When Memory meets Reality
On Saturday, February 8, 2020 the Lovely Carol Marie and I embarked on a 5-day road trip through New England. The itinerary was to stay at the Holiday Inn Express in Warwick, Rhode Island that Saturday night (near T.F. Green airport — the LCM loves the free breakfast there!), allowing us to meet dear friends for dinner in Providence. Sunday we would head to Portland, Maine, staying at the Press Hotel for two days before moving south to the Hilton Garden Inn in Devens, Massachusetts. Once there, we planned dinner with Carol Marie’s closest friend from high school (and her husband) in Ashland, MA, before visiting the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School —- one of Massachusetts’s original charter schools, founded in 1995—Wednesday morning, then heading for Norwalk, Connecticut. All of that happened, as planned. We were home by 2:30 p.m. Wednesday afternoon (after a terrific lunch at Rein’s NY Deli in Vernon, CT), having logged over 700 driving miles on our Enterprise rental.
It’s now Tuesday, February 25th. I’ve found myself wrestling with reflections of the trip the last two weeks —- possibly because I spent a good portion of my adult life in New England, despite thinking of myself as an inveterate New Yorker. Starting in Providence (where I spent 13 years of my teaching life) and finishing with our visit at the Parker School (where I was a co-founder, teacher-leader, and then a Board of Trustee member for 6 years) I realized much of the best work in my career as an education reformer happened in Providence and Devens between 1991 and 2007—- and this road trip put me at an intersection of memory and reality.
Having retired in June 2014, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on my career, often recording the story —- first, in a blog, and now in a memoir that will be published later this year. Physically returning to the veritable “scenes of the crime(s)” was more provocative than I anticipated and this essay is an attempt at figuring out just why that is. Starting in Providence and being given a tour of the Parker School proved evocative in ways I had not anticipated. Beginning with our dinner on Saturday night and finishing at Parker Wednesday morning brought back a flood of memories, as well as a reckoning of a sort.
Meeting with my colleagues from Brown University resurrected a cavalcade of recollections about preparing bright young people to become crusading education reformers. More than that, though, was recalling the team I worked with, all retired now (or gone from Brown’s education department, in one case) and remembering just how special that was. Yet here we all were now, (much) older, still wise (if not wiser), and sharing stories of what was, but seemed to now be gone (though we couldn’t be sure of that). The Education Department at Brown has undergone significant changes in the last few years (summarily dismissing two people who were vital cogs in our operation. The University saw them as “unnecessary” going forward) and we were left wondering if there was any trace of our “glory years” there. Sadly, we thought not.
I joined the Ed Dept at Brown in the summer of 1994 and, with one year off to start the Parker School (1995-1996), taught there until 2006-2007, as part of the Secondary Teacher Preparation Program. We had terrific students, many of whom remain outstanding educators, even all these years later --- and we thought we were “making a difference.” In retrospect, looking through our septuagenarian and octogenarian lenses, what seems most visible is that we thought we were passing on a school reform baton but, after several years, saw it was, essentially, tossed aside. James Herndon and Ted Sizer both noted that the U.S. school system is America’s secular church --- and changing it would require the same diligence and perseverance as was applied in the Protestant Reformation. What we were looking at, in 2020, seemed only a few notable Unitarian outposts. While much of our “reform” vernacular has made it into the mainstream conversation about education reform, few of the actual practices have been instituted. “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Despite that, I thought my visit to the Parker School would be the breath of fresh air, regarding school reform, I was hoping to find --- an oasis in a dreary landscape of standardized testing, routinized teaching, and teacher-centered classrooms. I was not disappointed, necessarily, but I did not leave with the exhilaration I had hoped to find.
This was not the first time I had returned to a site of former “glory.” From 1973 through 1984 I worked at the Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School in Rye Brook, Westchester County, New York. We were a cutting edge school with no interior walls between classrooms and a very young teaching staff fresh out of progressive teacher preparation programs. Led by a brilliant principal we forged a unique learning community guided by student-centered learning principles, high engagement and dialogue with parents, and an exciting sense that we were in the vanguard of education reform. Returning to Blind Brook years later I found the Learning Spaces were now a warren of enclosed classrooms and there was little trace of the unique progressivism that started the school. Blind Brook had become a “classic” high-achieving traditional suburban high school --- an 8-day rotating six-period (53 minutes each) schedule, “honors” and Advanced Placement courses, etc. It is, essentially, the kind of high school Ted Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools (and John Dewey before him) hoped to re-invent as we headed into the 21st century. As noted, the secular church is a powerful institution and it resists change by initially embracing it but then twisting it toward its own ends.
