The sensible thing

“Nothing sensible is very common.”
                                        — Harold Berlak

We attended a birthday party yesterday for a four-year-old. The merriment of the celebrity and her little chums, who included our daughter Mara, was unbounded, which made the afternoon a happy one for me in itself. But the icing on the cake, as it were, was a conversation with the birthday kid’s grandfather, who had come up from San Francisco with his wife to be part of the festivities. After hearing about what Angela and I do for livings, he revealed that although semi-retired, he still writes about educational policy.

“Ooh, education! That’s a hot one,” I said, then asked what he wrote. Books? Articles?

He said that, yes, he wrote both books and articles, that he analyzes and summarizes the big reams of policy excreted by the government, though he was more genteel in his phrasing. 

I asked for a summary, hoping to ascertain his bias before launching my own harangue, which would expose my own opinions to lie somewhere between those of the people disenchanted with the No Child Left Behind Act and those of the Unschooling contingent, which at its furthest extreme holds that children should not be made to learn what they will surely pick up along life’s journey anyway, such as reading, or surely never use, such as the capitols of states, but should instead be taken outside and taught something both practical and engaging, like how to skin a muskrat (I kid you not).

It was clear in a moment that he challenged the assumptions behind the policies formulated (in part) under the Clinton administration and signed into law by the Bush administration. We then had a lively conversation — a real one, with give and take, points conceded — about how free teachers can really be to engage the natural learning tendency of children when they are pressured from the White House to “teach to the tests” that the standards mentality has enshrined as the hope of future generations. I asked him his name. His name is Harold Berlak, and he is a senior fellow at the Applied Research Center in Oakland.

Natural-born learners hunting for birthday eggs in October.

Natural-born learners hunting for birthday eggs in October. Click for full image.

I asked Harold if he’d heard of Alfie Cohn, a controversial figure in educational ideology. I have not read many books on education, and I started reading Alfie Cohn for his parenting methods rather than for his ideas on public education. His book Unconditional Parenting completely reframed the way I thought about what children need and how to go about administering those things, and it became easy to see that to a large extent the same things are true in a child’s early life at home as in their years of schooling. Basically, Alfie Cohn champions respect for a child’s autonomy and sense of self-agency, a respect that has no place for coercion, shame, bribery and overt controlling. I feel that this book came to me just in time as I was beginning to parent a child who turns out to have as strong opinions as I do about the way she should be raised.

Cohn’s main theme on the topic of schooling is that the emphasis on testing is killing both the natural inclination children have to discover and learn and the ability of teachers to engage that natural interest. Mr. Berlak said he had read Alfie Cohn, and while he admitted that he certainly was a lively writer and thinker, he didn’t say he agreed or disagreed with any of Cohn’s theories. He instead steered the conversation to things he himself has seen in classrooms over his many decades as a teacher and then as a consultant to teachers.

Mr. Berlak spoke well and pretty judiciously, I thought. He recognizes the farse that is No Child Left Behind (or No Child Educated, as I call it), but made the point that teachers dedicated to their students’ educational welfare have more leeway than I might realize. I asked where he saw this leeway when “stiff penalties” (the phrase of Lewis Gerstner, IBM CEO and advocate of NCLB Act) are promised, including dismissal of staff members, for not meeting testing goals. Said I, “Even if teachers want to engage students in creative and progressive ways, they can’t because their school will suffer top-down consequences if they don’t teach to the test.”

Harold made a face to indicate, “yeah, they say that…but…” and went on to point out that students in decent schools, and certainly in affluent white neighborhood schools such as the one Mara would go to, don’t have any trouble at all passing those tests, and that the motivation behind the act was to bring up scores in schools where kids are really in educational jeopardy, i.e. schools in poor neighborhoods. (That made me reflect that if the stringent standards don’t even cause most students to break a sweat, then the conclusions that administrators and policy makers are drawing from that data are necessarily meaningless.)

It was good to hear a non-alarmist opinion (I’m an alarmist; I fly the flag of Alarmia). In fact, I wish I would stumble into more conversations like this, where I can hurl my most entrenched prejudices at someone who has a better view of the landscape and can calmly, without becoming combative, make a case and support it. He was basically telling me that he foresees a backlash against the testing mania, that if I got involved, and got involved with other parents who were involved, we could change the way school happens locally, even within the framework of a flawed system like NCLB. “Principals are often afraid of parents,” he said.

He then told me that the first thing I should do is go sit in a classroom and watch what goes on.

“You mean at the school where Mara would go.”

“Any school. Tell them that you’re thinking of sending your child to that school and you want to visit and get an idea of what happens in classrooms there. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to do that if it’s a public school.”

“Is that common?” I asked.

“It shouldn’t matter whether or not it’s common,” Harold Berlak said. “Nothing sensible is very common.”

