Nurturing a Culture of Equality: The Nova Project

Is there room for democratically run, inquiry-based schools in today’s climate of test-and-punish accountability? Is it possible to create spaces where students follow their own interest and pursue inquiries that matter to them? And, if so, what would an inquiry-based high school look like in practice?

Well, I can tell you a few things about The Nova Project, a public high school in Seattle, where I currently teach: at department meetings there isn’t much talk about how to implement the Common Core; and, we don’t spend much time talking about test scores—except when we’re discussing our opt-out numbers (we had 100% last year); what you will see though, are teachers discussing how to best support students, how to partner with community organizations to get services and provide opportunities for students in school and out in the larger Seattle community; you’ll also hear teachers planning courses on the films of Kurosawa and Wes Anderson; or, courses on Dante’s Inferno and graphic novels, as well as Shakespearean tragedies; you’ll also see classes focusing exclusively on Young Adult Literature (YAL); as well as classes on African American Studies; spoken word poetry; writing blogs; novel and short story writing; courses on the history of skateboarding; courses on the history of the neighborhood; courses on math and music; courses on the environment; animation, dance, and music courses; and, classes on philosophy. What’s more, we don’t have grades at Nova; students demonstrate competencies through things like projects, performances, artworks, and critical reflections.

But my point in writing about all of this is not simply to brag about how great Nova is, and it’s certainly not to suggest that we’ve solved all the problems of education, or that we have somehow created a template for schooling, but rather I want to remind folks of what’s possible, even today in the age of accountability and standardization. I want to make clear that it is possible to make positive changes in public schools, to get involved, to opt out, to go on strike, to occupy, to push back, to demonstrate, and to adapt what we do in schools as well as how we do it. Ideas about inquiry-based and project-based education and research about democratic education aren’t new. So, the question is this: Why aren’t more of us organizing our schools around these ideas?  Why aren’t more of our education leaders pushing for real creative and innovative public schools and then giving teachers and students the space to explore what’s worth knowing and doing?

In this post, NCTE writer Bill Bystricky continues his investigation into The Nova Project, a public high school in Seattle that embraces democracy, equality, and freedom.

Impatient Pragmatist: How Standards and the Standardized Testing Regime Justify Inequality

Close all the schools in Chicago for a year. Put the teachers to work relating to the communities. Get the parents to relate to their kids and their neighbors. Get people talking to each other. Find out what people care about.
–Ed Chambers (former IAF  Director, on improving public education)

Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it, a justification. And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just. —Noam Chomsky

By now it’s well known and documented (see Anthony Cody on the genesis of the CCSS) that teachers and community members did not develop the CCSS. This assertion—one that continues to be circulated by Allan Golston of the Gates Foundation—that the CCSS were developed by a “wide range of experts, educators and other stakeholders” turns out, in fact, to be untrue. And, in large part, this fiction (i.e., that educators and communities played a major role in crafting these standards) may be one of the most important reasons for their current unraveling.

But, what’s really driving this standards-based reform effort? Is it the desire to remake schools in ways that honor and involve our teachers and communities? Is this what the CCSS will do? Will the CCSS allow teachers, students, and parents to make choices about what to teach and why? Will the CCSS let educators and their students redesign their schools so they can tackle the questions they find most important?

Maybe it’s true that some of our schools could benefit from doing things differently. And, let’s agree for the moment that, yes, maybe some of our schools could even use an injection of creativity and innovation. But, what’s been preventing teachers and students from seeking out creative solutions to the problems and challenges they face? Is it a lack of standards? Is it that we don’t have enough standardized testing?

The answer, despite Gates’ assurances that the CCSS will lead to lots of creativity and innovation, is that this isn’t about raising standards and making schools better. More standards and more standardized testing will do very little, in fact, to solve our most pressing problems. The CCSS will simply tie teaching and teacher evaluations even more closely to standardized tests. If you doubt this, let’s not forget that it was David Coleman, president of the College Board that makes the SAT, who is credited as the architect of the CCSS.

