review

HRP’s Books of the Month — December, The End of the Rainbow: How Educating For Happiness (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools by Susan Engel

Each month, the Human Restoration Project chooses books that we believe are paramount for progressive educators to read. These are not necessarily categorized or numbered by importance, relevance to a certain topic, or release date. Instead, these are the books we’ve read recently to inform our own practice and publications.


Whenever I’m reading, I tend to place a simple bookmark on each page worth noting — circling back (and perhaps illegally) taking a picture with my phone for safekeeping. However, in The End of the Rainbow by Dr. Susan Engel, it appears I’ll just have to download the eBook. Frankly, this work easily ranks near the top of education dialogue I’ve seen. Pages are brimming with research, personal accounts, real classroom experience, and a complete lack of filler. I stumbled upon this book from 2015 randomly in the library, and I’m hard pressed to understand why it’s marginally as popular as a work by Alfie Kohn or Tony Wagner.

Coincidentally, despite being fairly short (219 pages), I really can’t summarize every notion below. If you’re looking for evidence of progressive education, accounts of it in action, and a way to open up further reflection on your practice, you’ll need to check this one out.

The case-in-point of The End of the Rainbow is that our obsession with preparing students for jobs — whether those be innovative, “future-ready”, or otherwise — is doing more harm than good. Instead, we should primarily care about their well-being, about enlightenment of knowledge. Engel is a professor of developmental psychology, and mirrors her research with the impact it would have on the classroom. Quite obviously, when students are placed first and foremost as people — with care, nurturement, and sparks of curiosity — they’ll learn far more than presenting what they “should know” atthem.

By allowing the pursuit of money to guide our educational practices, we have miseducated everyone. We are so hell-bent on teaching disadvantaged children skills (both academic ones, such as reading, and social ones, such as obeying rules) that will lead to a job that we fail to teach them the pleasure of being part of a literate community, how to make their work meaningful, or how to draw strength from the group — skills that might offer them a satisfying life. Just as bad is that middle-class and privileged children are pushed to view every stage of their schooling as a platform for some future accomplishment ending in wealth. This deprives them of the chance to figure out what they really care about, how to think about complex topics with open minds, and how to find a sense of purpose in life.

We’re consistently introduced to children, young adults, and post-graduates who fall ill to this system. They’re no longer learning as they did in elementary school — curious, playful, and engaged — rather they’re obsessed with the next step. While some schools focus on control, attempting to ensure that all students learn what’s “needed” on the test (being sure they graduate), others focus on test-prep due to the career opportunities college is deemed to provide. In both circumstances, there is little to no focus on the actual individual — on their pursuits, passions, and love of learning. Engel desires a shift to progressive practices that bolster student interest, which will lead them to understand more.

And this concept of learning to earning is dictated as a means to an end. It isn’t a cynical narrative of standardization ruining any sense of autonomy, but it was and is the easiest way to keep track of an expanding common system. However, as most are likely aware, the impact of “job readiness” education has dark implications. As Engel explains,

When you actually hear educations discuss the items on that list [collaboration, using technology, public speaking, thinking logically], money is lurking behind every phrase. ‘Students of the twenty-first century will need to be innovators to work in tomorrow’s industries.’..Even goals such as getting along with others are cast in terms of success on the job: ‘Look around. The people who get hired are the ones who can work on a team. These kids need to learn how to collaborate.’ In other words, all of our ideas about what children should be learning are hitched to a sense that a good education can be measured by financial success and that the peril of a bad education is poverty.

The bulk of The End of the Rainbow is dedicated to explaining how this obsession with financial success leads to poor outcomes for everyone. In one example, Engel explains how many inner-city “academies” take pride in their “engagement” — noting how a white educator commands mostly minority students to “sit up straight” and “stop looking around the room”, fostering a chilling, but academically-sound classroom according to most teacher training programs. In the upper echelons, she describes her college students’ obsession with money, fame, and power — they refuse to acknowledge that their learning is meant for making themselves happy for the sake of knowing it. Instead, their personal success is entirely dependent on the salary they receive after graduation.

Lost in this industrial output of children is the curiosity that guides our natural inclination to take in new information. Engel states,

…to ask students to spend years and years learning procedures and formulae for some distant goal (like a calculus course they might take in college) that may or may not have meaning to them is pointless. Most children cannot focus on such long-term abstract goals. Conjure up a typical thirteen-year-old, blemishes and all, consumed by various kinds of longing, dulled by the presence of rules and adults, transported by the energy of the group, desperate to feel totally engaged. Thirteen-year-olds who do not see college in their future will do it only in terms of one utilitarian goal — they learn math not to understand it but in order to do well on the test.

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Again and again I see this in my own classroom and others. College preparation tarnishes the real learning that is necessary to fully understand the relevance of what college should be. Engel constantly demonstrates development psychology studies that presents this irony in education: by embracing progressive practices (e.g. removing grades, promoting PBL, and giving students much more choice), students will learn more than if we drill them with content. Bringing up classic studies such as Elliot Anderson in 1960, who found students were willing to perform semi-meaningless tasks more often when they weren’t paid, or Mark Lepper and Daniel Greene who found that students were more likely to illustrate when there was no reward for doing so. Case after case, learning that inspires more learning is supported by research.

In addition, this obsession with college-preparation and generating as much money as possible has negative effects on our psyche. Engel notes,

Despite the fact that students’ cultural and educational environment encouraged them to emphasize materialistic goals, the students who internalized those ideals the most suffered from the greatest amounts of distress and the lowest levels of well-being. These students were experience a kind of cognitive dissonance: what they were supposed to want did not match up with what they actually wanted. This led to self-doubt, low-self-esteem, and insecurity. When students are encouraged to seek money at the expense of other personal goals such as meaningful work or helping others, they rarely thrive.

This seems to devour our entire system of education — teachers included. In my experience, the teachers who are the most traditional — the strictest, the most test-oriented — are those who went into the profession with lofty goals but were hit by a grim reality that their worth is dependent on an end of year, irrelevant exam (which is likely one of the largest contributors to those leaving this profession early.) All that said, when our students grow up in this environment — one that not only measures their worth via a test score, but then assigns a monetary value to it — their view of reality becomes twisted and misinformed. It’s a damaging practice. This is especially the case as a child grows older:

It seems like that the closer graduation looms, the more the students, teachers, and parents get backed into a narrower and narrower set of goals. As children move through the school system, people tend to give up on the idea that school can teach the abilities that underlie a good life. Expectations of what school can offer become shallower and more concrete. The idea that school can provide a student with a love of books, the ability to think in new ways, and a sense of purpose are replaced with the hope that school can get them into college, teach them a marketable skill, or prepare them for an AP class.

What makes The End of the Rainbow different from every other progressive book out there is its accessibility and narrative. It’s not dense, but it’s supported by many pages of research; it has many anecdotal examples, as well as case studies. Also, it presents information in a way most educators will relate with: a brief history of standardization and industrialization, the issues with the intermixing of industry and schooling, and an action plan on how to shift away from it. Unlike most books in this genre, I didn’t find myself skipping large sections due to repetitious phrasing or “same old, same old” — instead, we’re constantly shown subheadings that break up major progressive ideas in an easy to understand way.

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With the holiday season right around the corner, I recommend this book for any educator — or perhaps a coworker or your child’s teacher. This isn’t a critique as much as it is an inspiration for teachers looking to reignite their passion for the profession. It’s time we restore the purpose of education.

HRP’s Books of the Month — August, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks

Each month, the Human Restoration Project chooses books that we believe are paramount for progressive educators to read. These are not necessarily categorized or numbered by importance, relevance to a certain topic, or release date. Instead, these are the books we’ve read recently to inform our own practice and publications.


Easily one of the clearest authors on serious issues in the education system, bell hooks has written extensively on feminism, racism, and critical pedagogy. Teaching to Transgress summarizes hooks’ viewpoints through a series of essays which manifest a strong structure for understanding, analyzing, and changing systemic issues. hooks takes complicated concepts and writes acutely, allowing educators to adopt a changed mindset without feeling overwhelmed, targeted, or attacked.

To start, hooks provides background information as an overview of her perspective. bell hooks (whose real name Gloria Jean Watkins, her pen name derives from her great-grandmother) started school in a segregated classroom of the 1950s and early 1960s and was faced with adversity after Brown v. Board of Education. Up until that point she had been taught mostly by African American educators who taught students as learned individuals, providing empowerment through a strong knowledge base. She explains,

“Home was the place where I was forced to conform to someone else’s image of who and what I should be. School was the place where I could forget that self and, through ideas, reinvent myself.”

