The Service of Democratic Education
This commencement address was reprinted in The Nation , May 21, 2011. At the commencement ceremony for Columbia University's Teachers College on May 18, Stanford education professor Linda Darling-HammondĂ˘€”a nationally renowned leader in education reform and former education adviser to Barack Obama's presidential campaignĂ˘€”was awarded the Teachers College medal for distinguished service. Professor Darling-Hammond marked the occasion by delivering this address. So-called progressives are ecstatic. Nobody is asking if Darling-Hammond could answer her own question--Is it right?--in terms of her participation in the Common Core Assessment scheme.
Sounds suspiciously like John Dewey and Maxine Greene, doesn't it?
While the scientific managers' foolishness was creating a stranglehold on schools under the banner of education reform, TC teachers, school leaders and professors (ranging from John Dewey to William Heard Kilpatrick to George Counts and more) were creating progressive schools in which students engaged in intellectual inquiry, hands-on projects and activity-based curriculum--guided by an understanding of child development, the new sciences of learning and emerging practices of pedagogy. These schools practiced democracy in action and provided a counterpoint to the factory model schooling that Dewey called "mechanical, dull, uninteresting, and hardly educative in any meaningful sense."
Then as now, TC graduates set the standard. Highly educated and deeply committed, you and your colleagues have gone out to plant the ideals of democratic, progressive education as leaders in schools, colleges and governments all around the world. TC has always represented what a profession is meant to foster: 1) a strong ethical commitment to serve clients wellĂ˘€”in the case of education, to make decisions based on what is best for students, not what is cheapest, easiest or most expedient; 2) mastery of a common body of knowledge and skillsĂ˘€”and a commitment to always seek more and better knowledge to meet studentsĂ˘€™ needs (and oh, how I love that magical moment at TC when the doors fly open at around 4 pm and thousands of dedicated educators from all over New York, and even New Jersey and Connecticut, swarm into the building with such a thirst for professional knowledge to serve their students more fully); and 3) a commitment to define, transmit and enforce standards of practiceĂ˘€”a community that pledges to work together to Ă˘€śdo the right thing,Ă˘€ť as Spike Lee put it.
That commitment is more important now than ever before. We live in a nation that is on the verge of forgetting its children. The United States now has a far higher poverty rate for children than any other industrialized country (25 percent, nearly double what it was thirty years ago); a more tattered safety netĂ˘€”more who are homeless, without healthcare and without food security; a more segregated and inequitable system of public education (a 10:1 ratio in spending across the country); a larger and more costly system of incarceration than any country in the world, including China (5 percent of the worldĂ˘€™s population and 25 percent of its inmates), one that is now directly cutting into the money we should be spending on education; a defense budget larger than that of the next twenty countries combined; and greater disparities in wealth than any other leading country (the wealthiest 1 percent of individuals control 25 percent of the resources in the country; in New York City, the wealthiest 1 percent control 46 percent of the wealth and are taxed at a lower level than in the last sixty years). Our leaders do not talk about these things. They simply say of poor children, "Let them eat tests."
And while there is lots of talk of international test score comparisons, there is too little talk about what high-performing countries actually do: fund schools equitably; invest in high-quality preparation, mentoring and professional development for teachers and leaders, completely at government expense; organize a curriculum around problem-solving and critical-thinking skills; and test students rarelyĂ˘€”and never with multiple-choice tests.(Indeed, the top-performing nations increasingly rely on school-based assessments of learning that include challenging projects, investigations and performances, much like what leading educators have created here in the many innovative New York public schools.)
Meanwhile, the profession of teaching and our system of public education are under siege from another wave of scientific managers, who have forgotten that education is about opening minds to inquiry and imagination, not stuffing them like so many dead turkeysĂ˘€”that teaching is about enabling students to make sense of their experience, to use knowledge for their own ends, and to learn to learn, rather than to spend their childhoods bubbling in Scantron sheets to feed the voracious data banks that govern ever more decisions from the bowels of the bureaucracy.
