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Shouldn't Every Child Have an Education Like the President's Daughters'?

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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants a longer school day, a longer school week, and a longer school year and national subject standards, which will inevitably lead to one national test. Duncan wants to institute merit pay, which is a euphemism for paying teachers to produce higher test scores. Such merit pay, combined with national academic standards and one national test, will inevitably continue to transform our public schools into test prep factories. Thus, more and more of the same old industrialist factory model of education. All we need to do to improve schools, says Duncan, is intensify the command-and-control model of education.

Arne Duncan does not understand that the most effective organizations in our society, both for-profit corporations and nonprofits, have evolved beyond command-and-control cultures. Peter Senge describes these new entities as learning organizations, which are built on the foundation of systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning.

Senge explains why Duncan approach is destined for failure. "Today's problems come from yesterday's 'solutions,'" he notes. Our factory model schools, have become the problem, not the solution.

President Obama's two daughters, Malia and Sasha Obama do not attend a school that is part of the problem. They attend the Sidwell Friends School in the District of Columbia, a school profoundly defined both by the values that it rejects -- and by those that it embodies.
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Sidwell embraces a post-modernist paradigm of schooling defined by the following elements:

  • "A rich and rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum designed to stimulate creative inquiry, intellectual achievement and independent thinking in a world increasingly without borders."
  • Encouragement to its students"...to give expression to their artistic abilities." It does not cut the arts out of the curriculum to focus only on math and reading.
  • A community that values "the power of individual and collective reflection..." Sidwell values not only knowledge that is outside the child and teen but also what children and teens know within themselves. Sidwell encourages reflection and inner knowing, neither of which are acknowledged in any state's academic standards.
  • "An understanding of how diversity enriches us;" it recruits a diverse student body -- 39 percent of its students are persons of color -- and offers a global and multicultural curriculum.
  • Emphasis on "stewardship of the natural world;" it engages its students both in learning ecology and in developing the ethics that are at the core of the concept of stewardship: that every individual has a personal responsibility for ecological health and sustainability.
  • Promotion of service, and a curriculum and communal life that engage its students in understanding why "service to others enhances life."
  • Use of multiple forms of accessing knowledge and truth: "through scientific investigation, through creative expression, through conversation...through service within the school community and beyond."
  • A recognition that schooling is both about individual learning and about young people learning how to work together well with others. "Work on individual skills and knowledge is balanced with group learning, in which each person's unique insights contribute to a collective understanding."
  • Personalization of learning and education of the whole person. "Above all, we seek to be a school that nurtures a genuine love of learning and teaches students 'to let their lives speak.'" Sidwell 's central ambition is "to recognize and nurture each person's unique gifts."

Sidwell is expensive, but Sidwell's commitment to implementing a post-modern paradigm of schooling focused on personalization of learning, a global and multicultural curriculum, an emphasis on ecology and environmental stewardship, service to others, multiple forms of knowledge, and personal responsibility and excellence have little to do with money. The commitment is driven primarily by the values of educating the whole person, and any school in America could enact a program founded on those same values.

Barack and Michelle Obama have abandoned industrial paradigm, modernist schooling to send Malia and Sasha to a post-modern school focused on the personalization of learning in the context of a caring, responsible school community. Isn't it time that every family in the nation has the same opportunity?

Most puzzling, if the president and First Lady Michelle Obama send their children to a post-modern, personalized school, why are the president and Arne Duncan advocating policies that would intensify the most defective features of industrial,factory model schools rather than trying to transform schools to make them more like Sidwell Friends?

I condensed this from a more expansive version at the online site of Education Week. www.edweek.org, search on "Marshak."