However after desegregation, hooks found herself labelled by racist white teachers:

“That shift from beloved, all-black schools to white schools where black students were always seen as interlopers, as not really belonging, taught me the difference between education as the practice of freedom and education that merely strives to reinforce domination. The rare white teacher who dared to resist, who would not allow racist biases to determine how we were taught, sustained the belief that learning as its most powerful could indeed liberate.”

An overall theme of Teaching to Transgress is seeing education as a practice of freedom. Inspired by the work of Paulo Freire, hooks believes that a classroom should provide students with the means to escape oppression. Through each chapter, hooks provides various examples of what this entails. To summarize, education is inherently a political act — to remain neutral on challenging the status quo is to take the side of the dominator (the “banking model” of transferring content). To take the side of students by teaching them of systemic issues and social justice, allowing them a true voice, and establishing a learning community, will provide them with the means of empowerment.

bell hooks

bell hooks

Much of the book reflects on hooks’ experiences as a professor where she at various points taught English, Women’s Studies, and African American Studies. Often, she is discouraged by the tone, style, and criticisms of the (mostly) white male professors who overwhelmingly represent the institution. Even though these ideas are presented for higher education, they are easy to tie to the K-12 system.

In one experience, hooks stated,

“It surprised and shocked me to sit in classes where professors were not exited about teaching, where they did not seem to have a clue that education was about the practice of freedom. During college, the primary lesson was reinforced: we were to learn obedience to authority.”

Any progressive educator knows the battle of giving teachers the wherewithal to recognize the inherent problems of a passive classroom. I would argue that most do not see “freedom” as a goal of education — rather, most would see school to either A) provide the “baseline knowledge” to succeed in life or B) to prepare someone for a job. However, by changing dialogue to empower — the goal of a classroom changes drastically. No longer are students disciplined for disobeying a teacher’s strive to reach as many standards as possible, they are empathized with, listened to, and learned with to solve real problems facing themselves or others. The true shift from teachers as content deliverers to guides and mentors is a needed one, and Teaching to Transgress argues this point extremely well.

Throughout, hooks demonstrates many of Paulo Freire’s ideas as he was an inspiration and mentor. However, as most readers of Freire’s work would understand — his books are complex, academic and sometimes hard to comprehend (especially considering their translated lexicon.) Although it has been criticized, I personally find hooks’ commitment to not using footnotes and simple writing relieving. It is a way for many educators (including myself) to understand these complex ideas with grace rather than struggling after a long school day to decipher Freire’s work.

That being said, hooks of course has many ideas of her own. She displays this valuable idea:

“The first paradigm that shaped my pedagogy was the idea that the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring. And if boredom should prevail, then pedagogical strategies were needed that would intervene, alter, even disrupt the atmosphere. Neither Freire’s work nor feminist pedagogy examined the notion of pleasure in the classroom. The idea that learning should be exciting, sometimes even “fun,” was the subject of critical discussion by educators writing about pedagogical practices in grade schools, and sometimes even high schools.”

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of an exciting classroom. Nothing is more frustrating than an educational voice who proclaims that students must “grin and bear” or develop “grit” through boring, unnecessary work to make them pass through hoops. Some take this to mean that every class should be a game or jokes should be told — but this misses the entire point. An exciting class is a place of learning relevant information, a place to channel the energy one had as a young child when ideas fascinated the mind and questions were commonplace — and yes, at many times this will be fun.

via  Flickr

via Flickr

Another key idea throughout the work is building a sense of community. As hooks explains,

“Since the vast majority of students learn through conservative, traditional educational practices and concern themselves only with the presence of the professor, any radical pedagogy must insist that everyone’s presence is acknowledged. That insistence cannot be simply stated. To begin, the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence.”

A classroom community is more than everyone knowing each other’s name. A community is a shared space: a place where people are connected through a form of identity, interest, or goal. This is no small task — it’s a challenge. What does it take to make students relate to each other beyond simply being at school? There are local ties, but so many barriers exist to true belonging.Making a classroom into a place of openness, safety, and connectedness requires love, compassion, and targeted work toward student voice rather than what the state derives as “learning”. hooks backs this up when expressing,

“Seeing the classroom always as a communal place enhances the likelihood of collective effort in creating and sustaining a learning community.”

To restore humanity to the classroom isn’t just being nice to children. That part goes without stating. To change education means to rebel against prevailing notions of what education means — to dismiss grading as an inauthentic means of communicating standing, to challenge content relevance and usage, to reinvigorate pedagogy that puts learning in the hands of students beyond faux choice, to create communities of compassion and tolerance by enlightening the prevailing oppressive narrative. hooks exclaims,

“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.”

To teach in a community where learners are expected to grow, share, and gracefully fail, it should be expected that a teacher does as well. A community is for everyone — not set up and driven by a teacher. It is codeveloped by all those involved and teachers are empowered with students. hooks puts concisely,

“When education is the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess. Engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students. Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will also be a place where teachers grow, and are empowered by the process. That empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging students to take risks. Professors who expect students to share confessional narratives but who are themselves unwilling to share are exercising power in a manner that could be coercive…When professors bring narratives of their experiences into classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility that we can function as all-knowing, silent interrogators.”

And this can’t come soon enough. I love the terminology of Tye Ripma of REENVISIONEDmortgage childhoods — having students sacrifice who they are now with the goal of possibly doing something in the future (and hope that we don’t have a “housing crisis” of sorts.) The longer teachers wait to implement these ideas, the more the system will weigh everyone down. Flames of passion will die out among teachers and students, and little to nothing will actually change. Educators must band together and demand of their administration — their district — whoever rejects these ideas, that schooling must meet the needs of those it serves.

With all of these ideas of a connected classroom, we must tear down barriers of oppression. One cannot have an authentic voice if they are labelled and disempowered. hooks states,

“Progressive professors working to transform the curriculum so that it does not reflect biases or reinforce systems of domination are most often the individuals willing to take the risks that engaged pedagogy requires and to make their teaching practices a site of resistance.”

This important step is where many turn away — the point at which transforming education is no longer a buzzword or “quick fix”, it has real ramifications for everyone involved. Risk-taking is needed in schools. In every profession there are innovative minds who take risks to change the world — solutions don’t come from passive communicators doing their best within the system. And surely, many are hesitant to employ (or even accept) the need for education to rebel against the systems of domination hooks addresses. However, to dismiss the need for radical structural change for racist, sexist, classist, and other forms of discriminatory practice completely misses the point of critical pedagogy and progressive education:

“That lying takes the presumably innocent form of many white people (and even some black folks) suggesting that racism does not exist anymore, and that conditions of social equality are solidly in place that would enable any black person who works hard to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Forget about the fact that capitalism requires the existence of a mass underclass of surplus labor. Lying takes the form of mass media creating the myth that feminist movement has completely transformed society, so much so that the politics of patriarchal power have been inverted and that men, particular white men, just like emasculated black men, have become the victims of dominating women. So, it goes, all men (especially black men) must pull together (as in the Clarence Thomas hearings) to support and reaffirm patriarchal domination. Add to this the widely held assumptions that blacks, other minorities, and white women are taking jobs from white men, and that people are poor and unemployed because they want to be, and it becomes most evident that part of our contemporary crisis is created by a lack of meaningful access to truth.”

As many great writers have stated, education is a political act. To not be political in the classroom is taking a stance — that of the system that’s in place. By “remaining neutral” in discussions of the historically oppressed, one is accepting the status quo and helping spread disinformation:

“My commitment to engaged pedagogy is an expression of political activism. Given that our educational institutions are deeply invested in a banking system, teachers are more rewarded when we do not teach against the grain. The choice to work against the grain, to challenge the status quo, often has negative consequences. And that is part of what makes that choice one that is not politically neutral.”

via CNN: this symbolic protest demonstrates the victims of gun violence.

via CNN: this symbolic protest demonstrates the victims of gun violence.

In our political climate, it is sadly a risk to use factual information to support social justice — but if we aren’t willing to fight for these causes, what are we truly saying about the point of teaching? If we accept that we “work around” these issues by sticking to a mandated curriculum then we are not fighting for our students — we are sitting at the sidelines.

Decisions are made on a variety of magnitudes to uphold systemic issues:

“Again and again, it was necessary to remind everyone that no education is politically neutral. Emphasizing that a white male professor in an English department who teaches only work by “great white men” is making a political decision, we had to work consistently against and through the overwhelming will on the part of folks to deny the politics of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and so forth that inform how and what we teach.”

