Today I am joined by Dr. William Ayers, a retired education professor at the University of Chicago whose work is rooted in progressive ideology. Ayers was heavily involved in the free school movement in the 1960s, and his work reflects a focus on democratic schooling and building a more free society. Ayers is a prolific author, including writing On the Side of the Child: Summerhill Revisited, Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom, To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher, and the recently released "You Can't Fire the Bad Ones!": And 18 Other Myths about Teachers, Teachers Unions, and Public Education.
In this podcast, Ayers and I talk about the opportunity that COVID-19 provides teachers to throw out standardized testing and build a better system. We discuss the College Board, the connection between testing and the financial industry, how testing impacts the culture of a school, and what a classroom without these tests could mean.
Dr. William Ayers, professor of education at the University of Chicago, elementary education expert, education reform activist, author, and researcher.
Chris McNutt: Hello, before we get started, I wanted to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by Human Restoration Project's fantastic patrons. All of our work, which includes free resources, materials, and this podcast, are available for free due to our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Burton Hable, Connie Fletcher, and Matt Walker. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hello, and welcome to Season 3, Episode 29 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast on the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Today, I am joined by Dr. William Ayers, a retired education professor at the University of Chicago whose work is rooted in progressive ideology. Ayers was heavily involved in the free school movement in the 1960s, and his work reflects a focus on democratic schooling and building a more free society. Ayers is a prolific author, including writing On the Side of the Child, Summerhill Revisited, Teaching Toward Freedom, Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom, To Teach, The Journey of a Teacher, and the recently released You Can't Fire the Bad Ones and 18 Other Myths About Teachers, Teachers' Unions, and Public Education. In this podcast, Ayers and I talk about the opportunity that COVID-19 provides teachers to throw out standardized testing and build a better system.
William Ayers: One of the kind of pillars that if we could attack that pillar of corporate school reform, we would actually make giant progress in terms of curriculum, in terms of other ways of assessing, in terms of pedagogy. I think that the testing empire has actually distorted education so profoundly. There's a lot of angles we could come at this. First of all, I think it's exciting that here we are in the midst of a crisis, and the big theme song of the establishment is, we have to get back to normal. And I think people like you, I assume, are saying, I don't want to go back to normal. I want to go forward to something much, much different. And I want to use this moment to analyze what normal looks like, and why normal is actually an emergency for poor kids, for kids of color, for marginalized kids, and really for all kids. If education for free people is our goal, the testing empire has undermined that profoundly. So tests are with us, they've always been with us, and so people say, it's just the way things always are, but that's not true. The whole kind of push in education, to see education as a product rather than a human right, really got steam starting in 1980. And the last four decades, that steam has rolled this project forward. And I think of it as, I call it sometimes corporate school reform or neoliberal reform, but it really stands on three legs. One leg is the reduction of an education to a simple score on a standardized high stakes test. That means, and that's a very important pillar of corporate school reform. A second is to abolish any collective voice of teachers, and a third is to privatize the public space. So those three pillars are hugely important. And what you're identifying, I think, is one of three. And therefore it's something we should really, really spend some time, especially in this crisis thinking about. Here's one of the amazing things, and this always happens in crises, but we were told that the world would fall apart, that the heavens would crash on us if we ever did away with the SAT. And guess what? The SAT is gone. The advanced placement tests are suspended or are at home, I guess. I guess they're done at home. And the certification of teachers, NTPA, which is this absolute stunning ripoff of people who are becoming teachers, that's been suspended. Colleges are saying, we don't need the SATs this year. We don't need the ACTs this year. And places like New York are saying, let's not have failing grades. Let's have in progress. And I'm thinking, wow, that's a wonderful step forward. Let's not get rid of that. You flunked, you're in progress. You're working on it. And that is such a more sensible way to talk to kids about their academic progress, about their social progress or anything. And Illinois has advised all school districts to do away with letter grades. What in the world happened? I thought that those were absolutely radical, crazy ideas. We couldn't live without these things. It turns out we not only can live with them, we can live better without those impositions of the high stakes standardized testing. So I think it's time for us to say, to push hard, all of us collectively, to push hard and say, we've suspended grades or testing in Illinois, say, or in New York or in Baltimore. We've suspended it. Let's suspend it for three more years. And let's use that time to have teachers and community folks and students get together and talk about sensible ways of assessing students' work and students' education. Let's spend three years with the smartest people who are front line people in terms of public schooling, education. Let's all of us talk together about better ways to assess. And I can tell you, it wouldn't be long before we'd come up with a robust, vital, exciting way to look at student learning that had nothing to do with standardized tests.
