Director’s Address to Returning Faculty

Posted Sep 02 2010


Forty years ago, almost to the day, I stepped off of a Frankford elevated train and walked two blocks to my first teaching job in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Prior to the students’ arrival, we had two days of pre-service—in retrospect, a poor equivalent to Lab’s four days of Planning Week.

There I was—twenty-two years of age, a recent college graduate, married for less than a month, contracted to teach for $7,300, registered for graduate school, and ready to save the world. And the school to which I was assigned was a far cry from what we have at the Laboratory Schools. The only thing we had in common was the fact that the origin of the building and the birth of John Dewey occurred in the same century.

When I arrived at the schoolhouse doors, I was met by members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers who informed me that I was on strike and that it might be weeks before I could set up a classroom. This was not how I expected to begin my career in education. My undergraduate program neglected to teach me about the politics of labor relations and, worse yet, I was in desperate need of a paycheck.

That first teacher job action ended within days, and it was not long after Labor Day when I was introduced to the thirty-two children assigned to my sixth grade. With the exception of the principal who split his time between two schools, I was the only male teacher on the faculty—a distinction that had some advantages.

It didn’t take me long to realize that it would be very difficult for me to save the world in a classroom without books, in a building that was poorly maintained, in a system that seemed to be a war with its teachers, and where parents were clearly not interested in a home and school partnership.

I remember that during my first couple of years I caught just about every cold and virus that was brought into the classroom and, until my antibodies were built up, I was hardly a picture of good health. I thought that I had been a great camp counselor while in college but classroom management with all of these pre-adolescents whose own supports were lacking was more than a challenge. Differentiating instruction was not part of the pedagogical vocabulary in those days, and I was clueless about how to meet the overwhelming needs of so many of these young people.

In order to grow professionally and to seek improvement, I joined the union; in short order, I was elected as a building representative. Having a say in decision making, suggesting better operating procedures, and discussing interventions to help children with learning problems was a prospect that appealed to me.

Of concern, however, was my school system—a system to which I had hardly any orientation, was not observed by a peer and only once by an administrator. I was placed on a salary scale based upon my experience and number of graduate education credits. Working in close proximity to my colleagues, I naturally observed how they approached their work and made comparisons. Admittedly, I was frustrated that the only way to get ahead was to go to graduate school and get older. Surely experience should count, but what about effectiveness?

Changing the system was not a thought or within my power; therefore, during the first couple of years of teaching, I had to make some decisions. Should I bail out of education completely? Should I continue taking graduate level courses leading to a degree that I may never use? Should I consider a different position in education without the security of tenure but still having some impact upon the lives of children?

And that, my friends, is how I became a school administrator. In hindsight, I believe I made the right decision because, as I reflect, I’m not sure I had what it takes to be a really good teacher in a pre-collegiate setting.

So why did I share this personal and professional history with you on this first day back from our summer break? My motivation is simple; it is about CHANGE.

Over these past forty years, this story has been repeated many times and by many young people who entered our profession—not necessarily at Lab but at many schools in different parts of the country. Too often this inattention to developing outstanding teachers occurs in locations where the most needy of our nation’s young people are desperate for good teachers and good schools. I’ve heard it said that if Rip Van Winkle were to awaken after a twenty-year nap, the only thing that had not changed was American education. I’m witness to the fact that little has changed in twenty years times two.

There are experts who study change, write about it, and believe that they can predict the future based upon current and historical conditions or they choose to postulate based upon the direction the wind is blowing. I am not one of them, but I have been on earth long enough to recognize when the ground is shifting. And while I am not predicting an earthquake, I think that even Rip Van Winkle would notice differences if he were to awaken five years from now.

I want to talk with you about three beliefs of impending educational paradigm shifts and ask you to give them some thought as to how they might affect what we do going forward.

I believe that the “business model” of improving education will fall on its own sword.

It is unfortunate that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation developed primarily by politicians and enacted in 2002 morphed into what many refer to as a “business model” of improving education. Measuring outcomes through standardized testing and referring to those results as the evidence of learning and the bottom line is, in my opinion, misguided and, unfortunately, continues to be advocated under a new name and supported by the current administration.