And we must be conscientious of the problems that exist while working to change them. This involves self-reflection, especially among those (such as myself) who come from a privileged white, male, suburban, middle-class background.

I specifically resonated with hooks’ dialogue surrounding how this change will be enacted:

“In all cultural revolutions there are periods of chaos and confusion, times when grave mistakes are made. If we fear mistakes, doing things wrongly, constantly evaluating ourselves, we will never make the academy a culturally diverse place where scholars and the curricula address every dimension of that difference.”

The idea of “putting oneself out there” — taking risk — isn’t always going to work out the way one expects. It’s so important that we recognize the point hooks is making — that it’s worth trying, even if we don’t succeed. To be scared of mistakes is to reflect the educational structure that most are brought up in — a structure that reinforces one’s ability to succeed entirely dependent on one shot: one essay, a test — all symbolized in a letter grade.

More-so, hooks’ comments addressing potential pitfalls of a progressive classroom are enlightening:

“The unwillingness to approach teaching from a standpoint that includes awareness of race, sex, and class is often rooted in the fear that classrooms will be uncontrollable, that emotions and passions will not be contained. To some extent, we all know that whenever we address in the classroom subjects that students are passionate about there is always the possibility of confrontation, forceful expression of ideas, or even conflict. In much of my writing about pedagogy, particularly in classroom settings with great diversity, I have talked about the need to examine critically the way we as teachers conceptualize what the space for learning should be like. Many professors have conveyed to me their feeling that the classroom should be a “safe” place; that usually translates to mean that the professor lectures to a group of quiet students who respond only when they are called on. The experience of professors who educate for critical consciousness indicates that many students, especially students of color, may not feel “safe” in what appears to be a neutral setting. It is the absence of a feeling of safety that often promotes prolonged silence or lack of student engagement.”

It’s true that the more one gives a student voice, the more they may struggle to “manage” their classroom. If a classroom is seen in a traditional sense (which is often conflated with “good classroom management”) — a place where students are quiet and on task, then progressive classrooms may differ from the norm. It shouldn’t be shocking that students question what they’re learning, potentially even being “disrespectful.” This isn’t to say that we should encourage rudeness, but if we teach students to rebel it should go without saying that they will rebel. Providing students a safe space to do so is the goal. This is highlighted further:

“In the transformed classroom there is often a much greater need to explain philosophy, strategy, intent than in the “norm” setting. I have found through the years that many of my students who bitch endlessly while they are taking my classes contact me at a later date to talk about how much that experience meant to them, how much they learned. In my professional role I had to surrender my need for immediate affirmation of successful teaching (even though some reward is immediate) and accept that students may not appreciate the value of a certain standpoint or process straightaway. The exciting aspect of creating a classroom community where there is respect for individual voices is that there is infinitely more feedback because students do feel free to talk — and talk back. And, yes, often this feedback is critical.”

Personally, I have been “victim” to student (as well as parent and administrative) complaints: “When are we going to learn something?” (e.g. a textbook), “Can’t you just tell us the answer?”, “Why do we keep talking about racism?” It can be disheartening to feel like you’re doing the right thing by employing these ideas, but how do you know it’s working? Teaching to Transgress provides an outlet to make sense of these ideas. Experimenting as an educator doesn’t always “feel good” — but it pays off in the future. This example I found illuminative:

“What’s really scary is that the negative critique of progressive pedagogy affects us — makes teachers afraid to change — to try new strategies. Many feminist professors, for example, began their careers working to institutionalize more radical pedagogical practices, but when students did not appear to “respect their authority” they felt those practices were faulty, unreliable, and returned to traditional practices. Of course, they should have expected that students who have had a more conventional education would be threatened by and even resist teaching practices which insist that students participate in education and not be passive consumers.”

And we should always push ourselves to do better:

“Confronting one another across differences means that we must change ideas about how we learn; rather than fearing conflict we have to find ways to use it as a catalyst for new thinking, for growth.”

Simply stated, even just starting to talk about schooling and its inherent connection to the nature of oppressed/oppressor is a valuable place to start. Having teachers willing to read a book like this and make sense of it is largely worthwhile. hooks explains,

“To engage in dialogue is one of the simplest ways we can begin as teachers, scholars, and critical thinkers to cross boundaries, the barriers that may or may not be erected by race, gender, class, professional standing, and a host of other differences.”

This is a constant reflection of practice that requires effort far beyond what’s present in most professional development offerings. To look at the greater picture — what’s beyond the latest ed. tech tools or “strategies” to improve traditional teaching — is a bold shift. Again, it’s worth noting that Teaching to Transgress gives one a sense of calm in face of adversity:

“There are moments when I worry that I am not being a “good” teacher, and then I find myself struggling to break with a good/bad binary. It’s more useful for me to think of myself as a progressive teacher who’s willing to own my successes and failures in the classroom.”

It will feel like it’s “you vs. the world” at first — but the more people that understand, the more you “find your tribe” — the greater movement will be built. We cannot regress to traditional models out of fear, nor teach these ideas in a traditional way:

“It’s very important to emphasize habit. It’s so difficult to change existing structures because the habit of repression is the norm. Education as the practice of freedom is not just about liberatory knowledge, it’s about a liberatory practice in the classroom. So many of us have critiqued the individual white male scholars who push critical pedagogy yet who do not alter their classroom practices, who assert race, class, and gender privilege without interrogating their conduct.”

Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire

Another valid point that hooks throughly delves into is exploring works of those who have (or still) express oppressive notions. Pointedly, she looks at Freire’s sexist tonality:

“There has never been a moment when reading Freire that I have not remained aware of of not only the sexism of the language but the way he (like other progressive Third World political leaders, intellectuals, critical thinkers such as Fanon, Memmi, etc.) constructs a phallocentral paradigm of liberation — wherein freedom and the experience of patriarchal manhood are linked as tough they are one and the same…And yet, I never wish to see a critique of this blind spot overshadow anyone’s (and feminists’ in particular) capacity to learn from the insights.”

I believe that learning from, while still critiquing and recognizing these problems, is so important. For example, I recognize that the language of John Holt and John Taylor Gatto are rooted in racism and sexism — but I still believe that their ideas surrounding self-directed education can be built into the greater educative message of self-empowered learning. This isn’t to dismiss that these issues exist, but to use a critical lens on all work to greater one’s pedagogy. I also recognize that my own background in talking about these issues is likely to have implicit bias and coming to terms with that can be personally difficult but warranted. hooks’ summary is well put:

“If we really want to create a cultural climate where biases can be challenged and changed, all border crossings must be seen as valid and legitimate. This does not mean that they are not subjected to critique or critical interrogation, or that there will not be many occasions when the crossings of the powerful into the terrains of the powerless will not perpetuate existing structures. This risk is ultimately less threatening than a continued attachment to and support of existing systems of domination, particularly as they affect teaching, how we teach, and what we teach.”

To conclude, Teaching to Transgress is a valuable work that should be placed in the hands of all educators. If even a fraction adopted the pedagogy of hooks, our system would see radical, needed change. In a nation that’s increasingly fragmented, violent, and scarily mistreating students — we need more voices that fight for what’s right. We owe it to our students to show compassion, and to love them is to make a change.

HRP’s Books of the Month — July, Making the Grades by Todd Farley

Each month, the Human Restoration Project chooses books that we believe are paramount for progressive educators to read. These are not necessarily categorized or numbered by importance, relevance to a certain topic, or release date. Instead, these are the books we’ve read recently to inform our own practice and publications.


I always bite my tongue when I hear educators defend the testing industry, even if they don’t outright support it. “Standardized testing is just one tool in the toolbox!” I never wanted to cause argument, perhaps if standardized testing wasn’t utilized as a funding tool — was used for learning purposes of students (and not punishment for everyone else) — it would be useful. However, Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry by Todd Farley ended any doubts on the fallacy of standardized assessment. Testing like this is not a tool — it has literally zero value to educators, and Farley gives an enlightening, often humorous, account to why.

Making the Grades is Farley’s journey of over a decade in the testing industry. Starting as a simple scorer, he worked his way through the ranks to reigning as a testing consultant — despite all of the deplorable events he witness (he himself admits it was all for the money.) Stated in the epilogue, Farley explains,

“…I’ve spent the better part of two years writing this very book, some 75,000 words I believe illustrate the many, many reasons no one in their right mind would ever entrust decisions made about this country’s students, teachers, and schools to this industry. I don’t know how anyone who’s seen what I’ve seen could come to any other conclusion.”