CM: Let me clarify a point that you were just making, because I really like this idea of collective pushback and teachers organizing and being treated as professionals. However, I think the argument would be that the College Board is literally a billion-dollar organization and they essentially have become, in many ways, almost like a national curriculum like a de facto national curriculum.
WA: That's exactly right.
CM: So how do teachers who are typically not treated like professionals or as experts collectively organize in a way that could basically get around that huge financial barrier that the College Board presents?
WA: Well, I think the crisis actually is presenting the answers to your question. In other words, in health care, we've had a predatory capitalist health care system for a long, long time. And it's not even a system. It's a raggedy, jerry-rigged kind of thing. If you're wealthy, you get the best health care in the world. If you're employed in a union job, you get pretty good health care. If you're poor, the message is take care of yourself. It's an atrocity. That contradiction has pushed itself forward. Everyone can now see it. And what was considered radical when Bernie Sanders raised it during the Clinton campaign and he said, health care is a human right, health care for all, everybody said, that's some kind of socialist communist nightmare. What's he talking about? He's not a single Democratic Party candidate who doesn't endorse the idea that health care is a human right. The same is true in education, but it's up to smart folks like you and like your organization to say, here's the New Deal for education coming out of this nightmare. And one of the New Deals for education is to push the College Board aside. Let's just take a look at the SAT. The SAT is driving curriculum, it's driving teachers, it's driving kids crazy. I'll tell you two quick stories about the SAT. One kind of tickles me because in my faculty, when I was a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and I was the only distinguished professor of education at the university, and we were having a meeting about whether we should have PhDs and EDDs, PhD degree and also an EDD degree. And the argument was, oh man, the EDD is a lesser degree, it has no prestige. I finally raised my hand and I said two things. One is I said, I have an EDD. That's all they gave at Teachers College when I went there. So I don't have a PhD, but somehow I've been able to function with a lesser degree. Secondly, I said, everybody makes a big stink about testing and so on. We let graduate students in how they did on their graduate record exam. I don't think anybody has ever asked one person in this room, what score you got in your SAT. And one of my colleagues from psychology raised his hand and said, you know, I've been pissed off about that ever since because I got an 800, nobody's ever asked me. Exactly. Nobody cares. It's a gate you go through. Nobody cares. And it means very little except how you do on the SAT. I find it interesting that the SAT was once called the Scholastic Aptitude Test. And then they realized that, didn't quite say it, so they changed the name to the Scholastic Achievement Test. That was wrong also because it has nothing to do with achievement. So now it's simply called the SAT, which in a perverse way is perfect. All it is, is it's a test which tests what the SAT tests. So it's a, and everyone knows another thing, everyone knows that we can rip the cover off this as well, is how you will do on any high stakes standardized tests that you take will depend on how you did on the first one you took. And the main correlation with how you did on the first one you took is income and academic level of your parents. So why don't we just get rid of the whole costly thing and line people up and say, how much money do your folks make? Okay, you go over here. Or something equally cynically stupid because the SAT is cynical. It's covered with all this academic research and all this idea that it means something. And then you see educational research scholars who I lived with for the last 30 years as a professor, and they always, when they do their research studies in schools, they always say, well, I'm using the standardized test scores as my baseline, even though it's irrelevant, but it's the only thing we've got. Let's get something else. Let's get teachers in control. One of, also just quibble with one thing, you said teachers are not treated as professionals. I understand that the desire for teachers to be professionals, and they are professionals, but I worry that when we say professional, we're thinking of ourselves as, how could we be more like lawyers? And I think we should reject the idea of professionals in that regard in terms of teachers and think of ourselves as professionals of a new type. What marks us as