Now is the Time to Shift the Paradigm

Now is the Time to Shift the Paradigm

“Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got, till it’s gone,” wrote Joni Mitchell in her song “Big Yellow Taxi.” Perhaps the students of Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) and elsewhere, are beginning to realize that they might not have known what they had — and now it’s gone.

As an involuntary, stay-at-home online teacher, I have a much greater appreciation for what I had in a tangible classroom now that it’s gone. Now that brick-and-mortar education is being approximated by online teaching, teachers are scrambling to formulate a virtual high school, albeit after the fact.

Some topics bickered over are the traditional problems of grading and cheating. Also, discipline in the Zoom classroom is discussed, even though Zoom comes with a “time-out” function inaccessible to students. Because many students may be experiencing a new or an awakened appreciation for the educational setting, this could be the ideal time to swap out antiquated, obsolete educational traditions i.e. a paradigm shift.

Some of us are looking forward to public education getting back to normal. This is an oxymoron: “looking forward to getting back.” Some see this is a golden opportunity to look forward to a new normal: a better learning and teaching environment and greater student engagement.

The first paradigm worthy of a shift — extinction — is the cat-and-mouse game played out between administrators and teachers pitted against their worthy adversaries: students and enabling parents. Not only does cat and mouse segue into the blame game, it repurposes high school into an adolescent day-care facility.

Education can be an opportunity while it is taking place and, indisputably, it serves to provide vastly expanded horizons after it has successfully taken place. Unfortunately, as Thomas Edison observed, “We often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Quality education is a good deal, but any good deal ceases to be a good deal when it is foisted on, or force fed, to someone — the beneficiary becomes a victim.

Although I hold a Master’s degree in education from Boston University, most of what I learned about high school culture came from Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, A.S. Neil’s Summerhill and William Glasser’s books Schools Without Failure and Choice Theory in the Classroom, and 25 years in the trenches at Encinal High School.

Playing the buffoon, Dean Rooney squanders a whole day trying to catch Ferris Bueller cutting school; why not mark Ferris absent and be done with it? Answer: there would not have been a cult classic movie. I can’t tell you the number of vice principals I’ve watched fry themselves descending, indeed embroiling, themselves in the cat-and-mouse absurdity.

Like Ferris, marginal students mistakenly gain self esteem by scamming the system, exercising oppositional behavior, defying authority figures and biting the educational hand that teaches them. Some students, perhaps feeling insecure or threatened by the learning environment, gain a bogus sense of power by manipulating teachers and administrators into responding to their disruptive shenanigans. The result is that marginal students, in a misdirected quest for esteem and influence, depreciate the learning environment.

In an effort to get over on the system — by showboating and out-witting teachers and administrators — they gain a Ferris Bueller, counterfeit sense of cognitive superiority, by out-smarting the adult world, without the drudgery of picking up a pencil, cracking a book, getting to work or getting educated. One option is to gain self esteem by bucking the system and the other is to get busy doing the work or assignments recommended by teachers — the choice is obvious to many adolescent rebels.

The scenario is reminiscent of David and Goliath; the educational system versus the student, the difference being David faced real risk; in the era of restorative justice the risks are inconsequential and it takes little courage to drop a disruptive pipe wrench into the classroom gear box. Federal policies dating from 2014 pushed schools to match the demographics of punishment to the demographics of the student population; the net effect was to place priority on politically correct numbers at the expense of maintaining school safety, order and classroom discipline. Regrettably, coddling students does not break the cycle of poverty, it reinforces that cycle.

Alameda voters recently approved Measure A in order to retain quality teachers via a financial inducement. While it is true that pay is one factor in teacher retention, safety, order and classroom discipline are also major factors. Bear in mind, teachers at charter schools and private schools work for less remuneration, fewer benefits and less job security than teachers at Encinal or Alameda high schools. Why? Because student discipline and academic interest run high at alternative schools.

Yet, as a socialized service industry, we try assiduously to eliminate choice by curtailing charter schools, capping successful magnet schools (e.g. Alameda Science and Technology Institue) and prohibiting vouchers. By reducing options, we have a captive audience but not always a cooperative one.

In Summerhill, Neil points out that classroom attendance at Summerhill was discretionary but degrading the learning environment was never an option. In Schools Without Failure, William Glasser stated, “(Education experts) have been so obsessed with the social, environmental and cultural factors affecting students that they have not looked deeply enough into the role education itself has played in causing students to fail.”

The second paradigm we should deep-six is the emphasis on grades and its stepson, cheating. Just before COVID-19 cast a blackout over every news item that was not pandemic related, The Wall Street Journal reported that “Dozens of Harvard University students have been disciplined … as a result of the cheating scandal that shook the Ivy League institution. Harvard … released the … results of its investigation into the controversy, in which 125 undergraduates were alleged to have cheated on a take-home exam in a course titled Government 1310.” Cheating in Government class?

College cheating and high- school cheating reveal that the motivation for learning is not always intrinsic; cheating is about extrinsic motivation i.e. grades; not learning. Thanks to camera-ready smart phones, answers to math homework are passed around as fast as gossip, scuttlebutt and bootleg marijuana.

In many cases, until a student clears the baccalaureate hurdle or higher rungs, an education is not about academic or intellectual interest; nor is it specifically about loading up one’s hard drive with raw data, increasing one’s RAM nor bumping up one’s processing speed. Education is not about attaining an understanding of who we are or how we got here or where is a good place to be headed. On the contrary, education is largely about crawling through wickets, clearing obstacles, churning out papers on topics you have no energy for and ticket punching your way to a well-paying job.

Why do counterproductive memes survive in public schools? Because teachers attended high schools where these paradigms raged, they went to college where these paradigms were reinforced by teacher training, and then they returned to high school to keep these ossified paradigms on life support.

Neil, rather than trapping students in classrooms, empowered students to choose to dive into the learning stream or to sit on the berm. He charged his teachers with the responsibility “to deliver an excellent program for those children who wish to attend, to remain neutral towards those who do not, and to be encouraging with students who wish to begin learning … If students do not have to attend lessons it follows that they sometimes won’t. You (the teacher) should not take this personally. As a teacher you are there to do your best and create an attractive atmosphere.”

As Dr. Daniel Chambliss, a sociology professor at Hamilton College, wrote recently for The Wall Street Journal, “Here’s a transformative message (for) teachers: There’s nothing morally wrong with not wanting to work hard at something — even school. Or not caring about formal education. In fact, there’s nothing morally wrong with not liking school at all.”

Lots of people don’t like math (the subject I teach) and a lot of people don’t want to go to college; they get through life just fine and, yes, they’re perfectly good human beings. Students are sensing an appreciation for school, let’s use this time to rethink and restructure education so the gratitude they are presently feeling remains with them all the way to graduation.

Alameda resident Jeffrey R. Smith teaches mathematics at Encinal High School.