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Illuminating Public Schools' Possibilities: "Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way"

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It's virtually a pastime for Americans to wring our hands over failing public schools. Our standardized test scores rank poorly in the international community. School systems require tremendous amounts of public money in order to function, yet they yield few tangible, short-term fruits beyond test scores and graduation rates -- hardly stuff to get excited about. Anti-unionists burst blood vessels when they think of the power of the NEA and AFT. No Child Left Behind has propped high-stakes testing to unprecedented levels of emphasis, and many classrooms have become mechanistic, "drill-and-kill" test prep factories.

In response, many from the private sector are incredibly eager to scoop up those billions and provide the deified market principles of "competition" to low- and middle-income students. Strong standards have been propounded as a rock-solid check on teachers to ensure the right stuff gets taught. The above-reproach term "accountability" has been conflated with endless standardized testing, a practice with so many negative unintended consequences that only those on the ground seem to comprehend the extent of its damage.

Sometimes we need an outside voice to tap us on the shoulder and say: "Snap out of it!"

Brian Schultz's "Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way: Lessons from an Urban Classroom" does just that. Schultz's book chronicles an extraordinary class project he led as a teacher of fifth-graders from Chicago's notoriously brutal Cabrini Green housing projects. It also sheds valuable light on the necessity for teachers, administrators, parents, and policy-makers to tear themselves free from acquiescing to the often suffocating inertia of standardized education.

What happens when a teacher (say, second-year teacher Mr. Schultz) decides to disregard the canned standards and the stacks of test prep materials -- and his principal agrees to back him? What happens when Mr. Schultz throws out the scripted curriculum and actually invite his fifth-grade students to direct their own learning? Does the "academic rigor" stagnate? Do the students wallow in ignorance, cheated out of a proper education by an "activist" teacher?

Actually, they embark on an empowering and educational journey beyond any expectations. After a comprehensive brainstorm on what the students wanted to accomplish, the students reached consensus to start a grassroots campaign to get a new school building.

As the students wrote on their self-created website:

Our class policy is about us getting a new school. This is our "perfect solution" to the problem with the inadequecy of our current school building. We love our school because of the "people in it" not because of the building itself. We want a school that is equal to that of other kids at other schools. We have done research on the history of equal schools and feel that we are not getting a fair deal. We have also compared our school to nearby schools in city of Chicago, in the suburbs and even in other parts of the country. We want a new school that is equal to that of other kids' at other schools.

The Board of Education had promised the Richard E. Byrd Community Academy a new school six years earlier, but no steps were ever taken to make that promise a reality. Mr. Schultz's class met every day in a decrepit building with no cafeteria, auditorium, or gymnasium -- all activities normally associated with those spaces took place in the halls. The students cited that their bathrooms had no doors on stalls, no soap, leaky sinks, and no garbage cans. The classroom windows were foggy and bullet-tagged. The "temperature was broken," as students described, meaning they went without heat in the frigid Chicago winter and without air-conditioning in the summer.

Over the next months, following guidance from a Project Citizen workshop, Mr. Schultz and his twenty-seven fifth-graders transformed their class into an action space, reaching out to the public and community leaders. The students were endlessly motivated by the idea of going public with their work, that their efforts created impact beyond a number in a gradebook grid. The kids wrote articulate letters, read difficult texts -- Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities, for one)-- and created complex presentations.

Their relentlessness generated media attention, which further fueled their dedication. Local politicians came to visit. The Chicago Tribune did a supportive story on them. Ira Glass's renowned radio program This American Life featured class 405. They were on TV. Even Ralph Nader joined the party.

Schultz's students did not get their new school, but as the title indicates, spectacular things happened along the way. Fifth-graders learned how to make their voices heard, and they discovered that their voices had value -- certainly not the message sent daily by rote test prep curricula and lunch periods in the corridor. They engaged in high-level interdisciplinary work. Their teacher flouted the rules of standardized education and they benefited profoundly.

Schultz's students are now going into ninth-grade. A recent Chicago Tribune follow-up article quoted one former truant who landed in class 405: "If it wasn't for that project, I wouldn't be in high school. I'd be out on the block, I know I would."

Not every class or every teacher is capable of such a complete break from standard classroom experiences. However, there is much to be gained from Schultz's example of the possibilities of student-directed (rather than textbook-directed) learning, assessment via portfolio-building (rather than high-stakes test scores), and collaborative project work (rather than teaching to the test).

The full story deserves to be read in Brian Schultz's slim, engaging, important "Spectacular Things Happen Along the Way."

Dan Brown is the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.

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