These new scientific managers, like those of a century ago, prefer teachers with little trainingĂ˘€”who will come and go quickly, without costing much money, without vesting in the pension system and without raising many questions about an increasingly prescriptive system of testing and teaching that lines the pockets of private entrepreneurs (who provide teacher-proofed materials deemed necessary, by the way, in part because there are so many underprepared novices who leave before they learn to teach). Curriculum mandates and pacing guides that would "choke a horse," as one teacher put it, threaten to replace the opportunities for teachable moments that expert teachers know how to create with their students.
The new scientific managers, like the Franklin Bobbitts before them, like to rank and sort students, teachers and schoolsĂ˘€”rewarding those at the top and punishing those at the bottom, something that the highest-achieving countries not only donĂ˘€™t do but often forbid. The present-day Bobbitts would create Ă˘€śefficienciesĂ˘€ť by firing teachers and closing schools, while issuing multimillion-dollar contracts for testing and data systems to create more graphs, charts and report cards on which to rank and sortĂ˘€Â¦ well, just about everything.
And the new scientific managers cleverly construct systems that solve the problem of the poor by blaming the teachers and schools that seek to serve them, calling the deepening levels of severe poverty an "excuse," rewarding schools that keep out and push out the highest-need students, and threatening those who work with new immigrant students still learning English and the growing number of those who are homeless, without healthcare or food security. Are there lower scores in under-resourced schools with high-need students? Fire the teachers and the principals. Close the schools. Don't look for supports for their families and communities, equitable funding for public schools or investments in professional learning. DonĂ˘€™t worry about the fact that the next schools areĂ˘€”as researchers have documented--likely to do no better. This is the equivalent of deciding that if the banks are failing, we should fire the tellers. (And whatever you do, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.)
But public education has a secret weaponĂ˘€”a Trojan horse, if you will: the members of the profession like yourselves who have mastered a strong body of professional knowledge, who hold a strong ethic of care and who are determined to transmit this knowledge and this commitment to others throughout the education system.
At Teachers College are those who are leading the fight for more equitable funding for public schools (and who won a major victory in New York state); there are those who are leading the efforts to create more thoughtful and creative curriculum and instructional strategies; and who are developing more effective teacher and leadership education and professional development.
Among those of you who are graduating are many who have created and will create more exciting and empowering schools for children; more useful and appropriate assessments of learning; and more just and humane policies to guide a system focused on learning, not selecting and sorting, rewarding and punishing. You will do this in the strong professional communities you have created here at TC and in your work in the field. You will carry on the work of building a profession that serves democratic educationĂ˘€”one that provides for all children what the best and wisest parent wants for his or her child, as John Dewey put it.
Many of you have arrived here today with significant debt and at considerable personal sacrifice. But you are here because of the work to which you have committed your lives, and because you know that it is the right thing to do.
And doing the right thing--meeting that professional commitmentĂ˘€”is not easy. Whether it is standing up for a child who is mistreated, or finding the energy to go that extra mile to reach out to a troubled parent, or taking up a challenging issue in the research, or taking on a difficult concern in the public discourse, doing the right thing is often hard. As King reminded us:
On some positions, Cowardice asks the question "Is it safe?" Expediency asks the question "Is it politic?" And Vanity comes along and asks the question "Is it popular?" But Conscience asks the question "Is it right?" And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.
Take heart in knowing that the arc of history is long, as King noted, but it bends toward justice. Take courage in knowing that where a community of hands comes together to work toward justice, a freedom seed will grow. And take pride in knowing, when the work is challenging and setbacks comeĂ˘€”as they must when anything important is happeningĂ˘€”that you are building a better future for every child and family and community you touch. And remember, as Robert F. Kennedy observed:
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.
Thank you for each and every time you do what is right for our children and for each ripple of hope you create. Thank you for your courage and your commitment. And thank you for spreading the spirit of Teachers College. Keep your hand on the plow. Hold on!
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