2006-10-27 / Columnists

It's My Turn

School Revolution, Not Reform
Commentary By Bernard Gassaway

Bernard Gassaway is the former principal of Beach Channel High School and a Deputy Superintendent in the New York City Schools. He often writes on school issues and has penned a book on his time in the city schools.

"We have locked doors, security officers, metal detectors, surveillance cameras; we follow a daily routine; we have limited bathroom privileges, limited dining options, limited programs, limited rights; we are voiceless; we are trained; we are tracked; we are profiled; we wear uniforms; we are classified; we are segregated according to classification; we carry I.D. cards; we are identified by number; we have gangs; we experience violence; we are assaulted; we are harassed; we are used for research studies; we are used to support large industries. Where are we-school or prison?"

A history of school reform in America has brought us to the point where there is little difference between schools and prisons both in conditions and operations. This is especially true of school systems that serve Black and poor children. Therefore, the only solution to our educational crisis is revolution, not reform.

A revolution is necessary because:

The history of public schools in America is rooted in classism, racism and sexism. Children of the rich and privileged have always received a different education. Nothing has changed over some 400 years in America. The rich, White and privileged receive one form of education, while the Black and poor receive another.

Public school systems fail because their design is fundamentally and morally flawed. It is unconscionable to have twenty to forty children in a class. It is unconscionable to teach children that they are inferior. This is achieved not only by what is taught, but also by what is not taught.

Public school children often receive an inferior education, particularly if they are Black or poor. One's education cannot be fulfilled if it does not include knowledge of self. Black people are all but ignored in literature and history courses that are taught in public schools-but for the month of February. Even when Black people are mentioned or shown, they are often depicted as inferior beings. This is as true today as it was pre-Emancipation Proclamation. Any system that fails to recognize the richness of the people it teaches is designed to perpetuate deprivation and dependency.

Public school systems are more about control and propaganda than about freedom and equality.

Analyze any public school curriculum and you will find sanitized versions of American history. The truth, harsh as it may be, has become irrelevant in public schools. This is largely driven by ignorance, politics and testing.

A revolution is necessary because an educational system rooted in imperialism and oppression will never educate the oppressed to be free. That would be antithetical to its design. What I propose would require an exodus from what we now know as the public school system. I realize that my recommendations will be difficult to implement and to accept, especially by those oppressed people who believe they have benefited greatly by the very system I wish to abolish. "Highly educated Negroes denounce persons who advocate for the Negro a sort of education different in some respects from that now given the white man." Carter G. Woodson (The Mis-Education of the Negro, 1933)

Revolutionary New School Design

Design learning environments as villages not cities. Each adult must care about and know every child. Once the number of children exceeds the capacity of the adults to know them by name and circumstance, the school has exceeded its capacity. No new schools should be built to serve more than 400. I have come to this number based on my nearly forty years of involvement in public education as a student, teacher and administrator. Furthermore, no school built in the twenty-first century should resemble schools built in the nineteenth century. The same can be said for some teaching methodologies; e.g., "talk and chalk."

Design learning environments that

Revive the art of thinking. Our children must exercise thinking just as they exercise their bodies. If the "thinking muscle" is not exercised, it will atrophy.

Emphasize what children can do rather than what they cannot do.

Ensure children have freedom over confinement. The current paradigm must shift from teacher-dominated to child-directed.

Eliminate standardized tests, frivolous homework, grades, report cards and curriculum. These are barriers to healthy learning experiences. Parents and teachers begin test prep as early as pre-K.

Promote discovery, creativity, exploration and fun.

Design learning environments that are dynamic rather than static or predictable. Eliminate fixed schedules.

Design learning environments that are safe but not restrictive. Children cannot learn if their spirits are held captive by fear, distrust and disrespect. Provide children with space to move about freely.

Design learning environments where children would be free from classism, racism and sexism.

Design learning environments where conversation replaces lecture. Children learn best when they are respected as beings rather than as objects to receive irrelevant and erroneous information.

Design learning environments where adults provide positive reinforcement and healthy relationships.

Design learning environments where adults are non-judgmental and open-minded about creative learning.

Design learning environments to accommodate children who learn differently and at different times. These environments would recognize that children have different learning styles and different biological clocks. As an adult I discovered I am a visual, kinesthetic and tactile learner, not auditory. I would have probably been an exceptional learner if I attended school from 3:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. rather than from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.

The only solution to our educational crisis is revolution, not reform.

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