cc flickr photo by azjd

Yesterday, I spent some time discussing the direction of public schools, and the reduced emphasis on the arts, with a colleague.  The current obsession with accountability, for students and teachers, creates a vicious cycle that defines non-tested subjects as expendable.  I believe that many of these “expendable” subjects play a critical role in the development of empathy, problem solving, and creativity (see Is Music the Key to Success).  These so-called “soft” skills are precisely what our society needs (see The World Needs More Social Entrepreneurs), but are often the first casualties of the accountability culture.  Ursala Le Guin has said that, “The creative adult is the child who has survived.”  In many cases, this appears to be the sad reality.

So, as I consider our incredibly diverse (economically, ethnically, and academically) junior high school, I wonder how we go about creating a school that fosters the development of critical soft skills within the constraints of the current system — the reality of required state assessments and teacher evaluation, the necessity of meeting the needs of all of the students who come through our doors, and severe limitations related to staffing and funding.

I’m really not satisfied with the status quo, and falling victim to accountability measures that drive decisions contrary to the best interest of students.  So as I consider how we might do things differently, here are some of the questions that come to mind:

  • Do junior high students need seventy minutes of mathematics every day?  Years ago, our district adopted a schedule that increased all classes to seventy minutes in length and reduced our school day to five periods.  This essentially cut elective time in half.  This was done in an effort to improve mathematics scores on state tests, but it severely limits our scheduling options.
  • How do you provide effective interventions for struggling students (we have many) without severely reducing, or eliminating, their opportunities for exposure to the arts, technology, physical education, etc.?
  • With significant academic disparity within a given classroom, how do you engage all students in work that is meaningful, challenging, and engaging?  We honestly have classes where approximately fifty percent of our students are below grade level in a given subject.
  • Can a public school be all things to all students?  Is it possible to be strong in the arts, sciences, mathematics,  social sciences and provide the soft skill development that students need to succeed, and be difference makers, in the world?

I know great things are happening in many public schools.  I also know there are some very innovative thinkers in the magnet, and charter, sectors.  I look at the work of Chris Lehman, and the staff, at Science Leadership Academy, in Philadelphia, and I wonder how that model might be applied to a public junior high school in Arizona.  Is it possible to create that kind of learning environment within the funding and accountability constraints of our current system?

I would love to hear your ideas, suggestions, and experiences.  Point me in the right direction :)



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4 thoughts on “The Perfect School?

  • November 9, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    It might help to think of the arts as an integral part of learning across disciplines, rather than a separate subject. Take a look at the google art project, for instance, and see ideas of many way teachers have incorporated artworks into history and even math classes. At my school 6th graders are inquiring into social inequity at the moment and in a two hour session each week, they have chosen to explore the big ideas through music, dance, drama, art, animation or film making. I think incorporating the arts in a trans disciplinary way encourages different ways of thinking, promotes creativity and adds further dimensions to the traditional disciplinary learning.

    • November 9, 2013 at 4:06 pm

      Great comment Edna…appreciate the suggestion. I agree that we need to look at more ways to integrate the arts within other content areas — that imitates real life. I’ll definitely be sharing Google Art Project with my staff.

      Thanks for taking time to read and comment!

  • November 11, 2013 at 7:22 am

    I just read Krissy Venosdale’s latest post (http://venspired.com/?p=5741) and I see an obvious connection: taking risks. While all of us in public education must face the reality of state and district mandates (time, materials, curriculum, etc.), we must not forget that teaching and education is as much an art form as it is a science. And if we take the teacher as artist out of the equation, then we all know what happens (or what is happening). Teachers need to feel empowered to push the envelope, to expand the box many feel placed over them, to try new things not because they are novel, but because they are sound practices. And until the system fosters an army of teacher artists, we will all remain a part of the assembly-line model.

    • November 11, 2013 at 7:02 pm

      Great comments Michael. Part of allowing teachers to feel like they can take risks is giving them sufficient time. Can’t tell you how many times I hear concerns about trying a new approach because there is “too much to cover.” We really need to limit our obsession with content and shift our focus to skill development through content. By the way, really like the term “teacher artists.”

      Keep up the good work buddy!


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