Short Shots: Off the Cuff, Off my Chest!

Race to Nowhere

My wife Dell and I attended a screening of the movie Race to Nowhere at University School here in Shaker Heights this week.  The film is dedicated to a 13-year-old who ended her own life in the 8th grade, apparently because of failing grades in an otherwise perfect academic record. During the movie parents, students and professionals offer perspectives regarding a system of education that places undue emphasis on:

  • memorization
  • grading
  • high stakes tests
  • excessive homework

I have referred to these as these the four ‘pillars of practice’ that hold up little in the way of real learning or problem solving for any student in any school at any level. They are misplaced measures of rigor that have entranced educators, hypnotized parents, and pilloried politicians to poor policy decisions to the detriment of or children’s learning, our schools’ effectiveness, and our nation’s competitiveness.

In particular, these ‘pillars of practice’ form a prison of sorts that can crush the spirits of otherwise engaging students with active intellects who struggle with learning differences, or focusing attention. That’s the group of students we serve at Lawrence School here in Northeast Ohio.

These carry disproportionate weight in terms of determining how we teach, how we assess, and what we ask students to do in classes.

Time to move beyond our reductionist tendencies and instead design more personal, collaborative, and authentic learning protocols. Time to move beyond the educational models popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. Time to look at the time we’ve wasted and lost – not to mention the lives lost – in service to practices that look weighty and significant, are crowned with tradition and history, but serve little purpose in this century.

Parents are not off the hook here either: Time for all of us to stop pushing our needs and dreams onto our children.  It ruins their days at school and disturbs their sleep at night. The rush to college acceptance ignores the realities of the experience most students have in college. Only about half the students who matriculate ever graduate even after 6 years.  The attrition in the first year has been between 25-30 % for many years.

Education is supposed to promote thinking and discourse; inspire self-examination and action; all in an effort to ultimately advance the common good. If we are pushing our kids like derby racehorses but neglecting to prepare them for a life outside that circular track, how are we helping them… and how are we helping the society in which we live?

Bullying: Crime and Punishment

School bullies are in the news in the wake of recent bullying incidents at high school and college.  In two of these cases, the victims committed suicide allegedly to escape their tormentors.  Tragically, in all cases there appeared to be a fundamental intolerance of someone’s differences.

The natural response to such incidents is to punish the perpetrators, create programs to guide school administrators through their responsibilities in these types of situations, and make laws to deter this behavior. However, these responses miss perhaps the most effective method of deterrence and prevention: bullying prevention programs that are integrated into the weekly activities of a school and focus on the role of the bystander.

At Lawrence, we adopted such a program: the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program from Norway. It is a comprehensive, evidence-based program endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  In their endorsement, the Academy pointed to the emphasis on developing campus-wide recognition of bullying behavior and empowering bystanders who stand up for the safety of classmates.

Hand-in-glove with the training comes the difficult requirement of surveying the students every year to collect data and measure the frequency of, opportunities for, and intensity of bullying incidents in every grade in the school. Such data serves to alert administrators and faculty to the reality that this behavior must be surfaced, made discussable, and deemed unacceptable in the learning communities where we support children in the schools.

More time and space will be devoted to this issue in a future blog, so stay tuned!

Breakdown of Civil Discourse

How much of the name-calling, intolerance and even bullying behavior we see now in schools trace their origins to the apparent breakdown of civil discourse in the country – particularly as we approach the midterm elections?

In a previous blog post,  I talked about the importance of using a rubric to evaluate an individual’s or an organization’s ability to deal with differences on Stephen Covey’s ladder of developmental stages:

  1. Tolerate
  2. Accept
  3. Value
  4. Celebrate

The news this week serves as a bleak reminder that in many places we are barely balancing on stage one.

The Supreme Court convened this week to hear a case that is essentially about the right of protestors to hold up signs at combat veterans funerals claiming to know what is in the mind of God. This is less a constitutional question of free speech than it is a question of how far and fast our society has lost standards of courtesy, consideration, respect, and civility in our communities.

We are all entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts. It is sometimes difficult to determine how we feel about something within ourselves, and impossible to know what is in the mind of another human being – no matter how close the relationship.   As for what God is thinking, let’s turn to Alexander Pope for some sage advice:

“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man.”

As always, your comments and thoughts are welcome.

– Lou
Post your comment below or email the author at lsalza@lawrenceschool.org

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About lsalza

Headmaster of Lawrence School serving children with learning differences in grades K-12; "Where differences are not disabilities and where great minds don't think alike."
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6 Responses to Short Shots: Off the Cuff, Off my Chest!

  1. Joe DiBiase says:

    Lou,
    Loved the piece on race to nowhere. When I watch the Intel commercials talking about the emphasis on math and science needed to create the next generation of innovators, do you think they are saying that we need more kids who can memorize the quadratic formula or plug numbers into it? To quote Coach Wooden, and part of my math class manifesto, “It’s what you learn after you know it that counts.” Keep the faith, my man.

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thanks Joe,
      In the area of Math in particular we need more of you out there teaching for understanding–Good to know you are there for your students and for all of us in the profession.
      Lou

  2. Christopher Eiben says:

    Very thoughtful, helpful and well-written!

    • Lou Salza says:

      Thanks for the comment, Chris. Let’s hope we can at least create within the school a community that respects diversity, and conducts its business with consideration, compassion and civility.
      Lou

  3. Maureen Weigand says:

    Memorization, grading, high-stakes tests and excessive homework — the four pillars of good education that don’t work for our kids.

    I was an education major who was taught that individual differences made a difference. And then I got “into the business” and was discouraged from considering individual differences.

    So much for that. Now I’m the older mom of a girl with “individual differences”, thrilled to have found the place that “gets it”. Lawrence “gets” that those pillars aren’t really pillars at all, and that it’s possible to educate kids who can’t do that stuff.

    Thanks! It truly is a race to nowhere.

    As for bullying, I’m grateful for Olweus as well. Thanks for that too.

  4. Lou Salza says:

    Sorry I missed your comment for so long! Our Head of the Upper School has written a powerful blog on bullying in schools and it will appear in this space very soon. As for the pillars, they not only don’t hold up anything except progress for our kids, they hold up little of real value for the learners who can handle these activities with little effort. These practices served an industrial model of education that no longer serves the needs we have as a society for creative, collaborative learners and problem solvers.
    Thanks!
    Lou

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