On Dec. 17, in response to state and federal demands that our schools pull themselves up by their bootstraps with a new battery of student tests and teacher evaluations, our local school board pushed back, passing a resolution to “restore joy and the love of teaching and the love of learning” to Santa Fe Public Schools.
Good for the board for drafting such a resolution. Though it seems logical that we’d want our kids and teachers to spend their days in joyful, loving schools, you don’t hear much about “joy” and “love” in public education discourse these days. The omission probably has something to do with our cultural clumsiness with these emotions in any context; it definitely has something to do with the rise of accountability-minded school “reformers,” who believe learning ought to be a no-frills, data-driven affair that need pay little attention to the emotional well-being of students and teachers.
The SFPS resolution, then, should be commended as a courageous call for a more human-centered educational approach. But it also should be noted that the resolution is essentially a push back, not a push forward. It represents yet another swing of the joy versus the accountability pendulum our nation has been throwing back and forth, with the emotional fervor of a dysfunctional family for generations. The Albuquerque Journal North editorialized that the measure was “feel-good” and “doesn’t cut it.”
The State of New Mexico, of course, pushed the pendulum right back, and through Public Education Department spokesperson Larry Behrens who derided the SFPS board members as “adults clinging to a failed system.” And he’s right, though not in the way he thinks he’s right. We are, all of us—our school board, the Journal North editors, and the state—clinging to a system that has failed. It hasn’t failed because we’ve focused too much on accountability or joy. It’s failed because we, as a nation, have for the last century-and-a-half, allowed policymakers and the media and economists and textbook publishers to ram our schools back and forth into their current mish-mashed condition, when we might have entrusted them to clear-sighted educational leaders who understand how people teach and learn.
Releasing our grip on the current system does not mean grabbing hold of the latest accountability craze. Neither does it mean proclaiming a restoration of joy. It means letting go of the pendulum altogether. It means dropping into uncharted territory. It means looking at this whole school thing from some different angles, and finding out what we think, as a community, about questions that are too often lost in the old debate:
How do people learn, anyway? (BF Skinner has his theories, but so does Lev Vygotsky, Howard Gardner, John Dewey, Loris Malaguzzi, Paolo Freire, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, bell hooks…)
Must every young person attend college to be successful in life? (Is there a role for vocational education? What does that mean for our democracy? What does that mean for Santa Fe’s economy and the living wage?)
What role might schools play in creating a more sustainable world?
Can schools really fix poverty? (As UNM education professor Rick Meyer recently commented, if every student suddenly tested at grade level this year, would there be more quality jobs available? Less inequity?)
Are we willing to pay more taxes to create higher quality schools, and higher quality teacher education programs? To pay our teachers more? (Finland decided 30 years ago that it was; a few months ago, Colorado decided it was not.)
This joy and love that our board hopes to “restore” to our schools—was it ever really there? (My own memories as a student in Santa Fe Public Schools in the 1980s and 1990s, have as much to do with angst, competition, cheating, socializing and enduing boredom as they do with joy and love of learning—and I was a successful student.)
And of course the question that Aaron Stern often asks, the question on which we’ve based many of our programs at the Academy for the Love of Learning: What happens when we take the “lid” off learning? Can’t we have joy and accountability at the same time?
Our school board members have got their hands full trying to keep the ship afloat—the number of SFPS teachers quitting midyear has tripled—let alone find the time to engage in the sort of soul-searching I suggest here. But while they push the pendulum back in an effort to keep our schools tolerable for the good people who spend their days there, there’s no reason the rest of us can’t come together and see if we can’t find some new pieces to this education puzzle.
The Academy for the Love of Learning plans to do just this by launching series of community conversations about learning this year.
Seth Biderman is manager of the Academy for the Love of Learning’s Institute for Teachers, committed to revitalizing the lives and practices of teachers.