In the past decade, there have been many critics of the educational policies promoted by the so-called corporate reformers. Only recently have some voices been taken seriously—in particular, the voice of educational historian Diane Ravitch. Her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, provides a compelling argument to examine the data that tells us that reforms of the past ten years are not working and are actually degrading the intellectual potential of students. And this comes from one of the early architects of many of those reforms. This is a book worth reading, authored by a person who admits she was wrong yet is forceful when advocating for change. Listen to this from Ms. Ravitch:

We must honor those teachers who awaken in their students a passionate interest in history, science, the arts, literature, and foreign language. Such teachers (if acting today under NCLB) would be stifled not only by the data mania of their supervisors, but by the jargon, the indifference to classical literature, and the hostility to their manner of teaching that now prevails in our schools.

Without a comprehensive liberal arts education, our students will not be prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy, nor will they be equipped to make decisions based on knowledge, thoughtful debate, and reason. . . . Not everything that matters can be quantified. What is tested may ultimately be less important than what is untested, such as a student’s ability to seek alternative explanations, to raise questions, to pursue knowledge on his own, and to think differently.

And to that, I say AMEN and thank you, Ms. Ravitch, for seeing the light and for cracking the armor of the “business model.” Because of her and others like her, I believe this disturbing chapter in American education history is coming to a close.

But what’s the next chapter and what’s out there holding real promise? I believe that a couple of answers to those questions are right under our noses at the University of Chicago. Specifically, I refer to the pioneering work of the Urban Education Institute and, without modesty, the ongoing legacy of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. The University of Chicago is considered to be among the elite institutions of higher learning in the world, and to have two outstanding models of pre-collegiate education within its domain places the University in a class by itself.

The Urban Education Institute dedicates its very being to answering one fundamental question: How do we produce reliably excellent schooling for children growing up in urban America? As a former teacher in urban America having the same question forty years ago, I am convinced that our country will never again hold a competitive edge without the answers. Thankfully, this University is committed to finding the answers, and it is not through a stick and carrot approach. It is through hard work, a big heart, and applied research. The UEI is more than worthy of our support, our praise, and our collaboration.

At the end of these remarks, I will address Lab’s legacy and what I believe is our responsibility at this transformative time in our history.

I believe that information accuracy and communication will take on more significance than information acquisition.

At the end of July, a prominent person within the United States Department of Agriculture was forced to resign because a brief excerpt of a speech that she had given a few months prior was posted on a popular blog. Within hours, bloggers called her a racist, the NAACP condemned her remarks, and the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture demanded her resignation.

Now we know that her remarks were taken out of context, that there was a rush to judgment, and there was an inadequate examination of the facts. The employee was unfairly criticized, and the government had egg on its face. It is a disturbing example involving the highest level of government and points out the critical need to examine anything in print and to avoid accepting it at face value.

Here is something else that should disturb us. How many people use the search engine Google every day? Google logs 2 billion searches a day. So probably 300 million people use it daily. Do you believe that? Well you shouldn’t because I got this information from WikiAnswers! Accuracy and authenticity are not guaranteed by any search engine or by the Wikipedias found on the web, and yet it is human nature to look for the quick and dirty.

To be sure, life is not about waiting in line at a supermarket and believing the headlines of a tabloid. Quick and dirty information gathering is not an acceptable practice in educational environments espousing a purposeful search for knowledge and truth. With knowledge exploding and multiplying at exponential rates, schools have no choice but to take the lead and ensure that this generation of students knows how to separate fact from fiction.

Related to the topic of information quality, we are experiencing a growing but powerful demand for improving our children’s ability to write. Interestingly, this generation is doing more writing today than ever before, but it is not necessarily occurring in the classroom. Rather, it’s through text messaging and the social networks like Twitter and Facebook. Excuse me for sounding like a critical and out-of-touch old person, but so much of what is written with our children’s thumbs is mindless chatter completely devoid of grammar, spelling, or style. Not to be omitted from my criticism are many in the adult population whose blogs also suggest writing incompetence.

