By Steve Nelson
Dec 31, 2021
Silver linings are hard to see in cloud cover as thick and unrelenting as 2020.
2020 was a year best seen in the rearview mirror (perhaps 2020 hindsight?).
Only the willfully blind – that is to say 74 million Americans, give or take – might see 2020 as a pretty darn good year.
For the rest of us, 2020 was a train wreck of epic proportions. I will refrain from elaborating on the bike wreck that left me with a neck broken in three places, a broken hip, 3 or 4 broken ribs, near paralysis (I’m gradually recovering) and months of challenging rehabilitation. If it had to happen, this was the year. I couldn’t go anywhere anyway.
But there is a silver lining or two in the educational realm.
To the extent that the Department of Education has any effect on education, other than interfering with teachers’ work by injecting superfluous standards and accountability, newly-nominated Secretary Miguel Cardona will be an improvement. This is faint praise, since most sentient beings would be a step up from Cruella DeVos, as I somewhat viciously declared in a prior post. Cardona is at least an educator and seems, at first glance, to be a decent and competent administrator. But therein lies a problem that should prevent any celebratory backflips. He is an administrator. I was too and, as the saying goes, it takes one to know one. We should have a progressive philosopher king as Secretary of Education who can hire others to manage programs and fill out forms. A guy can dream.
Cardona’s most promising credential is that there is no indication that he despises public education and wants to turn America’s system into an evangelical charter school. Beyond that, we’ll see.
I’m less sanguine about his inclination to hack away at the dreadful vines of testing and accountability that have had a stranglehold on children and teachers since lawmakers decided in 2002 to leave most children behind. In his confirmation hearing to be Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education he said, “State assessments are important guideposts to our promise of equity.” “They are the most accurate tool available to tell us if all students… are growing and achieving at the highest levels on the state standards.”
Oh-oh. When “assessments,” “tool,” and “standards” appear in one paragraph, my ears perk up and my heart sinks a bit. To paraphrase myself, children are not “standard,” and any regime of standardized testing is guaranteed to miss the most important things about most of the kids. And uber-frequent testing is like weighing Hansel and Gretel constantly and expecting them to gain weight without feeding them very often.
I’m also wary of his views on charter schools. He is not, apparently, a charter zealot, but he is thus on the record: “. . . charter schools provide choice for parents that are seeking choice, so I think it’s (sic) a viable option . . .” There are powerful political and financial forces behind the “school choice” movement and their motives lean heavily toward privatization and religionization (a non-word that should be a word). Fighting these forces is an uphill battle and you can’t start an uphill battle by conceding ground.
The brighter silver linings appearing on the 2021 horizon are two lessons learned – maybe.
The pandemic spawned a nationwide frenzy of online education. It failed spectacularly, an outcome that any progressive educator would have easily predicted. Real learning is engaging, active, human, sensory-rich, differentiated, funny, musical, spontaneous and based in discovery, not boring exercises on computer screens. It has been nearly hilarious to see interest in forest schools, outdoor education and other progressive practices, as though they were brilliant innovations in response to the pandemic, rather than centuries-old approaches that have been affirmed by contemporary advances in brain science.
The other silver lining is the burst of appreciation for teachers and health care workers. I wrote in a newspaper column:
For many years I have also been cynical about the ubiquitous and reflexive inclination to “Support our Troops.” It is nothing against Troops. I was a Troop, having served as an Army officer in the Vietnam era. But only 10-11% of “troops” ever serve in a dangerous setting. The remainder are doing a job, perhaps an important one, but the conventional idea that they are withering under enemy fire to keep us “safe” is largely nationalistic fiction.
I don’t write that as gratuitous criticism, so save the hate messages. I note this only as contrast to the long, long overdue acknowledgment of health care workers and teachers, to whom America owes a massive debt of gratitude.
Every health care worker in the path of the pandemic is in exponentially greater danger than the average “troop.” The courageous selflessness of nurses, doctors, nursing assistants, maintenance staff, food service staff, orderlies and cleaning staff is remarkable. Every day, in understaffed and underfunded settings, they endure physical and emotional exhaustion, only to get up and do it again the next day . . . and next day . . . and next day.
America’s teachers have been similarly challenged and responded with similar selflessness. They have been asked to work in medically hazardous situations without proper equipment. They’ve been in classrooms and then out of classrooms, expected to reimagine curricula and master technology. Like most medical professionals, they are under-compensated and overworked, although few have been required to work the inhumane hours in conditions endured by healthcare workers.
2021 should have us forevermore singing praises to these unsung heroes and properly supporting our schools and health care facilities.
Only Pollyanna could see 2020 as a blessing in disguise. Even the most malevolent deity wouldn’t put humankind through the hell of the past year.
But as new growth always arises from ashes, perhaps 2020 has sown seeds that will grow into seedlings of justice, compassion and commitment to our beleaguered schools.
Steve Nelson is a retired head of the progressive private school, a grandfather, author and newspaper columnist living in Colorado and Vermont. Follow Steve Here>