Burning down the house: Rising from the ashes of NCLB

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

The Chinese have a great philosophy on crisis. The eastern vantage point sees crisis as Danger meets opportunity. For many educators, reformers and parents, the United State’s education system has been on the precipice of disaster for some time – considered by many to be a full-blown crisis. Since my visit to China several years ago, as part of a leadership exchange program between trepid nations, my personal approach to crisis has been drastically altered. Serving as an educator now for more than a decade, I’ve spent the past five years seeking out the opportunities clouded amidst the shadows of seemingly unyielding danger.

A quick reference through my blog catalog confirms where I’ve spent my time unearthing these hidden opportunities: Restorative Justice, PBL, Art Antidote, to name a few. Furthermore, I’ve pressed the need for education transformation rather than the archaic, profit-laden reform approach. This past summer I rolled the dice and wagered my professional career and family’s future on the lofty goals of a forward-thinking district led by an atypical superintendent, who positioned this school system more like an inspired start-up company than a stagnant corporate giant. Only a month into the 2016-2017 school year and we’ve already erected a symbolic statue of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) paradigm that has devastated curriculums across this great country of ours for the past two decades. This pyre of misaligned standards, hurtful protocols, over-testing and empathy-less remediation stands reminiscent to the towering Wooden Man effigy burned annually to represent radical self-expression.

Now it’s time to throw the match…

Breaking out of the industrial-age education model

How awesome is it to live in such an inspired technologically advanced time? Our devices update every six months (if not sooner), our children learn to swipe before they learn to crawl, and our ability to connect with one another has created a boundless classroom, where pen pals are now virtual classroom companions. Yet with so much #EdTech advancement, the most puzzling, if not scariest, irony is our unfathomable commitment to an industrial-age education model that has stood now for more than 100 years. Impossible to proclaim true change when our education model harkens class-based ideologies trumpeted as high as the Presidency:

“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” – Woodrow Wilson

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the parallels between this month’s Labor Day celebration, a national holiday commending the efforts of those who sacrificed in order to improve working conditions during the height of the – industrial revolution – in order to secure better working conditions, specifically for children, immigrants and the poor, and the educational uprising that seeks to eradicate a class-based education paradigm through progressive means. Of course these parallels and proclamations aren’t anything new, author Jonathan Kozol exposed the system and its origins almost 30 years ago in his riveting expose Savage Inequalities. Yet, here we are in 2016, embracing the advancements of augmented reality while operating within a paradigm designed for children who would once spend 12 hours a day working in ankle-deep waste.

Not on our watch…

Pulling the NCLB plug

NCLB and its emphasis on Big Brother-style accountability seemed to serve as a life-support system for the industrial-age education model, herding students based on achievement levels with an unwavering, merciless blind eye to socioeconomic status. Beyond the morality issues, NCLB forced an entire generation of students to continually confront their weaknesses, hammering on them daily, while outright ignoring their innate talents and passions. The result has been a joyless education experience that has left the idea of School Spirit on its proverbial deathbed, a purgatory of sorts where children dread school with physical manifestations such as increased violence, panic attacks and an alarming increase in truancy.

Time to inject Art back into education.

So, if breaking out of the industrial-age education model and deconstructing NCLB are WHAT we’re doing and we’ve discussed at length WHY we’re doing it, the next logical question is HOW? And the how, fellow educators, is what has me so inspired to serve in the Maury County Public School system!

Inspired PBL with project-enabled resources

At this point project-based learning (PBL) should be new to no one. This experiential learning model begins with a driving question and places students right where they belong — at the center of their own learning, while charging them with identifying, investigating and proposing theoretical or practical solutions to community and/or global problems. The issue up until now has been throwing teachers and building leaders directly onto the griddle, watching them squirm and side-step around this cutting-edge learning model due to inadequate training and limited resources. The result, naturally, was teachers and principals feeling like PBL was one more flavor-of-the-month or Edu Band-Aid, never giving it the proper attention or necessary implementation.

Enter Discovery Education: Maury County Public Schools has partnered with the global brand Discovery Education, leveraging their infinite PBL resources and tech-friendly web portals to give teachers a one-stop-shop when looking for inspiration, training, and 21st century resources. Unlike highly-publicized and contested partnerships (Pearson, anyone?), Discovery Education helps teachers pour into students’ strengths, while fostering a creator-mindset that looks to usurp the current consumer, rote knowledge landscape plaguing our young people.

The US’s first k-12 public school STEAM campus

Where PBL is an awesome experiential learning model, STEAM education is the universe it lives within. Think of it like Hulk romping around the Marvel universe. One of the biggest catastrophes of NCLB was the degradation of our Nation’s arts curriculum, relegating it to the doldrums of education’s hierarchy while eviscerating imperative human needs and traits like self-expression and empathy. The STEAM movement combats this education evil by embedding the arts across a much needed STEM curriculum, infusing visual and performing arts so that students can embrace their talents and passions while sharpening creativity and ingenuity.

Does your school provide 21st century access & opportunities?

I’ve been a STEAM advocate for the past two years and this passion has put me in a position where, coupled with a progressive school district and the forward-thinking non-profit Kids on Stage, we are creating the Nation’s very first k-12 public school STEAM campus. Imagine a world where students as young as three-years-old begin a life-long journey towards personal excellence through artistic expression with advanced STEM curriculum. Think Mechatronics meets AP Environmental Science and Concert Band, where amphibious drones collect Zika virus samples set to the tune of Jaws played by a live, student orchestra, or Construction students partnering with a songwriting class, researching, designing and constructing a tiny house while writing then recording an ode to country love songs titled I’m gonna build you a tiny house. Quickly you realize the infinite possibilities and equally infinite life-changing educational experiences – with students living and learning like this from three to 18-years-old. That, my fellow educators, is truly the future of education and the pure Phoenix rising out of the ashes of the industrial-age model.

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