professionals, what marks lawyers as professionals is they have control over the content and the conduct of their work. It's not a question of wearing a suit and having conferences at the Hilton. It's a matter of having control over the content and conduct of your work. That's what I think teachers should have. And I think the whole corporate school reform push has been to de-professionalize and take away power from teachers and say the collective voice of teachers is irrelevant. Let me go to two more quick points and then relook at this, but two more quick points. One is that kids have privilege. And I think that one of the things we can do when we talk about real reform is we ought to ask ourselves, what do the most privileged people have for their children? And we should ask ourselves in a democracy why that's not true for all kids. So Arne Duncan, who is in charge of Chicago schools for four years and the nation's schools for eight years, so it's 12 years, he's a school leader. He comes back to Chicago. He can't find a single public school to send his kids to, even though he's been telling us for 12 years how we ought to do these things, he comes back, he sends his kids to a private school. I don't blame him. I get it. I'm for it. It's for him. What I'm against is him advocating that the rest of us deserve something else. He sends his kids to a school with a class size capped at 15, with a full arts program including music and drama, with standardized tests are taken, but they're taken a third of the time that Chicago Public Schools kids, a third of the amount of tests, testing that Chicago Public School kids take. So how does he do that? And I went over, I mean, one of my standard tropes is whenever the Chicago Public Schools do something that I object to, I go over to the school where Arne Duncan sends his kids and ask them how they do it. One example is that a few years ago, the Chicago Public Schools banned the book Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, The Great Story of Coming of Age During the Iranian Revolution, the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Brilliant, brilliant graphic novel. And they banned it in Chicago. And the reason they banned it is because on one page, a kid is peeing in the street. It's a 150 page book and you can see his penis and nobody would want that. So it's banned. So I go over to Arne Duncan's school and I say, oh, do you guys have Persepolis in your library? Oh yeah, we have 12 copies, including two in the original French. I say to the kids, read it? Oh yes, they're required to read it before seventh grade. Oh my gosh. So the kids of privilege get real art and real literature and the Chicago Public School kids get another hour of drill and kill. So similarly, when the Chicago Public Schools were required to assess their teachers, 30% of the assessment of their teacher was based on kids' test scores. So immediately I went over to this privileged private school and I met with the principal and the head of the union and I asked them how, by the way, it's unionized. And I said, how do you all assess teachers? And they gave me a two hour talk, which I won't repeat for you, but in essence, it involved a period of induction into the profession and it involved mentorship. It involved a constant conversation throughout the school community about what makes good teaching. And then it involved kind of peer coaching and peer observations and it was quite elaborate. At the end of it, I said to them, well, how much in your evaluation of teachers, how much does standardized test scores count in evaluating teachers? And they looked at me and they said, well, what does that have to do with good teaching? Thank you very much, people of the privileged, but people of the not privileged get something quite different. So I think we should say what the privileged get for their kids. We have a right for all of our kids, number one. Number two, we should note that standardized high stakes, standardized testing distorts everything and we should fight it tooth and nail. This is the perfect time to come up with alternatives.
CM: I think the inverse of that would be what you described, you co-authored You Can't Fire the Bad Ones, and in that book you talk about, I think it's called urban prep or something like that.
WA: That's the main one.
CM: Yeah. The school basically is entirely focused around standardized prep and high disciplinary measures, which tend to focus on students of color, primarily with white teachers. It's a model that you find in pretty much every major city across the United States. Absolutely. What ramifications do you then see when these schools who were relying on standardized testing, I mean, that's like their whole trope, how do they go about operating or do they cease to operate in lieu of the public schools when we see test optional?