And he has seen a lot. Starting off, Farley was assigned with assessing a 4th grade standardized test prompt. Students were asked to make a public service announcement poster that demonstrated an element of bike safety. In theory — and while being trained — this was quite simple: give students points if they had an element of bike safety present, such as both hands on the handlebars or stopping at a stop sign, otherwise they receive no points.

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Of course, the real world isn’t this simple. If you provide thousands of children this prompt, you’ll get a wide array of responses: is a crashed bike in a street a sign of bike safety, a warning? what about someone who’s wearing a helmet but going in front of a car? In one situation, Farley is called by his administrator to explain his score of “0” on a paper featuring a bike, loaded on a pick-up truck, at a stop sign. The administrator explained this was bike safety, because the rubric said, “stopped at a stop sign.”

Despite all this, Farley wanted to believe in what he was doing:

“ At this point I may have wondered about the scoring of test items, but never did I waver from the idea there existed virtual legions of education experts — surely in white lab coats, wearing glasses and holding clipboards, probably at some bastion of Ivy League learning — that could make perfect sense of it all.”

Really, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Testing centers have reliability numbers — test scorers are given the same answers as some of their peers. Their scores must match up at least 70–80% of the time, or else they’re thrown out. What happens when a test scorer is consistently off or the prompt is simply too difficult to assess? Well, the score is manipulated! At many points, Farley demonstrates how managers would either A) change a peer’s number to another’s (whoever they trusted more) or B) just assess the prompt themselves and override the numbers.

More and more, he’s disgusted by what he sees. He explains to a friend, “‘I don’t mean to sound naive, but I thought we were in the business of education.” His friend responds, “…I’d say we are in the business of education.”

After his initial assignment, he returns to the agency but fails to meet the 70% minimum requirement entrance exam (where one scores already assessed papers). Soon after, the agency let him in regardless (with a 60%) — and weeks later, many more employees showed up who didn’t make mention of any test. The fact of the matter is that this isn’t a stellar job — it paid $8 an hour and required no experience. Despite systems in place to watch over potential employees (Farley was put on “probation” for not passing initially, but his manager didn’t know what that was), the testing agency was clamoring for anyone to bolster their numbers.

This is not the rubric from the book, but you’d be hard- pressed to find a school not assessing in this way.

This is not the rubric from the book, but you’d be hard- pressed to find a school not assessing in this way.

As Farley continued to take on jobs, the rubrics became more and more complex — especially in the higher grades. Instead of pass/fail, these rubrics were 6 levels (excellent, good, adequate, inconsistent, weak, unacceptable) and 6 categories (grammar, sentence structure, etc.) I’m sure most teachers would lament how ridiculous it is to subjectively grade your own class in this way, let alone thousands of essays. As one would imagine, many debates ensued:

…”’I’m with him. It should be a 5,’ she said. ‘Look at the vocabulary words in this essay. Alacrity, perspicacious, audacity. Those are nice word choices. At least ‘good’ word choices, if not ‘excellent’ ones.‘”’

‘Yes,’ Maria [the testing manager] said, ‘those are decent word choices. Someone’s been doing their SAT prep. But Anchor Paper #5 has nice vocabulary, too. Nonetheless, succinctly, beforehand.’

Beforehand?’ the woman asked, spitting the word out as if a curse. ‘’Beforehand is a good word choice?’

‘Pretty good,’ Maria said.

…’Is there any way…I could judge how different vocab words compare to each other? Do you have some sort of reference book I can use to compare pairs or trios of words, so I would know if words are 4-like or 5-like?’

Disagreements are a constant mention throughout the book. Scorers range from professors to refrigerator mechanics, and no matter how much of an expert someone was, they could never assess “properly.” The testing administrators were almost Ministry of Truth-levelconvincing scorers that they would be mad to assess incorrectly, and the answers they provided were obviously right. On one occasion, the administrator levied an entire argument on why a paper was a “3” — noting how simple it was to understand — only to double check and realize it was, in-fact, a “4.”

And, with poorly trained employees and really no “why” to the position, manipulation was commonplace. Because scorers were assigned the same answers as a peer (to check their reliability ratings), they were sometimes delivered papers with the previous assessor’s filled in scores. Common practice was to memorize these scores in order, then with your fresh stack write them all down — giving you a healthy break from monotony.

Students are placed in a radical, unforgiving, and confusing process which gives no opportunity for them to succeed — let alone make sense. One rubric required a 5-paragraph essay — no matter how well the topic was written. I believe these anchor papers (for scorers to refer back to) speak for themselves:

Anchor Paper #6 received a higher score because it is in a traditional 5-paragraph format. The instructions say to write a 5-paragraph response.

Anchor Paper #6 received a higher score because it is in a traditional 5-paragraph format. The instructions say to write a 5-paragraph response.

But it doesn’t stop there! In one instance, the head testing coordinator visited their facility and noticed that too many “2s” were being assigned. Testing facilities need to watch for trend data — because the same answers are given overtime, their scores should not drastically change (hence, standardization). Because the trend data was off, she simply told all employees to give more “3s” in the place of “2s” — meaning that all the scores up until that point were incorrect (and never corrected.)

Farley eventually moves up the ranks to range finder — the people in charge of determining rubric scoring. The range finder meets with a group of teachers to make this happen — and with everything else — it makes no sense. For example, one test question was, “What is your favorite food? What flavor does it have (bitter, sweet, etc.)? What part of the tongue does this affect? (a diagram is provided). For the small group of teachers and Farley, this seemed obvious. Nonetheless, when thousands of students responded, they said things like “Pizza is sweet.” — is this wrong? What about pineapple pizza? Case after case of subjective results, the final decision was to simply give students any credit for stating a descriptor (again, not taking into account all the prior results which were assessed differently.)

Within the industry, Farley eventually is a test manager. He accounts how he would often change the scores to the person he trusted. Under him, employees consisted of English language learners, senior scorers (who were never correct, but were there so long that previous managers just never used their scores), and frankly — people who should never be assessing children on an English test. Simply stated, it’s an $8 an hour job — just like your average McDonald’s employee, there usually isn’t a huge amount of concern, effort, or diligence in mindlessly looking at essays.

Notably, there was one situation where Farley believed the testing system would work. After realizing none of his team’s scores matched at all, he sat down with another administrator and they were 90% matching. However, he was told this was too accurate — the psychometrics (which again, sounds like something from 1984) showcased that scores should be 70 to 80%. So, they brought in another assessor who made their scoring less accurate.

These are just a selection of examples from the book — which explains in a gross amount of scenarios why standardized testing makes absolutely no sense. Let alone the subjectiveness of standards themselves, or the cultural bias that can exist in testing, or that were measure teacher pay and school effectiveness this way — standardized testing can simply not work because it is standardized.

People are people. They don’t conform their answers to neat responses — nor would we want them to! Why would we create a system where innovation is inherently impossible? Why would we want students, in the modern age, to all know the same thing? Why would we want them to display their “knowledge” in one day for the entire course of the year? And — most importantly based on this evidence — why would we think that any of this information is relevant in the slightest?

In addition, this book should enlighten on why grading makes no sense. Grading is inherently subjective. Yes — a single teacher may be able to grade without bias (despite their current mood, tiredness, liking certain students, being drawn to certain topics/interests, preferring a certain writing style, political-leanings, and more) — but what does that actually mean for a student? That they passed through your hoops? What happens if they go to another class, submit the same paper (or better yet, submit the same paper to you later) and receive a different grade? Are they more or less intelligent? Do they know more or less? If you use them, it’s worth taking a look at those paradoxical rubrics.

I encourage any educator — but especially administrators and districts who place any emphasis on standardized testing — to read this book. I would be shocked if someone could read these accounts, dismiss them, and continue to do this to our students. Yes — it’s not easy standing up to the government or the testing culture at large — but we must do what makes logical sense. This isn’t a matter of losing a week to testing — testing has manufactured an entire education system which supports it the entire year. We need common sense decisions which encourage students to learn for themselves, express their creativity, and find authentic solutions to our world’s problems.

HRP’s Books of the Month — June, Part 2: Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz

Each month, the Human Restoration Project chooses books that we believe are paramount for progressive educators to read. These are not necessarily categorized or numbered by importance, relevance to a certain topic, or release date. Instead, these are the books we’ve read recently to inform our own practice and publications.

William Deresiewicz’ Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way to a Meaningful Life is one of my favorite works in education. Exemplifying the issues of prestigious-college seeking youth, our obsession with “being the best”, and what education truly means are just some of the giant ideas tackled. I utilize excerpts of this book every year in my classroom to emphasize the dangers of “next step education” and why we all need to reflect on our lives.