As a person who takes great care in reviewing resumes and cover letters, it is astonishing to note how little attention is given to spelling and, too often, coherency. And this is at a time of high unemployment and knowing that good communication, especially writing, is the number one skill set desired by employers.

Colleagues, it is hardly a news flash that we are in the midst of a technological revolution, and as the tools of technology continue to advance, they have only increased our responsibility to ensure a literate population. In the past, literacy has been defined as the ability to read and write but today has been expanded to include reading critically, verifying information, and writing for understanding.

I believe that our profession is at a defining moment and will obtain much greater respect, as performance and one’s professional growth become the primary determinants of employment.

Judy and I remained stateside this summer and at every one of our travel destinations, I picked up the local paper. Almost daily, there was at least one article describing cuts to programs in the community’s schools. Letters to the editor and editorials would follow the story. They included the heartwarming stories of great teachers who profoundly impacted children mixed with stories of people who didn’t belong in our profession. Clearly, the public’s focus on professional quality (including all positions in schools) has dramatically intensified in the past several years. As programs are being eliminated and layoffs are happening based upon seniority, teacher and administrator quality is under the microscope, especially with parents who are witnessing their child’s favorite teacher moving from the classroom to the unemployment line. That scrutiny becomes particularly acute during difficult economic times when taxes and tuition are rising higher than the cost of living and without a ceiling in sight.

Demands to change the traditional systems of seniority, tenure, and performance measurement are being heard from rural school boards to the highest levels of government, resulting in radical measures being tried to improve quality. In February, a superintendent in Rhode Island fired all of the teachers and administrators in a failing school district. In Washington, D.C., a contract was ratified by a three to one margin that established classroom results, not seniority, as the standard by which teachers are paid. And this summer, the Chicago Tribune published an article about the percentage of teachers earning $100,000 or more in the suburbs of Chicago. Predictably, the printed reactions and editorializing from different perspectives were all over this issue.

I really don’t know where this is all going, and it is my guess that the courts will determine much of the changes to legislation. What I can predict, however, is that those in the trenches, those who are really doing the work in our schools, those of us who are in this room this morning, will lead a change in quality assurance. It may take the form of teacher mentoring, peer evaluation, self-evaluation, student feedback, or professional renewal. Or, it may be something that has never been tried before. But, unlike what I’ve experienced in the past forty years, we, as professionals, have no choice but to take an active part to ensure that every student is taught by an excellent teacher. Outside pressures for improving performance and accountability have reached a critical mass. By accepting the challenge and recognizing that quality control is everyone’s responsibility, we will restore much of the respect our profession so richly deserves.

So there you have it. Three predictions of change—none of which will significantly affect how you plan to welcome our students next week—but, nevertheless, may require both individual and institutional adjustments as we move forward.

And forward we are moving. At a time when many independent schools are losing enrollment, we are bursting at the seams. At a time when our profession is laying off teachers, we are hiring. At a time, when programs are being eliminated, we are expanding. At a time when building improvements are being put on hold, we are completing a $10 million exterior wall and roofing project and will be breaking ground some time next spring on a new campus for early childhood education. Now those are reasons to celebrate.

But our most important reason to celebrate is just having the chance to return each year to such an extraordinary educational community. There are many good schools in our country, but there are few that can share the same legacy as Lab. It is a legacy started by Dewey and held together by core values of those who have taught and worked here. Teachers who believe that children:

  1. Learn best through experience and by experimenting with ideas.
  2. Think best when provoked by the right questions.
  3. Determine who they are when given the freedom to engage in a free and open dialog.
  4. Build relationships as part of the learning community we create.

Experiential Learning, Reasoning, Self-Determinism, and Community—values that still define us, direct our actions, and continue to distinguish us as an educational exemplar.

Today I feel as if I am beginning the next forty years of my career. No longer ready to save the world but certainly “fired up and ready to go.” May all of us rediscover our passion for teaching and learning as we enter this school year; may we hold on to the core values that make Lab what it is; and may improvement be the primary motivation for changes to come.

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