Ten Crucial Questions
What I didn’t mention, head-on, when discussing “Find a Good School” and those early years at Blind Brook is what you may have already thought: Rye Brook is an almost exclusively white, upper middle-class neighborhood --- if you can’t create The New World at a place like that, where can you? There’s some truth to that, of course, but schools, like life, are far more complicated. As Herndon further notes in Explanatory Note #1 (beyond “finding a good school) is “an American school must have winners and losers” (p. 91) and “winning is never permanent.” (p.93) He also says, “The fundamental act of the American School is to deal with children in groups” (p. 94) and “The school’s purpose is not teaching. The school’s purpose is to separate sheep from goats.” That’s a lot to consider but, if you have spent forty plus years in and around public schools, you know that, in fact, Herndon is exactly right.
While it would seem all the kids who attended Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School could be seen as “winners” (by virtue of simply going to the school), once classes start meeting, the winning/losing begins. Right from the start, when I was teaching 7th Graders, parents wanted to know if their child would get into “the college of their choice.” (I, of course, would respond by saying, “The college of their choice or the college or your choice?” My belief was that many parents chose colleges for their child based on the status of putting an Ivy League sticker on the back window of their car!) The pressure on the kids was intense and palpable. We did avoid “tracking” (with the exception, of course, of Math where “accelerated” classes existed). There was a fight when I proposed “A.P. for all” when we finally had an 11th grade and could offer Advanced Placement courses (the compromise was that there would be no “requirement” –-- i.e. Grade Point Average --- for taking A.P. U.S. History. If the student wanted to take it, (s)he could). Nonetheless, as anyone who has spent time in a school with adolescents knows, everyone is aware of who the (school) smart kids are (the “winners”) and who aren’t (the “losers”). We worked hard at fighting that kind of labeling, celebrating all kinds of achievement by our students (Mr. Tibbs’s shop projects were incredible, and Mr. Trautwein’s & Mr. Tarshis’s musical and drama productions were exceptional. The artwork from the studios of Mr. Marlis & Ms. Van B was stunning). Nonetheless, there were kids who felt like “winners” and others who saw themselves as “losers.” And, as anywhere else, some of that was carried with those people into their adulthood --- one of the curses of the school process.
What you also need to know, Dear Reader, is that if you were to visit Blind Brook Jr./Sr. High School in 2019 it would look like that high school you probably attended, whether that was in the 1960’s (like me), the 1980s, or the early 2000’s. Today, BBHS is enclosed, a rabbit warren of classrooms, with a “standard” curriculum that separates “A.P.” classes from “Honors” and “College” groups. The daily schedule features nine forty-minute class periods with a 23 minute “Activity Period” at the end of the day. Pretty standard stuff and a world away from the Blind Brook that existed from 1973 until Dave Schein left (driven out by several short-sighted School Board members) in the early 1980s. As Herndon noted, an enlightened superintendent and a good principal can make all the difference in the world and, at Blind Brook, they did. But with Harley Dingman retired and Dave Schein driven away, BBHS started shifting back toward the “mainstream” --- clearly sailing toward a port I had no interest in visiting. I lasted until 1984 but, like some kind of addict, I needed that rush of excitement that a new school or an innovative school might provide. It took three years of wandering in the wilderness before I found that next adventure --- in an unlikely setting back in Westchester County, in fact. But before examining that chapter --- and considering Herndon’s Notes from a School Teacher and Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise as formative texts --- I’d like to assign some homework.
In 2003 I published a book about teaching Social Studies/History. It was designed for my students at Brown University who were preparing to be Secondary School teachers, but the first chapter raised questions I believe are important for everyone who cares about our schools needs to consider. The title of that first chapter was Why Do We Do What We Do The Way We Do It? That question, when applied to high schools, in particular, is crucial and engenders ten questions that I am assigning to you, Dear Reader, for homework. Answers will be provided tomorrow. (The book, by the way, was entitled The Student-Centered Classroom Handbook and was published by Eye-on-Education). Here are my “questions about school assumptions:”
#1 – What’s the educational philosophy behind the 7 or 8 period day that most secondary schools use?
#2. Why is the curriculum arranged and sequenced the way it is? (e.g. “Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry” “Biology, Chemistry, Physics”)
#3. If we truly believe “all students can learn” is sorting and tracking the best way to help students attain that goal?
#4. Why are students grouped according to their date of birth rather than their stage of development?
#5. Why does multiple-choice (and “objective”) testing dominate schools when it is barely present in the rest of society?
#6. If students took their final examinations one year later without their courses “in front” of the test, how would they do?
#7. Why are external (state/national) tests necessary to create “high standards?”
#8. Why don’t teachers know what their colleagues do (in their classrooms)?
#9. Why are novice teachers given the most difficult assignments/schedules?
#10. Why are there significant numbers of educators in schools who are almost never in classrooms?
So, that’s your assignment for tomorrow, when the answers will be provided,
and the journey continues!