WA: Well, I think they will feel liberated. I think it may be disorienting at first, but it will not be disruptive. I think teachers, people don't go into teachers saying to them, nobody, no 10 year old looks at himself and says, you know, I think I want to become a teacher and test and grade those little bastards and sort the winners from the losers. Nobody says that. That's not a motive to go into it. I've taught teachers for 30 years, more than 30 years, and I can tell you, nobody goes into it thinking, I want to be a cop, I want to be a sorter, I want to be a judger. No, they go into it because there are two major motivations. One is they love something in the world, music, art, African American poetry, literature that they want to share with the world. And this is a place that they can do that to. They want to help children or they or they feel that they love children, or at least they love themselves when they're in a position of helping children. These are good motives. Nobody goes in saying, I want to be I want to be a sorter and a divider. So I don't think people are going to be too upset. I think it'll be disruptive, it'll be disorienting, but in the end, this disruption will lead to something very positive. The thing you're saying about urban prep, that's in a section in that book where I talk about a law of economics, a Goodhart’s law, and it's something I absolutely love. I stumbled upon it some years ago. And it's a law that is taught in all economics courses. And it's named after a British economist named Charles Goodhart. Goodhart's law states that a performance metric only works as a performance metric if you don't use it as a performance metric. Sounds paradoxical, right? And so listen to that. A performance metric only works as a performance metric if you don't use it as a performance metric. That means if Presbyterian Hospital says our metric for making good hospital is whether people live 30 days after major heart surgery, if we can meet that standard, then we're a good hospital. Well, guess what? You can keep somebody alive for 30 days after heart surgery easily. The problem is that when they gear themselves to that metric, people were dying in day 31, 32, and 33. It meant nothing about a good hospital. It was simply a focus on one metric. This is what prep did. What they did wasn't so much standardized testing. What they did is they said, we're a good high school. How do we know we're a good high school? We send 100% of our graduates to college, 100% poor black kids, they wear uniforms, very strict discipline, and 100% go to college. Look a little deeper. Kids are pushed out in their freshman and sophomore years dramatically. Second, anything counts as a college. Rose's Beauty School and this profit-making other school, those are colleges. Finally, kids don't last four years if they go to Northern Illinois University or if they go to Chicago State, they can't make it in four years. Is it a good high school? It's a terrible high school. Does it meet its metric? It does. That's a classic of Goodhart's Law. They focused on getting kids to college. They missed the fact that that doesn't make a good high school. It's one metric and it's a stupid metric. If you stop and think about it and if you focus all your energy there, curriculum falls apart, but yes, you met your standard and now you can say, I'm a good high school, but you're not.
CM: Right, right. When you were talking back about teachers not going into the profession to rank and file and bringing into that idea that we've become so focused on standardized testing and sometimes I struggle to talk about this because I myself am a teacher, so it feels weird to criticize my peers, but at the same time, there are many teachers as technicians. There are people that have been warped into this mode of thinking that this is the way that you're supposed to do education. If you meet that metric, therefore you're a good teacher. How do you go about almost deprogramming someone to go back to the way that they were probably when they first entered the profession? Right. I wouldn't even be nostalgic for how they once were, but I would say teachers are not clerks and we should not be reduced to being clerks. We're not simply passing the goods onto an empty head. We should spend more time peer to peer. We should spend more time in faculty meetings talking about how learning happens, how it can be more robust, how it can be, and we should take away the kind of whip that stands over teachers that says you're going to be judged by your test scores. One of the things that the standardized testing does that we haven't talked about is it creates competition in a field that is naturally cooperative. If I'm going to be paid and judged based on my kids' standardized test scores, then it's my third grade against your third grade. It's my high school against your high school. It's my city against your city, my state against your state, and Arne Duncan was the architect a lot of this. Race to the top. Arne Duncan wasn't the Secretary of Education. He was like a low-level program officer for the MacArthur Foundation. What do you mean? I have to compete with Rhode Island to get a grant in Illinois? Why? Aren't all kids deserving of a decent education? Shouldn't