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John Merrow: The Choices We Should Make for “School Choice” Week

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John Merrow, former PBS education correspondent, writes about the choices that we should make when the COVID is someday behind us.

He offhandedly reminds us that “School Choice Week” was originally funded by right-wingers and charter school funders.

(SIDEBAR: In case you are curious, the ‘School Choice Week’ website does not list its funders, but, as Valerie Strauss reported in the Washington Post,  “According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the National School Choice Week website listed the American Federation for Children, the Walton Family Fund, ALEC, SPN, the Freedom Foundation, FreedomWorks, Cato Institute, Reason Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the James Madison Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as education partners in 2016. Using the Wayback Machine, you will also find so-called progressive organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), KIPP and Education Reform Now on the partners’ list that year.”

It is a stretch to refer to KIPP and DFER as “progressive” organizations, although they claim to be. KIPP, you may recall, performed at the Republican National Convention in 2000, to showcase their schools and promote George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program. DFER is the hedge-fund managers’ group, not a progressive organization at all; DFER promotes charter schools and high-stakes testing. Two state Democratic parties (California and Colorado) passed resolutions disavowing DFER).

Merrow says that schools should not revert to where they “used to be.” They should be much better.

Here are a few of his suggestions: Schools should be less autocratic, more democratic.

What better place to start practicing democracy than in classrooms?  Teachers can make the classrooms more democratic by letting students develop the rules for classroom behavior–I.E. for their own behavior.  

As I wrote back in March, 2019:  “I am partial to teachers and classrooms where the children spend some time deciding what the rules should be, figuring out what sort of classroom they want to spend their year in. I watched that process more than a few times. First, the teacher asks her students for help.

Children, let’s make some rules for our classroom.  What do you think is important? 

Or she might lead the conversation in certain directions:

What if someone knows the answer to a question?  Should they just yell it out, or should they raise their hand and wait to be called on?

Or: If one of you has to use the bathroom, should you just get up and walk out of class? Or should we have a signal?  And what sort of signal should we use?

It should not surprise you to learn that, in the end, the kids come up with reasonable rules: Listen, Be Respectful, Raise Your Hand Be Kind, and so forth.  But there’s a difference, because these are their rules.”

Those words–Kind, Safe, Respectful–are found in store-bought laminated posters, but when students create the rules, they own them and are therefore more likely to adhere to them.

Merrow adds:

Some other suggestions:

1. Give kids time and space to get accustomed to being with peers, even socially distanced, for the first time in many months, while recognizing that social and emotional learning (SEL) may matter more than book-learning for these first weeks and months, because we don’t know the effects of isolation. 

2. Make time for lots of free play.  Schools need to be happy places

3. Suspend high stakes testing for the foreseeable future–and perhaps permanently–while also calling a halt to hand wringing conversations  about ‘remediation’ or ‘learning loss,’ because that’s blaming the victim, big time.  Some states, including New York, are calling on the US Department of Education to suspend its requirements, something that then-candidate Biden pledged to do at a Presidential Candidates Forum in Pittsburgh in December, 2019. I was there and heard him with my own ears. Let’s push him and his choice for Secretary of Education to follow through!

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