The opening paragraph outlines everything perfectly:

“I went off to college like a sleepwalker, like a zombie. College was a blank. College was the ‘next thing.’ You went to college, you studied something, and afterward you went on to the next next thing, most probably some kind of graduate school. Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top — in a word, ‘success.’ As for where you went to school, that was all about bragging rights, so of course you chose the most prestigious place that let you in. What it meant to actually get an education, and why you might want one — how it could help you acquire a self, or develop an independent mind, or find your way in the world — all this was off the table.”

Our children spend shockingly little time figuring out what it is that they love to do. They may know what core subject areas they’re “good at” or some professions that have peaked their interests over the years. However, upon even some examination, you’ll mostly find they have done little to nothing in thinking about their futures. Simply asking students, “why do you want to do that?” is often met with, “because I like helping people!” or “because it makes a lot of money!” or “I like science.” Although there must be some starting point, it is heavily concerning that students don’t have concrete, long-reflective answers over a decision that impacts their life’s purpose.

Deresiewicz makes many claims involving why this is the case:

“The problem is that students have been taught [that’s] all that education is: doing your homework, getting the answers, acing the test. Nothing in their training has endowed them with the sense that something larger is at stake.”

Education, especially “college-preparatory education”, spends so much time preparing students for the “next step” — that students never think about whyor what the next step is for. Why does a higher education matter, or education at all matter, if one isn’t making use of it? As Yale students are described,

“…most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development…”

This point, to most educators, will ring true. It tends to be that students who are most obsessive about class rank, grades, their resume, and standardized test scores are those who are the least likely to think creatively. They’re risk-averse, they follow orders well, and they spend very little time thinking about themselves. And by “thinking about themselves”, I do not mean they’re constantly helping everyone and working cooperatively — no, instead they spend most of their time trying to bemuse the “higher-ups” — admissions teams, teachers, professors — sometimes at the expense of their peers (and themselves.)

Furthermore, these students are obsessive about extracurricular activities. They — or their parents — have scheduled so many activities during the day that they have little to no time for themselves. Instead of finding what they’re passionate about, they’re simply checking boxes off a list. Excellent Sheep, of course, means those who are great at following the flock, but Deresiewicz clarifies,

“….today’s elite students do not arrive in college as a herd of sheep or army of robots, with a few rebel intellectuals off at the edges. Most of them are somewhat in the middle: idealistic and curious, like kids before them, hungry for purpose and meaning….but beset by psychological demands that are inevitable products of the process that propelled them into college in the first place.”

Students are lacking any meaning of self in their education. They spend little to no time finding their passions and expel all of their energy on pleasing others. They’re put down assembly lines to be manufactured into STEM graduates, well-paying careers, or whatever field employers say are “in-demand.” Paradoxically, students on these tracks tend to be unsuccessful. A critical point of higher education is that passions inspire learning. Why would I commit to a major that I care little to nothing about? Money and prestige are not enough to awake the human soul.

Oftentimes, systemic education forgets the emotional needs of students. In fact, those emotional needs should be the focus — not testing or other academic measurement. Excellent Sheep describes “super people”: those who double major, play a musical instrument, speak multiple languages, play sports, have many hobbies, and are incredibly confident. However, missing is the emotional component — of these students, emotional well-being is at a record low and half of all college students reported feeling hopeless. And this isn’t limited to college:

“We all know about the stressed-out, overpressured high school student; why do we assume that things get better once she gets to college?”

These students that over-obsess on academics never reflect on the real world. They don’t want to appear weak. And in classes everywhere, many assume that our quiet, hard-working, “all A’s” students are doing fantastic — which couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course, all students need help — but we mustn’t forget that academics don’t equate to well-being.

The lack of personal passion and reflection has taken its toll on discovery and uniqueness:

“What I saw at Yale I have continued to see at campuses around the country. Everybody looks extremely normal, and everybody looks the same. No hippies, no punks, no art school types or hipsters, no butch lesbians or gender queers, no black kids in dashikis. The geeks don’t look that geeky; the fashionable kids go in for understated elegance. Everyone dresses as if they’re ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice. You’re young…take a chance with yourselves. Never mind “diversity.” What we’re getting is thirty-two flavors of vanilla.”

Children are terrified of risk. They don’t want to upset anyone. They’re afraid of failure. Our school systems — starting even at elementary school — have programmed them to be another cog in the machine — an endless stream of rule-obeying robots. Even the search for “uniqueness” has become a corporate identity: to buy a “unique look”:

“You need to avoid that kind of crap. Putting a sticker on your MacBook that says, ‘I’m an individual’ (in whatever paraphrase) does not make you an individual. Getting a piercing, growing a mustache, moving to Austin — these do not make you an individual. You can’t accessorize your way to moral courage.”

When we talk about really embracing finding yourself — embracing one’s passions, we tend to mask the dark side, which Deresiewicz addresses often. It’s not just “find your passion”, it’s also “be prepared to suffer.” It’s not only “follow your dreams”, it’s “the hell with credentials” — not certification, rather the feeling that prestige comes with a certain life track, certain choices. In fact, taking charge of your life simply means loving what you do and being comfortable in your own skin — what has become a tall order for many of today’s children:

“Do it — invent your life, in whatever form that ends up taking, which need not be very cool or glamourous or counterculture at all — for your own sake alone.”

Teachers play a pivotal role to inspire this change. A teacher isn’t there to simply deliver content, they’re to educate. Education is beyond learning — it’s a whole framework of discovering a student’s life — their passions — and embracing them, mentoring them to their full potential. As Deresiewicz mentions,

“What they want…is mentorship. I remember just how starved I was for that myself in college. I saw how starved my students were: for validation, for connection — for (let’s not be shy of saying it) parental figures other than their parents.”

It’s concerning that in an effort to personalize learning, we’ve shifted to MOOGs to deliver content. While access to more information is fantastic, we should be very careful to replacing strong educators with delivery systems. Of course, sadly this has become conflated: isn’t a strong educator a great deliverer? In fact, a strong educator should be one who relates with students and guides them on their path — which may involve the use of self-delivered content.

Although Excellent Sheep is primarily about college students, it has obvious implications for secondary and even elementary school. High schools have already transformed into college-prep environments. It’s assumed in many classrooms that to succeed in high school is to be accepted into college. That does not mean students are prepared for college. Very little is done about emotional well-being, students have little time to explore passions, at the end of the day, what matters is an “A” in the class.

Education has become about moving as quick as possible. Take AP classes in middle school, apply to hundreds of hours of community service in things you don’t care about, take out absurd loans to a program you’ve barely explored, take on a career in a well-paying field because you want to relish in the prestige. However, to truly focus on the self — to care about kids — to make them enjoy their lives — we have to slow down. We have to develop communities: spend large amounts of time on discussion, don’t worry about content or testing, build relationships, mentor students one-on-one, let them look out for each other, and stop preparing always for the next step. When do students get to figure out who they truly are? When do they find out what makes them happy?

HRP’s Books of the Month — June, Part 1: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania

Each month, the Human Restoration Project chooses books that we believe are paramount for progressive educators to read. These are not necessarily categorized or numbered by importance, relevance to a certain topic, or release date. Instead, these are the books we’ve read recently to inform our own practice and publications.

Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania by Frank Bruni lays out a remarkable case against the ridiculous nature of college admissions programs and the dangerous pathways it leads our children on. Central to the book’s argument is that U.S. News and World Report, as well as other various ranking systems, have tarnished the admissions process and made our students hone-in on the wrong prospects. Of course, most educators are familiar with the errors of these rankings, but Bruni’s work is an all-encompassing destruction of the system, with crushing numbers of tangible evidence against these processes.

Where You Go is not only a recommended book for teachers, but for students and parents as well. Bruni tackles college rankings, the overblown college admissions process, as well as “next step” education that permeates our culture. In his words,

“…the admissions game is too flawed and too rigged to be given so much credit…the work that he or she puts into [college], the skills that he or she picks up, the self-examination that’s undertaken, the resourcefulness that’s honed — matters more than the name of the institution attended.”

This deconstruction of the rankings process is done in numerous ways. In part, Bruni wants to prove that because of these reports, certain schools have been measured as better than others with little to no regard on their actual educational value. As a result, students have become obsessive over entering high-ranked schools in light of their own best interest. Simply stated,

“[the problem with] Money, Forbes, Payscale and U.S. News rankings is that there are all sorts of other lists and all manner of other measurements that get little attention and that, in some cases, communicate information that’s equally or more relevant.”