The Lovely Carol Marie and I spent less than 90 minutes visiting the Parker School on February 12th, so our view was far from comprehensive. We did get to sit and talk to a few of the staff --- several of whom I knew from the early days in the late-‘90’s. What struck me most, I think, was that Parker very much felt like a “school,” in a staid and traditional way. Granted, my experience in 1995-1996 was characterized by chaos --- it was like changing the tire on a moving vehicle. There was, from the start, high energy from students, parents, and teachers generated on a daily basis. Reflecting on it now, it would be unrealistic to expect that same kind of frenetic pace 25 years later but, again, it did feel very much like “school.” Yet there are many, many unique aspects to Parker that have survived the quarter century since its inception. It still has a “less is more” curriculum design (only four curricular domains: Arts/Humanities, Math/Science/Technology, Spanish, Health and Wellness), it uses long-block scheduling (two hours for A/H & M/S/T & one hour for Spanish & H/W), students are not age graded (there are three Divisions but no 7th grade, 8th grade, etc.), promotion is based on public presentations of portfolios (before a panel of parents/teachers/community “experts”) and each student, with his/her parents, designs a Personal Learning Plan (PLP – like an IEP for Special Ed students) to chart how (s)he will progress toward his/her Gateway Portfolio, moving to the next Division or Graduation.
Parker is far from a “traditional” school, then. There is still a very active Community Council (the student government, in which students outnumber faculty) and a student-run Justice Committee that resolves disciplinary and school culture issues. Indeed, the school has maintained its founding “bones” to a striking degree. Why, then, did it strike me that it “felt” like a more staid (i.e. “traditional”) school? Here’s what I’ve come up with (after extensive conversations with the LCM, of course).
Unlike it’s early, chaotic days, the Parker School has found its rhythm as an institution. It’s schedule, assessment system, pared-down curriculum, etc. is the school culture. 25 years in, the school has graduated class after class of extremely successful students --- which may explain why the parental presence is far less in 2020 than it was in 1995. Parker is an established institution, a “presence” on the local education scene. When discussing the place with the veteran staff, the LCM and I asked if new teachers, or teachers who participated in the Sizer Teacher Center on campus, knew about the Coalition of Essential Schools and/or the “Ten Common Principles.” (essentialschools.org/common-principles) We were not surprised to hear that almost none of the new teachers or Teacher Center participants had. Such is education reform. Tenets that were central to our lives as educators were now historical footnotes, barely known on the education horizon of today.
Back in the 1990’s, while teaching at Brown and starting the Parker School, I often said, “John Dewey is the most cited and least read person in the history of American Education” --- and I believe that’s probably still the case. At the first “No Teacher Left Behind” Conference I helped organize at Brown earlier this century, I got to give Ted Sizer a “Lifetime Achievement” award from the Education Department. In my remarks I noted that, as far as the history of Progressive Education in America goes, “There was John Dewey in the first half of the 20th Century and Ted Sizer in the last half.” I still believe that’s true and, after reflecting on the Parker School (as well as several other Progressive outposts that exist around the country), I think the struggle to create schools that put students at the center of the equation while valuing the professional input from classroom teachers, as well as listening to the voices of the parents and other community members is still an endeavor worth fighting for.
Once again, we’re in a Presidential election year and, somewhere along the way, we will hear about the need to improve schools and create “world class” institutions for our young people. Lip service. If America genuinely cared about schools and students it could have improved its situation a long time ago. Income inequality and the archaic notion that school funding should be based on local taxes is the tip of the lethal iceberg that is American Education. If we continue with too many teacher preparation programs and “traditional” schools putting the teacher at the center of what goes on in classrooms, if we continue insisting standardized testing and subjective grading should permeate the environment, if most people continue to believe it is “someone else’s school” that needs change, we are doomed to continue this vicious cycle of inadequately preparing too many of our young people for an ever-changing 21st century. Given all that, I’m very proud of the Parker School (www.theparkerschool.org) and it is, truly, a unique example of what “could be” in education. I only wish more people would sincerely care about genuinely improving schools in every community.