we pour masses of resources into this? Here again, we see a contradiction exposed, right? Because we were told again and again, there's no money for the arts in Chicago. There's no money for small class sizes, which is also essential. There's no money for small schools. We can't do this, and all of that driven by privatizing the public space. Suddenly, there is money. There's trillions of dollars if you want it. It's a question of priorities. What do you want to spend on? What do you think is important in our society? Even arch reactionaries want taxes, but they want taxes to go to military surveillance and prisons. I want taxes to go to healthcare, education, and guarantees of a decent standard of living for everybody. That's just a different way of saying what we should spend on, but the fact is every government taxes and spends, and we spend largely on the wrong things. This crisis exposes that in a dramatic way. Some of the crazy things that have happened in this moment, the Chicago Public Schools announced with great fanfare in February before they shut down that they were going to put soap in the children's bathrooms, and you're like, wait a minute, there's no soap in the bathrooms? Detroit announces with great fanfare they're not shutting off water to poor families. Wait a minute, they were shutting off water? Oh, great. Great advance. I think we should take every one of these contradictions, especially in your case and my case, we should take every one of these and say, let's get this contradiction and use it as an opportunity to solve the underlying preexisting conditions of social despair.
CM: We don't have a ton of time left, and I realize this is a gigantic question. But now that we are shifting, I know your focus is especially on this open and fair democratic society, as I think all of us would want. What do you envision, then, that type of classroom looking like? So what does a classroom look like that no longer has these abhorrent testing measures?
WA: I was going to ask you that, so let's talk about it. But let me say one word about testing and then come back to the classroom. The alternatives to high-stakes standardized testing are things that people have done, people like you have done them, and many, many good teachers do them in their normal functioning as teachers. We all want to know where our kids are, what are they doing, what's their best work. We want to understand them as learners. So one of the things I would think that we would come up with if we spent enough time on this is we'd come up with the idea of portfolios. My kids went to a school in New York City where to graduate from the high school, you had to present a portfolio of 12 items, and in those 12 items were test scores and grades. I mean, that's the world they live in. But the other 10 were so exciting. Your best piece of art, the best essay that you wrote, three drafts of the best essay you wrote, a reading autobiography projected five years forward. What do you need to be a more educated person? What do you need to read to be a more educated person, a more participatory citizen? Things like that. Wow. A critique of a public piece of art, a physical challenge that you made for yourself and met. Whoa. Now that to me is great, great thinking because take the physical challenge. My kids were healthy and robust and strong and 14 years old, but one of their classmates was in a wheelchair. They had different physical challenges. One of my kids wanted to say, I'll run a marathon. This kid in the wheelchair wanted to say he could make the special Olympics team in basketball. Those are different physical challenges. But you see, that's what really that pushes us back into the classroom. We want a classroom that's embedded in a community that serves the interests of that community in a powerful way. We want connections between parents, community members in schools. We want the community to feel at home in the school and the school to feel at home in the community, not some gated place where we have kind of colonial education going on. That's where we begin. Then we note that the normal range of what it means to be a three-year-old or what it means to be a first grader is vast. Any attempt to narrow that normal range is a mistake. I knew five-year-olds who could read and I knew five-year-olds when I was an early childhood teacher who were peeing in their pants. I also knew five-year-olds who were peeing in their pants while reading. The idea that somehow these separate elements are something we can... So what I want is a classroom that invites in the wide range of kids into the classroom that has something familiar and something strange for each of them, something to reach for, something to strive for, and something that they know and understand because it's part of their lives. I think that we can do this. I think it's hard work. I think it requires smaller schools and smaller classrooms. I think it requires nodding at teachers as the professionals they really are, the intellectual workers that they really are, and assuming that the work you do is intellectual and ethical work and we ought to respect it on those grounds.
CM: That's fantastic here on our part because our current grading system actually is portfolios.
