“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.
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.