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The Short Order Cook and Her Two Daughters (and other commentary)

Recently, my partner Matt Barnes and I spent an hour chatting with the Houston-based American Leadership Forum Education Collaborative. We were joined that morning by Amaka Unaka, a Houston mom who started her own micro school. The Zoom session started out with the ALFers showing particular interest in Amaka’s story about how five little African-American girls, who love dance, came together to not only dance together, but learn together too.

Matt and I then spent some time explaining our vision for micro schools and how they could be a game changer when it comes to improving learning for our young people. Halfway through the conversation, I made the mistake of sharing a story from my school principal years trying to show how schools think what they are offering in terms of teaching and learning trumps everything else. 

The story goes like this – One day a mom and dad walked into my office and asked me to approve their daughter’s two-week absence from school because they were taking her on a trip to Paris. Of course I approved the absences, while receiving considerable criticism from her teachers and others because the young girl would miss those teachers’ instruction and a dangerous precedent would be set. I thought those teachers were acting ridiculous, since Paris offered way more learning opportunities than any classroom and probably any school.

A few ALFers sensed a “privileged” message inside my Paris story, with one particular ALFer telling the story of her niece, who happened to be a short order cook, and her two daughters. The aunt said public school provided her niece peace of mind on behalf of her two daughters, even though a different learning plan might be more impactful for those two girls than an average public school could offer. 

Although I used traveling to Paris, I could have used other examples to show the power of learning outside of these places we call school. While I led an educational non-profit, we launched a personalized learning lab school with the Houston, Texas Museum District, so young people could fulfill their learning plans while spending time within a number of world-class museums with a number of world-class museum educators. Today, I live in Montpelier, Vermont, a place where kids could work on their learning plans within a vibrant downtown and state government center. Learners can work on their learning plans pretty much anywhere and anytime.

My point here, and during the ALF call, is that kids don’t have to go to places called schools to learn. Although I hope this wasn’t the intention of the ALFer whose niece is a short order cook, I came away from that conversation wondering if we have fallen prey to what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Why shouldn’t the short order cook’s two daughters have a world class education? Why should we “settle” on the neighborhood public school when we can now look at the world as our classroom for learning?

Return of the Profile of a Graduate

Back in the 20th century, while I was a school administrator in Houston, Texas, my district, along with assistance from The Annenberg Challenge (a national school reform effort popular in the 1990’s,) put together a “Profile of a Graduate.” I still have a copy of the slick handout we put together to let everyone know our expectations for a high school graduate were changing. No longer were we going to pay attention to the number of hours a learner sat in a classroom desk. No longer were we going to count credits for science, social studies, math, and language arts learning. Our new “Profile of a Graduate” promised to prepare all young learners for the 21st century. According to our profile, we were going to make each graduate an effective communicator, a proficient problem-solver, a self-directed worker and thinker, culturally aware in a global world, knowledgeable of worldwide issues, a cooperative team member, an efficient technology-user, and a responsible citizen. Well, we never followed through on that promise, because the number of hours a learner sat in a classroom desk and the importance of credits when it came to science, social studies, math, language arts, and other content continued to dominate the way schools conducted their business. And testing! Don’t forget about testing. We tested a lot!

Guess what? The “Profile of a Graduate” is back. Across the nation a new group of educational leaders are introducing a failed 20th century initiative as a 21st century strategy designed to create a new and improved high school graduate. It’s not going to work, just like it didn’t work for us back in the earlier century. Not until the time schools spend on teaching and learning aligns with the “Profile” outcomes instead of seat time, credits, and testing will any “Profile” have a snowball chance in h-e-double toothpicks to succeed. And I don’t know if, the way schools are currently built, outcomes associated with these “Profiles” can ever succeed in places called schools.

We Have to Get Kids Back in School 

It’s now popular to say how important it is to get kids back in school. But why? Why is it important to get kids back in school? A review of the literature suggests Americans have come up with two reasons: 1) our kids are missing out on social time, and 2) our kids are missing lots and lots of learning time.

Is that what school has become to us? A place to socialize? If so, how many other spaces could we use to fulfill our human need to be with each other? A park? A deserted shopping mall? The list goes on and on. If not, why are we so fixated during the pandemic to sell schools as social gathering places? Here’s an idea – why don’t we sell them as places learners can go to receive support to make progress on their learning plans? That pitch might invite a better response from parents and community than selling schools as nothing more than a place for kids to hang out together.

I have no doubt that kids have missed out on learning time, but the question I have is why? Why have kids missed out on learning time? Might it be kids aren’t learning because we failed at providing them a system by which their learning could occur at high levels? It was pretty evident most teachers struggled with online learning, especially since a large percentage of them had no previous training on virtual instruction. Is that why we want kids to return to classrooms? Not because they learn better in classrooms, but that their teachers only know how to do their craft within those four walls?

Do we really believe kids haven’t been learning during the pandemic? Or maybe they’re learning, but they’re not learning what a school’s scope and sequence states they should be learning? My partner Matt Barnes shared this Facebook posting with me a while back. A retired college admissions officer shared it with Matt. Here it is:

What if our kids have learned exactly what they needed to learn over the past year? 

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