Bruni outlines the schools with the most Fulbright Scholars (Pitzer, Smith, Oberlin, Pomona, College of the Holy Cross, WIlliams, Occidental, Vassar, Bates, and Bowdoin), as well as study abroad programs for worldly experiences, diverse student populations for more perspectives, those who finance education (not just buildings or salaries), Pulitzer Prize winners, Nobel Prize winners, the majority of successful politicians, the majority of Fortune 500 CEOs — and more in an exhaustive list of factual data. Furthermore, ranking data doesn’t include the quality of education, job placement rates, or happiness. This, in-turn, heavily mirrors school ranking data for secondary schools nationwide, which focuses on standardized testing data and absence statistics above all else.

And because our students lack a full picture of this situation, many are being sold on a lie. As stated in the book, these ranking scales: “…unnecessarily shrink the pool of schools that kids consider. In constructing a hierarchy of colleges, they give short shift to the multitude and diversity of them, and they imply that certain schools are better for everyone, when they may only be better for particular students with particular dispositions.” Although Bruni is focused on undergraduate admissions to 4 year universities, this methodology could be applied to any college seeker — including community and vocational schools. So many students have equated certain experiences and educational systems with “success” — whether that be monetarily or prestige — that they have overlooked where they fit in best to make themselves succeed.

To drive this point home, one of my favorite excerpts was from a former Yale admissions college officer, who went to work as a college placement counselor in high school. After watching students bring her lists of carefully selected, “high-ranking” colleges, she stated,

“‘These new lists always seem to correlate with the rankings in U.S. News. Students tend to discard excellent and appropriate colleges ranked lower in U.S. News and to add ‘stretch’ schools that are unlikely to offer them admission.”

With this comes a greater issue of the cultural narrative our students play out. Taken to the extreme, in an effort to be placed at the highest ranked schools, families will rig the system. In one circumstance a mother described her rationale of developing a fake essay entry to Yale:

“‘India?’ she suggested. ‘Africa? She hadn’t worked it out. But if Yale might be impressed by an image of her son with a small spade, large shovel, rake or jackhammer in his chafed hands, she was poised to find a third-world setting that would produce that sweaty and ennobling tableau.”

Although this is obviously not the norm, it reflects a greater cultural anxiety our students have to get into the college they’d like. The rat race of education. Consistently our students are placed in situations to compete against one another, come out the “best”, and work their hardest for the “next step.” College preparatory schools exist all the way into elementary, guaranteeing admittance to the highest ranked establishments. Ignoring that these ranking systems are vastly inaccurate, the fact our students are so intertwined with this system is a major problem. Students are sacrificing being themselves, taking time to reflect, engaging in passionate activities that make them happy — they are, quite literally, becoming less human. Put dutifully by Bruni,

“…the alumni of elite institutions were less clear about why they were at Harvard and what they wanted from it. For them it was the next box in a series that they were dutifully checking over the course of their lives.”

A series of checkmarks to live by is analyzed by high school senior Rachel Wolfe in her class documentary, “Losing Ourselves.” Adolescents don’t know why they do things — they just want to reach the next step. They develop a mindset that cares about getting ahead, no matter the cost instead of a love of learning or living. In addition, this doesn’t end after admission. Students continue on this rat race throughout their lives. The Good Project, a team of researchers at Harvard, found that: “…though students enter college with a diverse set of interests, by senior year, most of them seem to focus on a narrow set of jobs. The culture at Harvard seems to be dominated by the pursuit of high earning, prestigious jobs, especially in the consulting industries.”

That being said, it isn’t all about prestige. A huge factor contributing to this are fear and anxiety. Our society shows increasing signs of income equality — therefore, students want to ensure they’re those that “have” rather than “have-not.” It’s difficult to obtain a job without a college degree — heck, it’s difficult to obtain one with a college degree. With this in mind, many want to ensure employability via an elite education.

However, Bruni’s writings implement a much darker view of the world this has created. In one circumstance:

“A group of students gathered in the library at a public school in an affluent suburb of New York note that the high-achieving kids in the Model United Nations Club are away on a trip and joke that it would be a blessing if the bus crashed, because it would free up room in the “cum laude” society, reserved for the top 10 percent of the class.”

A narrow pathway envisioned towards success dangers our children’s minds. The story that connected most to me was that of “Matt” — a high school junior that looked perfect on paper to most colleges: stellar SAT scores (with help from an expensive tutor), top of his class, played an instrument, was on the varsity baseball team, a member of almost all honor societies, and participated in 100+ hours of community service. He applied to Brown, Yale, and Princeton and was rejected from all of them. In response, he had an emotional breakdown and sunk into a depression — despite his parents encouraging him every step of the way. They wanted him to be happy. Not only does this connection with elitism showcase a danger to our youth’s psyche, it also demonstrates how students perceive college admissions on their own.

This story, among many others, led Bruni to offer some advice:

“Your control over the outcome [of getting into a specific college] is very, very limited, and that outcome says nothing definitive about your talent or potential. To lose sight of that is to buy into, and essentially endorse, a game that’s spun wildly out of control,” adding, “…the media’s focus on such a limited number of acceptable outcomes, coupled with its attention to minutely detailed instructions for achieving them, suggests that life yields to meticulous recipes. That’s a comforting thought but a fraudulent one.”

The next question then is: what does make someone successful? If these rankings aren’t accurate, what should we go by? The answer is messy. There, as Bruni oftentimes states, isn’t a formula. Just like how the latest buzzword in education isn’t going to “fix” a class, a certain school isn’t going to “change” a person. It’s all about a variety of experiences, opportunities, placements, and luck. In fact, the majority of Where You Go is about various people’s journeys into prestigious positions — none of which are the same and often have nothing to do with a specific school. As Bruni states,

“…the admissions mania perverts the true meaning and value of hard work, encouraging such effort in the designated service of a specifically defined goal, as a pragmatic bridge from point A to point B, not as an act of passion, not as a lifetime habit, not as a renewable resource, which is what it should be and how it bears the ripest, sweetest fruit.”

Or as Steve Schmidt, chief campaign strategist for the McCain campaign in 2008 and political pundit exclaims,

“[Students are] looking for you to give them a formula: ‘On Day 246 of your career, you should do this.’ I said to one kid, ‘I’m going to give you a piece of advice. You should go and get a job working on a sailboat in the Caribbean for six months. Or maybe work behind a bar’…Life isn’t reduced to a formula. Luck enters into it. It’s a chance event…what mattered most in the end was a true, deep attachment to whatever you’re making, whatever you’re selling, whatever you’re doing.”

Bruni then creates an incredible argument on why public universities are just as great an experience as elite schools — it’s all about the person attending and what they are truly looking for. Taking this introspective look that goes beyond face-value, manipulative rankings, creates a world of opportunity vastly more encompassing than the often-trodden path. For any educator who seeks to inform students about their future, worries about “college prep”, or simply wants a better argument against the U.S. News and World Report — this is a great work to read.

HRP’s Books of the Month, Part 2: What School Could Be

Each month, the Human Restoration Project chooses books that we believe are paramount for progressive educators to read. These are not necessarily categorized or numbered by importance, relevance to a certain topic, or release date. Instead, these are the books we’ve read recently to inform our own practice and publications.


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Ted Dintersmith’s What School Could Be is a book that makes me feel nervous anticipation the entire time I read: not because of fear — but because the inspiring tone and message are so paramountly on-point that it siphons my feelings as an educator every single page. It makes me want to go into school the next day and forcefully demand education changes for the better.

In his book, Dintersmith (co-author of Most Likely to Succeed, another must-read) describes his journey across the United States seeking out best practice. Roughly every three pages, one is introduced to a new school doing something amazing — full of examples, philosophy, vision, and anecdotes. Frankly, I’d be hard-pressed to find a better resource to demonstrate what progressive education is in real life than this book. It’s inspiring to say the least.

Dintersmith opens by stating:

“Machine intelligence is racing ahead, wiping out millions of routine jobs as it reshapes the competencies needed to thrive. Our education system is stuck in time, training students for a world that no longer exists. Absent profound change in our schools, adults will keep piling on life’s sidelines, jeopardizing the survival of civil society.”

Although bleak, there is no denying that automation will change our already altered society. We say we’re trying to “prepare our students for the future” in most of our school’s mission statements, but are we really? We can’t necessarily predict which the future holds — but we know that rote memorization and state standardized tests are the complete opposite of what we’ll need. So, what will schools look like if we’re not telling students to “eat their peas and carrots” to make it to college (where, sadly, they are most likely still not being prepared)?

