Last time we met, we were talking about the idea of Reinventing the Wheel as a way of describing what happens when a faculty in an independent school wrestles with a part of its school’s structure in need of attention. I had said I would continue that discussion in regards to public schools. The answer to the unasked question is, no. Wheels do not get reinvented in public schools. Instead, more wheels are added.
Cornvillenutmeg readers know I am not a fan of Public Education as it exists today; that does not mean I am less than an enthusiastic supporter of teachers, whether they labor in public or independent schools, so let me say a quick word here about teachers in general. There are far more good ones than not, and the good ones work their psyches to the bone. No, don’t say it and stop thinking it. That gripe about how much time off teachers get compared to any other profession is a fiction. Good teachers (not the handful of not-good ones who are, I’m sorry to have to say this, as hard to be rid of as ticks on deer) routinely work four and five and more hours each day before and after the school day comes and goes; and it is the rare teacher who does not also work during summer break out of necessity. You needn’t take my word for this, just ask your child’s teachers next time you speak with them.
Public Education doesn’t understand innovation. In its transitive meaning, innovate suggests introducing something for the first or (more serviceably) as if for the first time. It is the intransitive meaning that Public Education defaults to in what passes for thinking: viz., to introduce something new. Thus, there is no wheel reinventing in Public Education, nor will there likely ever be because the faculty of a public school has no opportunity even to think about its structure, let alone engage in trying to fix or amend any part that is not working satisfactorily.
I use something called Update Checker. It periodically pops up and tells me that one or more of the various programs my brother Tim told me I couldn’t live without have available updates of themselves. Dutifully, I do the requisite clicking and soon enough those programs are updated, but I worry; for I believe in my heart that each update lays down another stratum on top of previous updates so that someday, probably later today, there will be so many strata my poor hard drive will crack under the weight of them all. I accept my worries may be mistaken, but if you follow the thought, you have a notion as to how Public Education practices innovation. Nothing is either invented or reinvented; what was there is only added to and/or covered over.
For example, my second year of public school teaching, the Board of Education (BE), in anticipation of the next New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) accreditation visit, mandated that there be a system wide Curriculum Initiative (CI). The CI directed the system’s Administrative Council (AC), comprised of assistant-superintendents, principals, assistant principals, and supervisors, to create a Multi-Departmental Study Group (MDSG). The MDSG recommended the creation of Departmental Curriculum Revision and Development Committees (DCRDC) in each individual school of which there are one high, one middle, and three elementary. It will perhaps not surprise you to know that the DCRDCs were, in fact, the various academic departments themselves (Math, Social Studies, etc.), but if the MDSG had simply tasked the departments, the wealth of acronyms would not have been complemented. The mission of the DCRDSs was, of course, curriculum assessment and revision, something academic departments do anyway, all the damn time.
Thus it was that at the first meeting of the English/Language Arts Curriculum Revision and Development Committee, I encountered for the first but tediously not the last by a long shot, what passes in Public Education (see previous post) as Reinventing the Wheel.
The Supervisor of the English/Language Arts Department, also the de facto head of the E/LACRDC, announced that our work was to be focused on making ours an Outcomes Based Curriculum (OBC).
My training as a teacher, unlike that of all my colleagues at the time, is accurately described as on-the-job. My first year, no one, not the English Department Chairman nor the Headmaster nor the Assistant Headmaster made one suggestion as to how I might approach teaching. I was given the text books for the courses, told where to meet my classes, and wished the very best of luck. The rest was up to me. To be sure, I am not advocating for that method, only explaining that, not having studied Education, my professional vocabulary was limited.
Before migrating to Public Education, I did take a handful of Education courses in order to be officially certified by the State of Connecticut, just in case, so I knew a few words in edu-speak. Outcomes was not, however, one of them. Now, since our work as the E/LACRDC was important enough to give our department a brand new name, I didn’t feel comfortable letting the E/LA Supervisor get too deeply into his explanation of the scut work we were going to be required to do. What is an outcome, I wanted to know?
God bless him, he tried. Oh, how he tried to define that word for me. He said all sorts of things, but no matter how he put it, I couldn’t understand the word outcomes as meaning anything other than consequence or effect. The problem was my influency with edu-speak. He was a native speaker; I but a novice with, frankly, no desire to be anything but. My limited vocabulary included the word for students (learners) and tests (assessments). I knew what contact time meant – don’t ask – and after prolonged effort and tears of frustration, I had forced myself to distinguish goals from objectives (hint: no matter what your thesaurus might suggest, in edu-speak those words are not synonyms).
Out of a sense of desperation and concern for my colleagues who looked as though they were hoping I might be struck with an incurable case of hiccups, I asked the E/LA Supervisor if perhaps an outcome might be thought of as an objective?
Well, yes, he said, sighing and reaching for the next stack of handouts.
Oh, said I, but wait. So if now objectives are outcomes, what’s the new word for goals?
He gave me an avuncular smile; at least, I think that’s what he was trying for. Expectations.
Oh, I see.
He sighed and smiled.
Of a sudden, I had what I still think today was a brilliant idea: couldn’t we just use the Find & Replace command in MS Word on the current curriculum documents and save us all a lot of time?
The E/LA Supervisor thought I was trying to be funny. He smiled and sighed.
The specifics of the efforts of the E/LACRDC have faded from memory. I do know that whatever they were had no effect, no consequence other than the production of a document unlike the old document in no meaningful way other than in vocabulary. The NEASC visit came and went. The high school was certified for another ten years, and all the concomitant hyper activity died down. What did not happen was anything that made the schooling of the town’s children any better.
Let me hear from you, if you would. Either leave a comment or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.