The Chicago teachers strike was the biggest action that we’ve seen against aspects of modern school reform, but people in other places are fighting too. Here’s a report from Ohio, by George Wood, superintendent and secondary school principal at the Federal Hocking Local School District in Stewart, Ohio. He is also the executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy — on whose blog this appeared — and chair of the board for the Coalition of Essential Schools.

Wood writes in part about superintendents who have decided to fight Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee, which essentially means that third graders who cannot read at grade level will be held back and not be allowed to move to fourth grade. While this seems to make sense, there is virtually no evidence that holding students back is more beneficial than allowing them to move up a grade.

By George Wood

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First, three superintendents and their school boards have decided to stand up publicly against the ill-conceived “Third Grade Guarantee” here in Ohio. If you missed it, last spring the Ohio legislature, prompted by Gov. John Kasich, decided that no child would be promoted to fourth grade unless they could read by third grade. Further, at each grade level, kindergarten through third, children had to be tested with standardized instruments to see if they are ‘on-track’ to read by age eight. If not, an individualized program was to be designed and carried out for each individual student.

Of course there is no funding for the program, just the advice that schools can use their federal dollars for it and that there would be, sometime in the future, grant funds available. The law, passed in May, had to be implemented by September even though the Ohio Department of Education did not inform school districts of what tests they could use until August. As of September 13, the policies to be followed were still changing.

More important than the structural problems with the law is the fact that it is simply not good educational practice. Teaching children to read is a craft, not simply a “follow-this-recipe” science. Children learn to read with the help of good teachers at all sorts of speeds, some by age 6, some not until age 10 or later. Sure, if they are struggling, we should help — what the heck do the legislators think we have been doing?

But mandates like this, well, as one of the brave superintendents put it: “At the end of fifth grade, I could not read. Somebody intervened on my behalf. If they had retained me, I would not be the person I am today.”

On a more local level, one of our graduates was sitting through her first college lecture on one recent day. In the lecture hall she patiently listened to her professor claim that schools are factories, kids and teachers are mindless robots, and the only outcome is to reproduce an unequal social order. When he ran out of air, he challenged the 300 some students to tell him if their school was any different than what he had described.

Much to his surprise, I am sure, our graduate, just a freshman, stood up and talked about her school. A school where kids are not ability-grouped, where self-designed senior projects and portfolios are the capstone of their years in school, where students have an equal say in hiring staff and where they serve on all committees. The professor responded, “Really, right here in Athens County?” Yes, a mere 15 miles down the road he could find a school that challenges his carefully constructed but ill-informed worldview. But I doubt he will ever come visit; few if any college faculty do. I don’t know why they don’t visit schools like ours — maybe they would have to rewrite their lecture notes.

When I survey the educational landscape there is much that gives me pause. The growing privatization of our school system, the reliance upon standardized tests to promote students and evaluate teachers, more and more state regulation with fewer state dollars. And many of the teachers I talk with feel overwhelmed, under-appreciated, and helpless in the face of forces that seem too big to challenge.

But then there are these acts, both small and large, that give me hope. Hope that, in spite of how the prevailing winds blow now, that those winds might just shift.

It will take all of us to bring about this change in public dialogue.

It will take more school administrators and school boards brave enough to call out legislators on ill-conceived policies. It will take union leaders bold enough to embrace changes that are needed while defending the traditions that we hold dear. It will take college faculty who are willing to climb down out of their ivory towers and join in the day-to-day work of schooling. And it will take teachers, students, and parents who are willing to speak out in support of the educational practices that do make a difference in the lives of young people.

When I watched the national conventions of the Democratic and Republican Parties I noticed how often they paraded out “regular” folks to make their case. Teachers, firefighters, moms, college students, you know the drill. But there is something in that strategy.

It is the knowledge that if you want to grab someone’s attention you do not bombard him or her with numbers, or research reports, or pie charts. Instead, what you do is simply ask people to speak from the heart, to take their case, their experience, and use it to generalize to the larger system.

That is what the graduate of my high school and these superintendents in Ohio are doing. This is a lesson for us all.


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