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In Dintersmith’s model, a great school has four parts (PEAK):

Purpose: Where students do actual important work.

Essentials: There’s a backbone to what they’re learning that they’ll need in the future.

Agency: Students are in charge of their learning and are intrinsically motivated.

Knowledge: Everything learned is deep and retained, they are creators and teach others what they know.

This is the opposite of what most of our schools are now. Our primary goal is to rank people’s potential to see where they’re at: not necessarily to figure out how to improve. In fact, when one really thinks about the purpose of standardized testing…is it to make our students learn more and address what they’re missing or to punish teachers and schools who aren’t meeting “state benchmarks”?

Ironically, in our rat race to make students “prepared for the future” — we’ve actually created an environment that does the exact opposite. When we look for the “most prepared” — we’re searching for “college-ready” students who are enrolled in multiple AP programs, earning “forced volunteerism” hours, and bolstering their resume with trivial high school awards. Dintersmith describes a traditionally “perfect school” and the harsh realities of a “high standard” suburban, well-off area: a place where students have amazing SAT/ACT scores, students go to great colleges, and everything is neatly arranged and scheduled. He talks about how administrators, wanting him to see an innovative education, show him:

“…[groups of students] instead of in rows and desks, although class discussion was controlled by the teacher. In chemistry class, students were memorizing the periodic table with a “cool” iPad app. Their new community service program requires students to log twenty hours each year, choosing from three faculty-defined options. Student infractures are punished by adding more hours of required service…[One senior described: ‘this school is like] being one of those hamsters on a wheel. We keep running faster and faster, but it doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere.’”

According to Dintersmith (as well as practically any progressive educator), our schools need more hands-on learning. We need to stray away from standardized testing and build activities that matter. We need real-world problems in education. We need to produce graduates that are better prepared than college students for the real world.

It’s not that this school is the target of Dintersmith’s wrath — but rather a lasting example of a timeless system of traditional ed. that has spread itself since the late 1800s. It’s not that these schools aren’t pushing for child to succeed — it’s just they’re focused on the traditional definition of “success” — a definition that most don’t question. In a traditional educator’s mind, a school with fantastic test scores and great college attendance rates isn’t doing anything wrong at all. Of course, this assumes that our society needs more people that perform great on tests.

The world of tomorrow isn’t going to require (arguably it doesn’t already) the memorization of low-level facts with little to no application, relevance, nor creativity. A large factor of our economy is starting to (and will increasingly) be irrelevant: those who can do processes that robots could do better. Anyone who simply repeats what they’re told and operates in an assembly line fashion will not have anything to do. And, of course, an assembly line world is what our education system is built on: “bell” schedules, standardization, worksheets, and authoritarian rules.

The obvious question then becomes: how can we innovate in school when colleges — which most students need or want to attend — value standardized testing? An excellent point is made by Doug Lyons, CEO of the Connecticut Association of Independent Schools. Colleges often say they want people with soft skills, don’t value tests, and need people with real-world experience, however Lyons states:

“‘We love everything you just said, but we know who you accept. You don’t accept the kids you just described. You take the kids who go to SAT test-prep summer camps.”

Granted, do our students even need traditional colleges? Are colleges simply an extended version of a traditional education system that already is outdated? Most college students don’t obtain a job in their field, let alone a job that requires a college degree. And, so many students in elite colleges are on antidepressants, without a passion in the world. Is this what’s best for the world’s future? Dintersmith makes the claim that high schools need to lead change — not wait for higher education to catch up. Why can’t we educate 13–18 year olds with a better education than colleges can?

Dintersmith describes the irony of when school gets more serious, students learn less. Typically, elementary grades are full of boisterous young children that can’t wait to learn. Conversely, high school is a dreaded confinement of jaded teenagers. It’s interesting that we’ve doubled down on making high school work, instead of looking towards earlier grades as an example worth replicating.

Importantly, Dintersmith also highlights our obsession with buzzwords and crazes that make us obsessed with “learning for the future” without any contemplation of what that means. He states on coding,

“It’s trendy to assert that computer programming is a basic skill that everyone needs to master. That’s just one of the inane statements that get tossed around education circles because it sounds good. In reality, a few brilliant coders write the software the rest of us can draw on. As machine intelligence advances, the number of coding jobs could actually decline. There will, though, be an explosion of opportunities for those who know how to leverage machine intelligence.”

And this is only in the first twenty pages.

The rest of Dintersmith’s work is a categorized experience of every school he visited across the school year. A retelling of best practice in an extended, exemplar form. A heightened sense of awareness is the least one could expect from reading these stories — at most a drive to start one’s own school that actually loves and cares for students.

So, what are great schools doing? Here’s a few examples:

Hosting Expedition Nights

One school featured kindergarten students working with robotics the entire year. Instead of spending huge amounts of time on traditional mathematics and reading worksheets, students simply learned how to operate and create different forms of robotics. One student made a working (albeit elementary, obviously) prosthetic hand with multiple prototypes. Students still learned reading and mathematics (in fact, they learned better according to standardized testing and observation) as everything was applied. Students demonstrated what they learned at an exhibition of learning at the end of the year: showcasing to over 300 people their greatest successes and failures. And, like most presentations of this nature, there were amazing results and some were not-so-amazing: but that’s completely normal. Our society is so fixated on everyone achieving a simple standardized result, that we’ve forgotten that learning is messy — and all learning will have failure.Incidentally, we offer a resource on getting started on expo nights at your school.

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Starting a Genius Hour

Imagine living in a world where people go through their entire childhood and schooling, apply to spend 40+ thousand dollars, and still have absolutely no idea what they’re going to do. Sadly, that’s the reality of most of today’s learners. When visiting one school, Dintersmith was shocked to find students, when asked “what are you interested in?” — Googled, “what should I be interested in?” Why aren’t we engaging student passions!? Shouldn’t that be the entire point of human existence, not just schooling? Also — to continue our shameless plug of free resources, we offer two resources for genius hour: one to start planning it, the other a guide for students to discover and explore.

Go Against the State

The government does not do what’s best for students. Shockingly, our government is not the best example of collaboration, innovation, and continuous improvement. One innovator remarked,

“‘[Every morning,] I look at myself in the mirror and ask, ‘do I do what’s best for my students today, or do I do what the state tells me to do?’’”

Progressive educators cannot teach within a framework that doesn’t do what’s best for kids. The more a teacher commits to working within the system, trying to make small changes, the more likely they’ll burn out (the hero will live long enough to be become the villain). Instead, we need to embrace change in communities (or tribes) that care about children. Part of that will require educators leaving schools that don’t have their best interest at heart, instead opting for the many progressive schools seeking innovative practice.

Have Supportive Leaders

One physical educator instructor at a public school had enough of bored students. He brainstormed a program where students would build, operate, and learn about different types of boards (snowboards, skateboards, paddleboards). He wanted students to think creatively about managing new products, a business, and working with each other — and feared administrative backlash for going against the grain. However, his principal said something that every progressive educator needs:

“‘There will be obstacles. You may fail. But figure this out, and I’ll take care of the naysayers.’”

The teacher’s plan made sense for the community and had wildly fantastic results: students went on to be employed at their own snowboard shops, video production company (from the accompanying documentary), and working in the industry. They took their skills and applied them to career tech to PhD programs — without any traditional curriculum.

Every educator needs support from administration that replicates what’s best practice in the classroom. Not only should failure be normalized and a point of learning for students — it needs to be for teachers as well. Relationships aren’t just the prime indicator of success for students and teachers — it needs to be for teachers and administrators too.

 

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Utilize Self-Directed Learning

Students need to be autonomous. They have to be able to manage their time and work without someone looking over their shoulder. Of course, this requires interest and a desire to learn — something not present in the majority of classrooms. Dintersmith introduces Acton Academy — a network of schools who focus on self-directed learning. Students spend the majority of their day preparing, researching, and designing for projects they’re interested in — while performing better on standardized testing (even though it isn’t something they focus on at all). Not present are any textbooks or standard curriculum. We happened to speak to Matt Beaudreau, the founding director of Acton Academy Placer about the importance of self-directed learning.

They Care About More Than “College-Ready”

Dintersmith offers an harrowing anecdote. At a film festival, he watched in awe as a documentary showcased a high-stakes “college prep” school in the inner-city, one that drills students in standardized testing and removes those who go against the grain. At the end of the documentary, it features students holding up acceptance letters to their colleges they were accepted to. People in the crowd cheered and cried tears of joy. Dintersmith states:

“Of the long list of colleges, I had heard of only one. No mention in the film of issues like loan obligations, likelihood of graduating, or how much these students will learn. I broached concern to the person next to me, who responded ebulliently, ‘It doesn’t matter. They’re going to college!’ That’s America today.”

