm.
  • Imagine if learning was understood as natural, human--that which happens all of the time. As such, learners are by nature and nurture, capable of learning. No one need 'get ready' for learning. Failure is natural and necessary and does not warrant front page reporting, retention.
  • Imagine if learning opportunities and occasions could be curated by learners (students and teachers) for themselves and other learners? That these processes were imbued with choice.
  • Imagine if curriculum was situated as complicated conversation that learners, mentors, teachers, and community members engaged in often, daily even.
  • Imagine if work and learning were not separated so rigidly and apprenticeship was an option for learners based on their interests, needs, economies, passions and communities.
  • Imagine if the learning occurring in passion affinity spaces, in local community-based locales were privileged. Imagine if we leaned in and began to name the thinking that was being done at such 'places' what new importance might emerge.
  • Imagine if readiness was retired. 
  • Imagine if we stopped emphasizing measurement by single high stakes test and end of course grades.
  • Imagine if we did not confuse the well made argument with truth.
  • Imagine if we shifted measurement from being a far-from-student task done by 'others' and instead rested it in the hands of learners as necessary and important learning tasks that a community supported.



  1. Imagine if readiness was retired.

  2. Yes, it needs to be retired. We need to understand that getting ready is all about power.

  3. Mary Ann-
    A kindred spirit! I have a blog ( that poses similar questions and advocates for Dewey over Terman, Illich over Gates, quality over quantification, and reformatting over reform. We have missed the boat completely the past decades by using standardized achievement tests as the metric for measuring progress through age-based cohort groups. With all of the technology at our disposal today it is possible to individualize and personalize instruction… instead we are using it to give standardized tests to students batched together with age cohorts reinforcing a factory model imposed by the dignitaries mentioned in your post. Here's an irony: many of the billionaire technocrats who are telling us kids need to be "college ready" are college dropouts (Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, etc) and many of the Millenial millionaires made money developing games and apps that evolved into products that tech oligopolies paid handsomely for. I guess it was OK for the billionaires to follow their bliss but not so good if your bliss is art or literature. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts!

    1. Especially appreciate this insight you make: "With all of the technology at our disposal today it is possible to individualize and personalize instruction… instead we are using it to give standardized tests to students batched together with age cohorts reinforcing a factory model imposed by the dignitaries mentioned in your post."

      Oddly Bliss, like time, is a commodity of great value these days. I hate to think of it as something that is being reserved for those with power simply because they have the means to ignore the very structures they have put in place for the masses via public education.

      Wl check out your blog, Wayne.