Tennessee seems to be the latest hotspot for school reform. A recent New York Times article heralds its “radical experiment in reinventing public education,” an overhaul of the state’s lowest-performing schools to catapult them—in five short years—from the bottom 5 percent to the top 25 percent.
The article points out some of the controversy in this experiment, including concerns about cultural insensitivity, but far more telling are the accompanying photos. One depicts 7th-grader Cedric Franklin alone in a locker-lined hallway, filling in bubbles on a multiple-choice test. Another shows a group of children standing in line, doing nothing. Then there’s a shot of a young teacher before a whiteboard on which is written, “Objective: I can gain essential background knowledge by beginning to think about possible themes in the novel with 100 percent accuracy.”
These photos, which could have been snapped in just about any public school in America at any point over the last 70 years, reveal what the rhetoric masks: There’s nothing “radical” about Tennessee’s experiment. In fact, it’s hardly an experiment at all.
As far as I can tell, what’s being reinvented in Memphis is the way these low-performing schools are governed. Instead of being directed by community elected boards, they’ll be outsourced to independent charter operators free of the regulations and red tape of centralized district offices and unionized teachers.
I’m not opposed to this idea in principle. Charter schools can bring new energy and ideas into a school system. But as the photo of Cedric with his No. 2 pencil makes clear, Tennessee isn’t asking these charters to “reinvent” public education—it’s asking them to deliver the same old competitive, scores-obsessed education model we’ve been unsuccessfully throwing at children for generations. Different cooks. Same old swill.
If Tennessee, or any state or district, truly wants to “reinvent” public education, it needs to experiment not with governance models, but with the variable that matters most: learning models.
At the Academy for the Love of Learning, we’ve been discussing two learning models in particular: “didactic learning,” through which we train our minds to acquire external knowledge; and “experiential learning,” through which we create our own understandings out of experiences we live and feel. Harvard researcher Howard Gardner is one of many scientists who stress that a classroom must have both; leading thinkers dating back to Rousseau and Aristotle have championed experiential education.
Wise teachers have always fostered both types of learning, creating a rich balance of bookwork and field trips, lectures and conversation, tests and projects. But if Tennessee’s new charter schools are really expected to test in the top 25 percent in five years, they’ll have to cut experiential learning—messier, and less prone to produce immediate results—and focus heavily on the didactic transmission of test-taking skills. It’s no coincidence that the word “scores” appears five times in the Times article, and “learning” only once.
I’m sympathetic to Tennessee’s desire to create better schools for its poorest children, but I can’t see how its so-called “experiment” will do anything but starve these kids’ minds on a grim educational diet of behavior management and test-taking skills. That’s not what they need. I’ve taught poor children, and I can attest that they, like all children, love to learn, and are quite capable of tackling didactic skills in math and reading while exploring their lives and the world through the artwork, conversations and projects that foster critical thinking and bring learning to life.
Tennessee is right in one respect: public education does need to be reinvented. And if they’re not going to do it—if they’re not going to deeply rethink teaching and learning—maybe Santa Fe should.
SFPS graduate and former local educator Seth Biderman is under contract with the Academy for the Love of Learning to research what “school” could someday be. His blog: schoolreformed.wordpress.com