The more our schools are focused on preparing these “perfect students for college” — the more we lose the humanity of our children. The more our schools measure their success by how many students go to college, the more their preached mission doesn’t matter. What matters at the end of the day is college acceptance, and one is only successful if they do.

Engaging schools aren’t focused on preparing students for college: they’re focused on getting students to love learning through hands-on activities. Schools such as Olympic High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, where students have the option of multiple career-tech style schools that specialize from biology to graphic design (and they can switch if they desire). Students find something that they’re passionate about, and work each day on enacting real activities and projects that help them learn and grow in the now rather than preparing for the next step. Furthermore, their assessment is not about memorizing facts (as most college-ready schools are). Dintersmith notes,

“Every school claims to teach its students to think, but few do. When we push kids along a content-laden college-ready path, they’re rewarded more for memorizing than thinking — a balance that would shift dramatically if students were assessed on the basis of authentic and creative work.”

From here, the book shifts to focus on reimagining college (not simply making it cheaper or free — as that still wouldn’t solve the issue of a growing unemployed/unskilled “college class” of young adults) — visiting various community colleges and small schools focused on some of the similar topics found in progressive high schools.

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Then, Dintersmith takes aim at overparenting. Similar to the parenting lectures of Alfie Kohn, Dintersmith references Mac Bledsoe, author of Parenting with Dignity, who states,

“…parents need to effect an orderly transfer of decision-making responsibility, from making 100% of your newborn’s decisions to making 0% of your eighteen-year-old’s decisions. Not just unimportant decisions. All decisions. Prepare your child to enter adulthood with the skills, experience, and confidence to make sound decisions.”

Dintersmith argues that this model should be incredibly similar to how schools operate with their students.

Furthermore, an emphasis is placed on social equity in schools and the need for our public schools in lower-income neighborhoods for progressive education. It isn’t just money that these schools need (obviously they do) — but practicing more programs that are truly for a student’s growth. Often, poorer districts double-down on “academic performance” and “rigor” — ensuring that student testing scores are raised — but this comes at the cost as students being less prepared for what they need in their lives — critical thinking, creativity, problem solving.

Finally, Dintersmith offers suggestions that we can take as educators to improve our schools — not by making traditional practices “better” by doubling down or integrating tech tools that promote standards-based teaching — but rather finding new ways to creatively engage students. By banding together as progressive educators, we can make new techniques more legitimate as well as embrace more students — the more a vision is stated and seen, the more it is legitimized. Every progressive educator, parent, or student should read this book (and you should definitely offer it as a present to some not-so-free thinking teachers [thanks Annich Rauch.])

HRP’s Books of the Month Part 1: Originals, How Non-Conformists Move the World

Each month, the Human Restoration Project chooses books that we believe are paramount for progressive educators to read. These are not necessarily categorized or numbered by importance, relevance to a certain topic, or release date. Instead, these are the books we’ve read recently to inform our own practice and publications.

This month features three fantastic works: Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant and What School Could Be: Insights and Inspirations from Teachers Across America by Ted Dintersmith.

This writing will focus on Originals, additional writings will follow.

In Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant proposes that the most creative of us — the ones who make and innovative — are those who don’t conform to society’s expectations. As Grant states, “…the hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.” Throughout the book, we are introduced to a variety of stories, examples, and research of original thought processes and how they were gained.

For educators, Grant’s work is both a great resource for understanding one’s own creativity and practice, as well as a critical interpretation of traditional schooling. What makes a student a “great student”? Many educators would describe: listens well, learns quickly, performs well (on tests), a great writer, quiet, respectful. But what if we were actually limiting the possibilities of the students who are most receptive to traditional work? For example, despite the inclinations of child prodigies who have talent and ambition beyond measure, most do not ever become “game changers” in society. It is explained:

“Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities in ordinary ways, mastering their jobs without questioning defaults and without making waves. In every domain they enter, they play it safe by following the conventional paths to success. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken systems that prevent many patients from affording health care in the first place. They become lawyers who defend clients for violating outdated laws without trying to transform the laws themselves. They become teachers who plan engaging algebra lessons without questioning whether alegra is what their students need to learn. Although we rely on them to keep the world running smoothly, they keep us running on a treadmill.”

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What’s the treadmill in traditional education? Grades, standardized testing, traditional coursework, and a fixed mindset. There’s a game to be played at school by knowing the rules, doing the bare minimum possible, and rarely questioning what you’re doing. Students are more concerned with achieving rather than learning — failure is not an option, although most learning requires failure, instead students only care about their final grade or SAT score.

Of course, all this implies that often the most stressful students for educators are the most creative. In fact, Grant states that adolescents who went into entrepreneurship later in life (a fundamentally creative profession) were much more likely to have skipped school, shoplifted, drank alcohol, smoked marijuana, and gambled. Furthermore, children who had more concrete rules from their parents tended to go into less creative professions. Those who flourished were ones taught a moral framework to live by — how their actions could negatively affect others. Therefore, although these adolescents may have taken risks — they were not any more likely than their peers to drive drunk or buy “harder” drugs.

From this, one could surmise that education is not effectively reaching students who don’t fit the norm (school, of all places, tends to be heavily rule focused with no feedback as to why?) And, those teachers who are trying to change the system through progressive thought are often met by roadblocks — whether it be administration, community culture, or fellow teachers. Originals offers sound advice for those progressive educators seeking to change the world.

Grant asserts, “ Advocating for new systems often requires demolishing the old way of doing things, and we hold back for fear of rocking the boat.” With a plethora of examples in history (Steve Wozniak, Michelangelo, Copernicus, Martin Luther King Jr.), Originals establishes that many creative people are terrified or unwilling to effectively change the system (at least at first.) Instead of making real change, we tend to find other safer ways to express ourselves:

“We find surface ways of appearing original — donning a bow tie, wearing bright red shoes — without taking the risk of actually being original. When it comes to the powerful ideas in our heads and the core values in our hearts, we censor ourselves.”

Many educators are wrapped up in this phase: finding new ways to get students to “eat their peas and carrots” of traditional, outdated education rather than pushing to really change the norm. In any bookstore, one can browse through multitudes of teaching books who claim to have found the best way to “get” students to “learn.” Instead of questioning why we must entice students to learn this information against their will — isn’t it a much more interesting question to ask, “why aren’t students wanting to learn?”

This would be a drastic risk for some — negative evaluations, an initial attack from peers, parents, and possibly students, even termination. However, it doesn’t have to be an “all-in” approach to tackle progressive education. Grant thoroughly explains that we usually paint creatives as gigantic risk-takers who are “cut from a different cloth.” Notably, it’s not that creatives take any risk, they take calculated risks. For example, 33% of entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs had lower odds for failure then those that went “all-in” and quit. It’s proposed that non-conformists view their mission as a portfolio: mitigate some risk by keeping some areas safe. It would be silly for us as educators to not have any back-up plan. Grant explains,

“Having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another. By covering our bases financially, we escape the pressure to publish half-baked books, sell shoddy art, or launch untested businesses.”

Furthermore, it is shown that there’s a greater risk for those who suggest new ideas very frequently if they don’t have status. That being said, status is earned through power (which tends to be a result of those who make calculated suggestions). This could be viewed as a “Trojan Horse” method of change: make small incremental changes that positively affects learning, gain political power, then start drastically making moves. Because progressive education is viewed as “extreme” by rote teachers — they won’t be willing to accept changing everything just because someone says it. However, they will eventually see the suggestion as legitimate if someone with status and whom they trust mentions it.

So what about those who don’t agree with your changes? Perhaps we need to band together as progressive educators to market, brand, and promote our strategies (such as the Deeper Learning Initiative.) The more familiar a concept is, the more likely people will buy into it. People are very traditional in most methods of their thinking and assume that they are correct (even when proven otherwise) — it isn’t until the “tide turns” that they turn around. And Grant proposes to be faithful to your skeptics. Invite them in, have conversations, and talk about your hesitations. The Human Restoration Project often states, “We don’t have all the right answers, but we do know some wrongs ones. We’re not certain our ideas are right, but we know what needs to change.”

Overall, we highly recommend checking out Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. For a progressive educator, it offers optimism, strategy, and confirmation of the methods we want to impose and dictate. For students, it legitimizes many of their beliefs about the world and questions the traditional narrative we’ve put them on.