So, it turns out that the movement to standardize education has very little to do with real education and everything to do with profits and privatization—these folks want to turn public schools into businesses. In a recent speech about the CCSS Gates said, “If you have 50 different plug types, appliances wouldn’t be available and would be very expensive. But once an electric outlet becomes standardized, many companies can design appliances and competition ensues, creating variety and better prices for consumers.”

Gates’ view of education couldn’t be any clearer: education is something to be standardized; it’s something you plug in; it’s a big competition that pits students and teachers against each other; and, it involves consumers and product development. So, the real aim of such approaches—state-mandated tests based on nationally mandated standards that in turn reflect narrow views of “cultural literacy” championed decades ago by folks like E.D. Hirsch (and then discredited)—are to standardize instructional materials so they can be scaled up and sold nationally.

But, what’s the problem with standards, you ask? The answer is that there’s nothing at all wrong with having high standards when they’re used as a guide to instruction for new teachers and coupled with the support of strong mentor teachers. But, new teachers need time with their mentors; they need time to think, and time to plan, and time to ask questions, and time to rest, and time to pursue avocations, and time to learn new things. In other words, standards are most powerful when they are flexible and coupled with the much needed supports that encourage teachers and students to experiment, innovate, and take risks.

Education based on market mandates does the exact opposite. It narrows the curriculum and deskills teachers. It turns entire populations of people into objects (human capital) for scientific examination, development, classification, and extraction. Education as Taylorism shifts us away from free and open inquiry toward the production of docile human capital and a system that emphasizes scientific efficiency above all else. This is a vision of education with little regard for or consideration of the relationship between individuals, their experiences, their local knowledges, or their socioeconomic contexts.

In this system, the low-income students who can be cultivated into valuable resources (human capital) are extracted from their neighborhoods and encouraged to sell their labor power in order to create wealth for people elsewhere, often leaving those who cannot or do not want to participate in such a system to live in underdeveloped urban ghettos. And, of course, those who don’t “escape” their neighborhoods are blamed for being too lazy or incompetent to do so. The justification for this system, one that rewards the few and disregards the many, is characterized by a meritocratic fiction—a fiction because it ignores contextual concerns of race and class—and revolves around a state-mandated examination that is used to legitimize and reproduce winners and losers.

The examination has, in many ways, become the single most important factor determining (and limiting) what happens in schools (particularly, urban schools) today. Not only does it inform and produce the need for future testing, but it also informs teacher training and licensing, provides or denies access to further education, and influences instruction and curriculum development.

There’s also a movement underway to link teacher evaluations to student performance on these exams, raising the stakes even higher for both teachers and students. Borrowing another term from our friends in the business community, teachers in New York state are to be measured for their “value-added” to the school (defined almost exclusively by student test scores); these value-added ratings can comprise up to 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in some states and are made public in an attempt to shame teachers into raising student test scores. This scheme to link teacher ratings and salaries to student test scores has been euphemistically termed “merit-based” pay.  (Ironically, this was something Gates tried to use at Microsoft and then subsequently jettisoned after finding out that it didn’t work and his own employees hated it.)
The seduction of these common sense reforms is undeniable, since the logic of these reforms appeal to deeply held beliefs about rewarding those who work hard (good teachers) and punishing those who do not (bad teachers). Pauline Lipman, who seeks to unmask the contradictions in the rhetoric of the so-called reforms, notes:

In a system of blatant inequalities, the agenda of standards, tests, and accountability is framed in the language of equality and justice. All students and schools are evaluated by ‘the same test’ and ‘held to the same standards.’ (“Making the Global City” 390)

This is a dishonest narrative that emphasizes equity and access, while neglecting the larger questions of racial segregation and economic and social inequality; it does so by shifting the focus of education reform to questions of curriculum content, standards, and accountability—all understood in terms of individual responsibility and accountability.

