AERO E-newsletter 28 April

AERO – Alternative Education Resource Organization e-newsletter: visit
Some items in the latest newsletter:
– Educational Freedom for a Democratic Society
– NCLB Administrative Tinkering Fails to Address Flawed “Test-and-Punish” Policies Initiated by Nation At Risk Misdiagnosis; 25-Year Testing Fixation Has Not Improved Ed. Quality or Equity
– Democracy At Risk Forum.
This latter post by Jerry Mintz is well worth reading

On Wednesday, April 23 I attended the news conference of the Forum for Education and Democracy at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The title was “Democracy at Risk.” The Forum is a think tank of progressive thinkers in public education. I am personally familiar with some of its members, such as Debbie Meier, who will be a keynote speaker at our annual conference in June. She was a pioneer in the movement for small schools and empowerment of teachers in New York City and Boston. A key convener was Linda Darling Hammond, formerly at Columbia Teacher’s College and now based at Stanford. She is also a key education advisor of Barack Obama.

I arrived early for the 8:30 event and was able to speak to Darling-Hamond and express our concerns about The No Child Left Behind Act and how it was negatively impacting us as alternative educators as well as education in general. She said that Obama was well aware of the situation and, if he is elected, to expect drastic changes within his first year. It is our wish that the initiative be scrapped altogether.

Perhaps the most influential attendee was Representative George Miller, Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. One dubious distinction that he has is as one of the four original authors of No Child Left Behind. It was pointed out however, that despite the destructive effect that the act has had in forcing schools to “teach to the test” and eliminate activities that addressed the whole child, it did make visible previously neglected minority children. On the other hand, it was also pointed out that, even by their own testing standards, that students in the United States have retrogressed in relation to students in other countries since the act came into effect, and the gap between whites and minority students had grown greater.

John Merrow of PBS fame was the moderator of the event. He promised that the audience would be able to ask questions of the panelists but let things go on a little long, and fielded few audience questions. Although I had some pointed ones for most of the panelists, I never got to ask any. Debbie Meier had said to me before the start that she hoped I would have some challenging ones. She knew that I would, especially since the three hour philosophical debate that we had at a restaurant when we were both speakers at a seminar in Moscow, Russia last September. John Merrow does know me and perhaps he decided to avoid trouble by not taking my questions.

One of the points I would have raised is their absence of discussion about private alternative schools and homeschooling, although this was mentioned by Milton Goldberg, one of the first speakers. He talked about doing research by going around the country speaking to students, teachers, parents and administrators from public and private schools. I believe that one of the most important sources for change in the public school system comes from outside the system, by independent alternative schools and homeschoolers. Many of these would take public money if they didn’t think it would destroy them. Yes the best public democratic schools have recently been forced to close down by conservative boards or have been under attack. And homeschoolers fear public funding for the same reason. One public program for homeschoolers in Oregon has recently been rescued from the chopping block, but for how long? Another democratic public alternative in Oregon, Blue Mountain School, has thrived for ten years. Based on Sudbury Valley, a democratic school in Massachusetts, its graduates have had a tremendous success record.

But local reactionaries who feared the school’s approach of democratic process and empowerment of students were able to elect four school board members. According to Oregon charter school laws, they were then able to vote 4-3 to close the school, and tried to do it mid-year!

The school was able to legally stop that, but is still in a fight for its life. After the Forum I talked to Claudio Sanchez of National Public Radio, whom I’ve known for many years. He hadn’t heard of this situation, and wanted to know more, perhaps to do a story about it for NPR. So, no matter what else happens, if such a story is able to help save Blue Mountain this trip will have been well worth it.

I had lots of other questions. For example, the report is called “Democracy at Risk,” a throwback to the “National at Risk” report of 25 years ago. But they did not talk specifically about empowering students and using true democratic process, as independent democratic schools do all over the world. What better way to imbue students with democratic values than to enable them to experience democracy in their schools?

Also, there was a lot of reference to educational research. But that research is systematically ignored, going all way back to the famous Eight Year Study. I believe the reason is that the established education system functions more as a religion with traditional practices based more on ritual and faith. It doesn’t seem amenable to research. How will they deal with that?

One somewhat frightening idea is extending the system to preschool. Homeschoolers also fear this. What if the system runs preschool the same way as our current system? Might this not extinguish natural curiosity and children’s natural learning ability at an earlier age? Let them try to become effective for older children before extending low a lower age!

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