WA: In the portfolio I was describing, there was also a record of your community service, a record of your internship. In other words, you can expand this idea to go in all kinds of places, but the school that I'm referring to, in order to graduate, you had to defend your portfolio in front of a committee. I don't know if you guys do that, but it felt like going to Oxford University and getting a PhD. You had to sit there. You had 12 items in your portfolio. Your portfolio is all developed over four years, and you're sitting in front of two peers, a parent or caregiver, one of your parents or caregivers, a community member, a teacher that you select, and your advisor. Six people are sitting there like a doctoral dissertation defense, and you're defending your portfolio to a group that's going to ask you questions. What a brilliant way to go through education. What a brilliant way to think of yourself as a thoughtful, working, hardworking, energetic young person launching into the adult world. I love that.
CM: Yeah. I really like that idea as well. It's similar to what we have that we're building it into. Right now, we have a senior capstone, which is like an internship slash community service thing that's half of the day that you just choose what you want to do, and then that's defended to community members, parent members, teacher, et cetera. I don't know if you've heard of the mastery transcript, but that's something that we are building our portfolio system into. The mastery transcript is based out of an area near Cleveland, and what they're working to do is it's like a portfolio that's standardized enough that a college admissions counselor could read and understand and throw out the traditional high school transcript, so there's no grades. It's literally just a collection of your work, kind of what you're describing. Basically, their organization would be able to go to different colleges and train people, here's what it is, and here's how you read it.
WA: But of course, that to me is a good idea. We have to always remember that college is not the next step for many, many people. So whatever the next step is, we want to, in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, understand that education's goal is not to make a man a carpenter, it's to make a carpenter a man. We have to focus on the humanizing aspects of education, and that means that this portfolio is good, whether you're going to junior college or community school or whether you're going into the military, this is a good thing. You are an intellectual, you are an energetic person, you have goals, you have thoughts, you're reading books, you're part of the culture. Every kid needs that and every kid deserves it, whether they're college-bound or not.
CM: You're spurring on a discussion, which I think is really interesting, surrounding what's possible in a virtual learning environment that was not necessarily possible in the classroom. And just real quick, there's a really fascinating thing I see happening right now with our virtual classrooms where students can actually be more purposeful with their actions. As in, I can only supply so much to 25 to 30 students in a small classroom day to day in terms of co-creating the curriculum and personalized learning and all these things that I think are vastly important. And something that we've been dabbling in is like three days plus of purpose finding.
WA: I think, again, what's interesting is that this crisis is forcing us to expand our thinking about what's possible. I get nervous when people like Arnie Duncan get rhapsodic about distant learning as a way of the future. I don't buy that. But the way you're talking about it makes a whole lot of sense to me. That is purpose finding. What a great kind of way of thinking about it. There's a school in Rhode Island where every kid has an advisor, comes in as a freshman and has an advisor. And the key work goes on in the advisory. And among the things the kids do is they spend a lot of time figuring out what they want to do over the next four years. They spend a lot of time early on with an advisor in a small peer group. And one kid wants to be a chef, thinks he wants to work in a restaurant. They find ways for that kid to be an apprentice in a restaurant. They find that kid becomes a sous chef in another restaurant. That kid studies the business of restauranting and so on. Another kid wants to be a rap star. And that kid spends time in a recording studio working on the technical aspects of it, then taking some classes from a junior college in math and so on. But what a great thing. At the end of four years, if it had been my kid, one of my kids, the only reason my son Malik, who's now been a science math teacher in Oakland for 15 years. But when he was a kid, he wouldn't have gone to school, I mean, if it weren't for baseball. And he wouldn't have learned how to read if it weren't for the sports section. And he wouldn't have learned how to do math except for the statistics of baseball. The kid became very, very smart, but his focus was baseball. So what? Why is that a problem for anybody? Why shouldn't we allow that to be the motivator for this particular kid finding his purpose? I love that searching for purpose element of what you're doing. I think it's really smart.
CM: Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.