Sunday, February 12, 2012

Revisiting "Teaching, Learning, and Jazzing on the Standards Movement"

It's been almost five years since I first penned this piece.  I've been digging around in the archives of an old blog, doing some early spring cleaning as it were.  

Now...I've been teaching for almost 20 years.  For most of the second decade of my career I've dealt with and endured the standards movement as a misguided response to all that ails American Public Education.  

Like all great jazz, what appears below sounds as fresh and lively as when I first wrote it.  I wish I could say the same for much of what has happened to my teaching. it is:

"I’ve chosen a title here that I’ve used before, and I’ll admit, it’s not original.  I first encountered the analogy between teaching and jazz in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer several years ago.  I had just begun to sound the depths of Miles, Coltrane, Bird, Ella and all the jazz greats, and the analogy sounded so apt to me.  In the years since, I’ve found nothing that can touch the appropriateness of that analogy, especially with the advent of NCLB and the standards movement.  Jazz music has standards, too, but no one interpretation of a standard is the same as another.  Jazz is rhythm--lively, original, pulsing, moving rhythm.  

Oh! if only the masters of the standards movement understood such a thing.  But they don’t, and so instead of classrooms with teachers who devise themes, set tempos and then guide the students through improvisations on vital rhythms, we get monotone, mechanical, classrooms filled with the sounds and voices of neutered storm troopers--stillborn music, dumb, mute, ordinary.  It’s the perfect tune for an outdated metaphor of education.  This is the music of the assembly line model of education.  I had hoped it had died after the 60’s, but it’s back.  Now conducted by the maestros of capitalist conformity, education becomes the factory for standardized groupthink, churning out production-line models of a proletariat weaned on “proficiency”.  

When we allow business and its drive for accountability to become the impetus for education, when success is measured in dollar signs, when we go to school to get a job and not an education...when we do those things, we bury our humanity, our opportunity to transmit what is good and right about our civilization.  Certainly there is an economic purpose to education in a capitalist democracy.  But economies are selfish, wanting only to feed themselves, and they are ignorant of the socializing, democratizing, humanizing functions of education.  Fear of a US decline as a world economic power has given rise to a system of education driven by accountability, standardization, and false promises of wealth and independence for those wiling to play by the rules of a game whose goals they can’t even begin to divine.  (Explanation for that statement would take too long.  Understand it as yet another riff on the ulterior motives of the standardized test movement.)
What we’re perpetrating upon students is the ruin of imagination, curiosity, wonder, and joy.  There is a pleasure to finding things out, to discovering.  Why else would we leave our homes in search of better lives, new lands, adventures, opportunities?  ‘Makes me think of Miles Davis’ classic album, Kind of Blue.  Miles and his band walk into a studio and start improvising, discovering, riffing, playing off each other, learning from each other, discovering where the music can take them. It’s pure, unadulterated discovery--it’s life.  Where in school is there room for such opportunities when we are driven by standards, when joy takes a back seat to mandates, when the motivational drive of new discovery is stalled by the weight of what’s been discovered? (I’m mixing metaphors and catapulting new conceits--jazz, assembly lines, cars???  Forgive me...I’m improvising here.)
And what of us, the teachers?  Where do we get off leading our students to the drudgery of the days spent advancing towards the ends already defined for them?  Forget for a moment the crimes against humanity committed upon the future of this country.  Why is there not an uproar from our ranks for the crimes committed against us?  When teaching becomes standardized we become automatons, our professional certificates worth no more than the paper on which they are printed.  Wither our creative drive?  We demean ourselves when we accept that we are merely robots who run programmed curricula.  At that point, our presence, our knowledge is reduced to admonishing those who won’t “Buckle Down,” and to coercing compliance through fear of failure.  Would that we had taken our own Hippocratic oath to do no harm, because I can’t find any good in the medicine we’re making these kids swallow.  How many  times have I heard, “Study Island?  That’s just one less lesson for me to worry about teaching.”  I’ve said it myself, and now, in retrospect, I wish I’d been shot for it. Such abdication of my role is treasonous to the cause of education.  
I might be off the deep end in my thoughts, I know, but the deep waters hold mysteries, and their stillness bring a peace and clarity to my understanding which my vitriol belies.  Regardless. . . shouting? Screaming? Why aren’t more of us doing it?  NCLB, standardized testing...we are witnessing the murder of the art of teaching at the hands of these, their knives slipped slowly into the heart of each and every one of us...and no one screams.  What horror when we assist our own murders?  What horror when we ourselves silence the music of discovery?