All this echoed a conversation I’d had with Tim the Worm Bin Jedi less than two weeks ago. Tim and I had met for lunch again, and I had told him that we are considering every option for Mara, from homeschooling to public school to the expensive and ultra-progressive Waldorf School (which Harold referred to as Rudolf Steiner school). Tim pointed out in his refreshingly blunt way that Waldorf was started by a bunch of “greenies with money” who gave up on public school and went off and created a pretty cool system, but, says Tim, a system that should have been a prototype for fixing public schools, not the resort of the monied few. Tim also pointed out an advantage of public schools; that we’ve already paid for them. When I made the same comment to Tim that I made to Harold yesterday, about the teachers’ hands being tied by federal testing laws, Tim likewise said that the public school system is very flexible.

What I’m hearing is that although the arc of the educational universe is long, it bends toward learning. Conversations like this are good for me. I’m a hothead and I often make judgments based on too little information, judgments that I hold with a tight fist much longer than evidence and even experience warrant. Whatever detriment this way of being has done to my own personal life, I am determined that Mara’s life gets better due diligence from me. 

Worth the effort.

Worth the effort.


14 Responses to “The sensible thing”

  1. 1 Ben October 6, 2009 at 07:42


    Intresting. I remember that the NCLB (nice little Acronym that), caused a bit of stirring here in Alaska as well. Its hard to eliminate teachers on the edge of nowhere just because they don’t have the standarized credentials. People with the proper criteria often don’t wish to be teaching in a village on the edge of the Bering Sea. Snack time consists of seal meat and whale blubber. So I see the point. Hmmmmm.
    On the other hand, I often think that parents have more to do with the failure of schools than the school itself. Holding children to any standard is forbidden by some parents. The result is that their children run into the world with little understanding of the demands it will make. I work and teach with folks right out of high shool and it is truly amazing how illiterate they can be.

  2. 2 jstwndrng October 6, 2009 at 10:01

    Wow, thanks for commenting. I agree with you that parents have to toe the line and not expect schools to compensate for neglect at home. But testing at every grade level means that every year, the pressure is on to learn these 500 things and learn them right, and the very nature of testing — here’s the point — obstructs learning. I don’t think anyone is saying there shouldn’t be a standard, or a set of teaching goals. It’s the testing and the consequences of testing (including necessarily pitting children against each other in ranking) that are so problematic. I’d love to hear from our sister on this issue. Her kids are all brilliant, perhaps somewhat by nature but certainly also because their educators at a private school did right by them. Jeni’s kids had a loving and stable home environment, number one, and, secondly, teachers who were not obsessed with getting over an annual hurdle where funding and even their jobs were at stake. I may have some issues with some of the doctrines and philosophies at the old private Christian school, but our nieces and nephews learned how to learn, how to think, and how to evaluate. They didn’t just learn facts for passing tests so that some superintendant could look good and keep his job. I’m not convinced public schools are in the same business.

    • 3 Jeni October 7, 2009 at 09:27

      We have a real mixed response to BCS. In some areas the kids really learned to learn. I think it comes, like you suggest Matt, in providing a place for kids to explore on their own. Assignments that encourage thinking. Assignments that encourage writing. Lots of discussion, accountability.
      We weren’t at all impressed with the math/science contingent. They obviously could teach people who ‘get’ math and science. Were even passionate about their subject. But left those poor music/english lit types out in the cold. They weren’t much help.
      I’m trying to remember back to elementary school and how things were done. I remember a lot of homework, a progressive expectation of responsibility. “Now that you’re in fourth grade you are expected to…” and the teachers really working those angles. That helps tremendously in giving kids the satisfaction of taking responsibility for their own learning.

      Being a mom of four, very close together, and having cancer in there too, I was not really active in the classrooms most years.

      I have to say too, that in college we have (rightly or wrongly, time will tell) encouraged the kids to follow their interests. Scott, in particular, has become a great ‘learner’, because he looks at the whole process as LEARNING, not ‘getting the degree so you can make money’. That may come back to bite us, cause I’m not sure how practical that is, but on the other hand, he is a really sharp and will be quite a catch for some company to have.

    • 4 Ben October 7, 2009 at 12:01

      I wish to point out that you are so right about the year long grind to achieve a test score. It influences everything. I teach several things in the fire service, but the ones that are taught the most inadequately are the ones that count the most. And its because of the insatiable need to “certify”. In those particular subjects or courses, the instructor has limited options for teaching what must be known to survive, vs. what must be known to get “certified”. The result is “certifiable” firefighters who know little practical knowledge about being good firemen.

      Example: I want to get on the roof of a burning home and cut a hole with a chain saw to let the heat and smoke out. The young “certified” firefighter with me will expect to go through all twenty-five steps in the book to get this done and he’ll do it in the most ineffective manner, which is also taught because it is the easiest/safest to accomplish. My approach will be to eliminate as many steps as possible, use diverse tools and methods to get on the roof, make the cut and get off the roof as fast as possible, therefore: safer. To do this I need time with a mentor/instructor that understands the difference between the book and reality.

      I think it is much the same in schools under “standards for achievement”. You get what you need to get to get by the test, not what you need to function in life.