At precisely the moment when justice and equality has been translated to mean access  (i.e., access to curriculum, high quality teachers, job and internship opportunities, etc.) we have successfully sidestepped questions about race, class, and exploitation. In other words, access is always understood as something that is determined by merit, and, therefore, allows us to imagine that all opportunities are always accessible to those who have worked hard enough to deserve them (or so the myth goes).

The logic here is circular and mendacious, since we all know that poverty and inequality do have real, material effects on the lives of students, their families, and their communities. Being rich and privileged and living in well-resourced community ensures that you can leverage your access into more and better opportunities, whereas being a poor person of color means that the barriers and lack of supports needed to leverage future opportunities (e.g., the kind that will help you land a spot at an Ivy League school or a job on Wall Street) are much greater. Simply telling kids to work harder and be more responsible won’t solve this problem either.

When we suggest that the only thing that poor students need is access to a rigorous curriculum and a good teacher (presuming we can provide both) then the future success or failure of that individual can only be understood in these same individualistic terms—terms that effectively deny any connection between success and socioeconomic status. As I noted in an earlier post, most of us agree that it would be ridiculous to say that wealth and privilege are poor predictors of individual outcomes (i.e., we know they are excellent predictors of success), yet many people continue to insist that poverty and inequality don’t matter. For these individuals (most of whom have never been a poor person of color), it’s simply about hard work and personal responsibility (i.e., raising standards).

Standardization in this new education system comes to mean fairness and equity, though, interestingly, these terms are never used in relation to economic investment, the health of communities, environmental justice, school funding, law enforcement and legal representation, surveillance, or extracurricular or economic opportunities. In the latter realms fairness, equity, and standardization are, apparently, irrelevant. The neighborhood or community from which a student comes is completely beside the point, since what matters here is access to curriculum, a good teacher, and the individual’s self-discipline and work ethic. We are made to understand through the logic of neoliberalism that where you are from has nothing to do with where you might go. A great idea in theory, but it’s one that doesn’t work so well in practice.

To put this yet another way, the current reform logic suggests that if you are poor and not doing well in school the reasons for this have to do with personal failures on your part—failures, it’s worth noting, that have nothing to do with the problems of poverty, inequality or state interventions on behalf of private enterprise and capital accumulation (e.g., bank bailouts, corporate tax breaks). This is to say that if we believe that education alone is the only viable solution to poverty and we provide you with an education, then we can really only blame you for your poverty and lack of success (we gave you access to an education, after all). This is, for all intents and purposes, just another version of blaming poor people for being poor.

The standardized test—the individual examination at the center of our current reforms—pays no attention to the socio-economic conditions of the local school community, but rather reduces the individual to a set of numbers in a case file; these sets of data are used as the basis of a narrative about the individual, the school, and the community, one that has severe consequences and is constructed without any direct input from (or understanding of) those whom such narratives purport to describe.

The standardized test has become a way not only to classify students, but also a tool to rate teachers, to judge administrators, to classify entire school districts and neighborhoods, and to silence the voices of those who might dissent. As Foucault puts it, “we are entering the age of the infinite examination and of compulsory objectification” (Foucault 200), where all things are to be weighed and measured against an unproblematized norm.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o (writing about the post-colonial situation in Kenya) notes that colonized communities must fight to “liberate their economy, politics, and culture from the Euro-American-based stranglehold to usher in a new era of true communal self-regulation and self-determination” (4). Many of our own urban neighborhoods have become internal colonies, controlled by and dependent on outside forces, and are involved “in an ever-continuing struggle to seize back their creative initiative in history through a real control of all the means of communal self-definition in time and space” (4).

Our schools in urban areas are locked in a similar political fight for their right to define themselves in their own words and by their own standards. Doing so, of course, means doing more than attempting to live up to market-driven mandates that demand all students perform at or above state norms on standardized examinations. And this fight involves more than doing well in school; it also involves the right to control and determine how best to use our shared resources to build healthy and sustainable communities for all.