Down the rabbit hole of education reform

Former teacher Mark Phillips takes us on a scary trip through the Wonderland of Educational Reform. Phillips is a former high school teacher and a former teacher educator at the University of California at Santa Barbara and at San Francisco State. He writes a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal and blogs at Edutopia. A version of this appeared on the Edutopia website.

By Mark Phillips

I had a Lewis Carroll-like dream the other night….a  trip to the Wonderland of Educational Reform.

My story begins…

I fall down a rabbit hole. I look around and notice a little inlet just off to the west called The Institute of No Cliché Left Behind. As I enter I see a sign above a door: “21st Century Learning.  Four people, evidently educational reformers (they’re each wearing an Arne Duncan T-shirt), greet me at the door. I ask them to explain what 21st Century learning means. Each gives a different answer.

“How can you use the same title and have different answers?” I ask.  “Ah, that’s the beauty of this,” they answer in unison, “the true beauty of clichés. They can mean whatever we want them to mean!” I’m dazzled by the absurd clarity of the response but continue to probe.  “Won’t all of this look different in 20 years? I mean society and technology are changing so rapidly, it will have to be different, but it will still be the 21st century.” As a chorus they reply, “then we’ll call it “Preparing Children for the 22nd Century!”  I’m incredulous. “But that’s totally absurd!”  “No, here it is totally logical.”  With their maniacal laughter in the background, I head for the next room, “Kids Come First.”

The docent in this room tells me he’s a parent, teacher, and educational reformer. He shows me photos of happy children and adolescents in classrooms, playgrounds, and homes and says, “We must never forget that children come first.”  “Yes, yes, of course, but everyone seems to have a different idea of what that means,” I note.  “Of course, that’s what’s wonderful about this cliché!  We can all be in total disagreement and yet we all agree!” Curiouser and curiouser.  It’s clearly a world where absurdity is normality.

I note signs above other doors, “Transformative Curriculum, “ and,  “Education for the Common Good.”  What do they mean? I see more such signs.  I rush to the exit.

I wander now to the east across this surrealistic landscape to the edge of Polarity Park, (with a small sign underneath that says “formerly Either-Or Stadium.”) It’s a stadium with what looks like a soccer field, but there are no balls and I can’t see any goals. A team wearing bright red shirts that read “Charters Will Destroy Public Education” is engaging heatedly with players wearing deep blue shirts with the words  “Charters –The Only Path to Reform.”   Across the way is what looks like a rugby match, with a scoreboard reading: Parent Trigger Laws 13, Parent Exclusion 9.  I walk through a wild lacrosse match. The players are futilely wielding their sticks without a ball or goals. The “Crush the Unions” team, clad in purple, is on the attack, hurling an invisible ball between them. The green uniformed “Union Action Leads the Way” players appear to be wandering around the field aimlessly. I flee the stadium.

By now it’s time for tea and just ahead there is what appears to be a lovely tea party going on. A bedraggled looking teacher greets me. “Welcome to the Race to the Top Tea Party!”  He displays a somewhat manic smile, and his voice verges on a scream. There are some teachers sitting at a table — no actually some are grabbing on the table and some arepartially lying on the floor. They tell me they’ve been busy racing to the top and only have a few minutes. “We’re late, we’re late. The testing is tonight, and tomorrow, and tomorrow night, and…. “ I cut them off.  “Doesn’t it stop?”  “No no, except for tea. We’re late, we’re late, hurry up!”  I ask them who the downcast servers are. “Oh, they’re the administrators and teachers who didn’t make it to the top!”  I sip some tea, but it tastes more like Kool-Aid! Leaving, I’m almost run over by a group of teachers racing to somewhere …or nowhere.

I want to wake up. But I hear someone singing off to the south and follow a sign to the Forest of Vacuous Terminology. As I approach I realize the tune is from an old Gilbert and Sullivan song, “A Wandering Minstrel I”, but the lyrics are original. A lone teacher sits under a redwood tree strumming a mandolin and singing.

A happy teacher I, of creative ideas and lessons                                                               And many wondrous classroom sessions.                                                                       With my teaching passions ranging                                                                                   And all my students changing                                                                                              Till that day in late last June
Whence came our school tribune                                                                                Whence caaaame our schooool tribune.                                                                            She announced the latest answer                                                                                       And a path to test inflation                                                                                                       With certain creativity deflation.                                                                                                I heard those vacuous words                                                                                             That were truly for the birds                                                                                               That were truuuly forrr the birrrds.                                                                                 “Viable and Guaranteed Curriculum” she exalted                                                               My senses totally assaulted.                                                                                               “Oh finally something viable,” my sarcastic mouth emitted                                             “And wondrously guaranteed… I’m so committed.”                                                               A smile across her angry face                                                                                           And never a sense of grace                                                                                                      And neverrr a sensssse of grace.                                                                                       Oh, a woeful teacher I, a person of viiiable lessons…

She winks at me as I hear eerie voices coming from all parts of the forest –  “Academic Rigor,”  “Common Core,”  “Next Generation Learning,” “Standards Based Reform,” “Proficiency,” and ”Brain Based Learning” with a booming response echoing through the trees, “as opposed to what? – stomach based!?”

I begin to run, faster and faster.  I realize that I haven’t seen any children. I wonder where they’ve gone. How could any child not want to be in Wonderland?

I wake up in a cold sweat.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | January 27, 2013