  3. 7 Marni October 6, 2009 at 15:54

    I read this this morning, and I’ve been thinking about it all afternoon. My conclusion? I’m so very glad I don’t have to worry about this issue as you do! I’ve always been a big supporter of the public school system (I came through it pretty okay, after all) and in theory, it should work well…but I’m with you, it no longer seems to do the job it is supposed to be doing, which is enrich, educate, and open young minds to the world. I also don’t know what the solution is…but I agree with those who urge you to check out classrooms in the public school you are considering for Mara and get involved on a community level to make that school and those teachers the best that they can be or that you can hope for; parental input and public guidance are probably what are needed to fix the problems. This testing mess has just got to be stopped…what are the school models overseas, especially in the Asian countries against which we seem to stack up so poorly? It seems we should stop being so complacent about being middle of the pack and instead study those educational systems that are thriving…and just copy the hell out of them!

    • 8 jstwndrng October 6, 2009 at 18:20

      Preach it sistah. Thanks for your thoughts here. Yes, I also had some good teachers in public schools. Mr. Leadbetter (Latin, grades 10 and 11 and Vocabulary Development, 12), not because he related to kids well (he didn’t), but because he simply was impassioned with language and could not recognize the viewpoint of anyone who was not. It rubbed off on us. Mr. Sorenson (Western Thought, 11), may he rest in peace, because he challenged my cherished beliefs while respecting them. Mr. Hanna (Language Arts, 8 and 9?), may he rest in peace, because he treated us like friends at a dinner party whose input he was terribly eager to hear. The aforediscussed Mr. Taylor (Music, 7). And Mr. Dale (Geometry 11), because he adapted his teaching of a very rigid subject to the ways his students were able to perceive it.

      I agree we should copy what works or has worked in the past. I don’t know that I would look to Asia in plotting a course for our schools. As I understand it, kids in Asia are under suicide-inducing pressure academically, and that starts in the home. I think American culture is different enough that we should probably decide what we think an educated person should look like for ourselves — there are very good classical paradigms — and then let teachers do their thing within loose guidelines. It takes a bureaucracy to make children really dislike school.

      • 9 Marni October 6, 2009 at 18:40

        Do you mean Mr. Griffith for Geometry (I think his first name was Dale)??? Because I loved him, and loved geometry and algebra as a result! Loved Mr. Sorensen as well, and JT just goes without saying. My cousin’s children were all raised and schooled in Switzerland and they are so freaking smart and world savvy it’s intimidating. They each know at least 3 languages fluently and have a broad yet specific knowledge of the world that I find incredible… and they are amazingly critical thinkers and speakers. It’s great that you are really exploring this now in a thoughtful way. Mara is sure to benefit as a result! Keep us posted on your findings- I’d love to hear how a classroom observation goes. And…I have a cousin who is a dedicated teacher up in more remote Alaska, by the way! I’m not sure the snacks are seal meat and whale blubber, but if they are then they are enticing enough to keep her there doing her job with passion and enthusiasm.

  4. 10 jstwndrng October 6, 2009 at 18:56

    Griffiths was fun, yes. I’d forgotten. I think Kip loved him, but it was Mr. Dale who got me over a terrible math phobia — I didn’t think I could ever understand it until his class.

    Interesting about the Swiss kids. I think any country that has three national languages is going to generate smart kids, because language learning just makes that happen in your brain. I wonder what they do for left-brain stuff, though. You don’t hear a lot about Swiss artists…

  5. 12 Louis October 7, 2009 at 07:30

    Wow. Mr. Griffiths did the same thing for me. I too had a fear of math, and I had to take his basic math class, or as he liked to call it, “bonehead math”. He made it a lot of fun and even worked out a deal with the class that once a week, if we were making good progress, he would tell us a story. And he always delivered.

    • 13 Marni October 7, 2009 at 10:23

      Oh please- his stories were the best! We lived for those moments each week- and I loved learning anything he taught, to this day I think I still remember algebra somewhat (geometry…maybe not as much).

  6. 14 jstwndrng October 7, 2009 at 10:31

    Thanks for the reflections. It doesn’t really surprise me that those who know science/math well are not the same people who can teach it well (to those who DON’T get it). I imagine that’s a rarer breed than the English or music expert who can also teach English or music well, since those subjects are really “all about” expression and communication and science and math are about purely understanding something. I’m luck here at work. My old mentor and now boss happens to be an engineer with an English major’s soul, which has benefited me greatly. Without someone who “gets it” but also “gets how I might get it”, I would not have this job.

    About college and learning for learning’s sake, that’s my own opinion of what higher education should be. Training is different. I think we’re using our schools to train (prepare for work) instead of educate (prepare for life and society). My own college years were a mess because of confusion over why I was there — I had one foot in each boat. I regret not having just spent my time learning. I hear your doubts about the path you’ve encouraged the kids to take in college, but nowadays, because of specialization and the speed of technological change, you’re going to have to take some extra training to do anything for money anyway.

    Griffiths offered us the same deal. And some of the kids had heard about certain stories from older siblings. The story of when he jumped off the Aurora bridge and the story of him hopping freight cars from state to state were specific requests. I never knew whether these were fictions or facts (and it didnt’ matter).

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