BOOK EXCERPT: First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk by Steve Nelson

Author: Steve Nelson
Garn Press (264 pp.)
$24.95 hardcover, $17.95 paperback, $9.99 e-book
ISBN: 978-1-942146-48-3
Paperback & Hardcover Available: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound (local bookstore)
eBook Available: Amazon

First Do No Harm: Progressive Education In A Time Of Existential Risk

First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk develops a comprehensive argument for the importance of progressive education in light of the world’s increasingly severe challenges. Current educational practices, particularly in the United States, instill conformity and compliance at a time when authority must be challenged, skepticism must thrive and our students must be imaginative, creative, empathic and passionately alive.

Steve Nelson traces the origins of progressive education and cites the rich history and inarguable science behind progressive practices.  He argues that a traditional or conventional approach to education has dominated as a matter of political expediency, not good practice, and he provides an unsparing critique of current policy and practice, particularly the excesses of contemporary education reform.

Using anecdotes from his many years as an educational leader, he makes the case in an engaging, colorful and accessible style. In the final chapter, Nelson offers a Bill of Educational Rights, hoping teachers, parents and all citizens will demand a more joyful, constructive and loving education for the children in their care.

Book Excerpt: Chapter Two “How Did We Get Here?”

Putting “public” and “charter” in the same basket is misleading. In major urban areas like New York City, Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta, there is a stark division between regular public schools and charter schools. Charter schools are “public” only in that they get public funding. They systematically evade public oversight and accountability.

Most teachers and administrators in non-charter public schools are resistant to increased pressure and testing. I’ve talked with hundreds of public school teachers and leaders who are terribly frustrated. They know better, but are hamstrung by the demands of public policy. Kids, schools and teachers are all under the gun to produce better test scores. They would rather not work this way, but they have no choice. Educational reformers blame this resistance on intransigent, self-protective teacher unions and incompetent teachers, but there is no evidence to support those assertions. Teachers and their unions are no better or worse than decades ago. Teachers toe the line out of necessity, teach to the test for survival, and push back against the toxic tide of reform to the extent possible.

In addition to dealing with testing and accountability pressure, public schools are drastically underfunded and under-equipped. Most schools are dependent on property tax revenues, and real estate values have declined in many communities. While the financial implications are complicated, the rise of charter schools has put additional pressure on regular public schools. Students take public school funding with them when they leave their district school to attend a charter school.

The chickens of this fiscal undermining are coming home to roost. In Michigan – Detroit most particularly – public education is essentially dead. [30] Charter operators control some 80% of schools and are sucking the thin lifeblood out of already fragile communities. [31] The movement to expand charters is relentless with many states seeking to raise existing caps.

By contrast, charter schools embrace the industrial model with aggressive zeal. Everything is standardized. Teachers are scripted and learn tricks to manage classrooms. Slogans, signage, uniforms, hand gestures, call-and-response cheers and other things encourage – or even demand – conformity. The assumption behind the methodology is that a tightly controlled system can produce results. Tweak it here, adjust it there, run the kids through it, and outcomes can be measured. It is not coincidental that many education reformers are economists, not educators.

These hyper-conventional schools also disproportionally rely on young, poorly prepared teachers, particularly Teach for America graduates. Charter schools have very high faculty attrition rates, making relationships with students tenuous and short-term. I suspect that most charter school operators don’t really care. Given the highly structured nature of many charter schools, the program can be implemented by almost any teacher willing to follow the script and work long hours. To stretch the industrial analogy, a teacher in this kind of system is like a worker on an assembly line. The parts, the order of assembly and the rate at which the line moves are all fixed. Parts and people are easily replaced.

Another disclaimer is necessary here. I truly admire the young teachers who are drawn to this work, often by a genuine desire to make a difference in children’s lives. The fact that I find the educational philosophy wanting is not an explicit or implicit criticism of these teachers. Although confined by the system in which they work, many of them are loving, sensitive folks who care deeply about the children in their schools.

I’ve argued all of this before, in blog posts and newspaper columns, and incurred the wrath of many education reformers. In one such instance, the education reformer was one among many investment bankers who serve on the boards of charters and charter organizations. The financial industry, along with philanthropists including Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family and others, are the prime movers behind this system. This particular charter leader was also a parent at Calhoun. Odd contrast that! One of my blog posts caught his attention and he met with me to, in his view, straighten out my misperceptions. We had a friendly conversation, during which I agreed to visit a charter school so that I might have first-hand experience rather than, as he saw it, crafting screeds from the comfort of my office.

I spent half a day at Harlem Success, the flagship school of Eva Moskowitz’s considerable and growing New York City charter franchise. Part of my visit was an hour-long conversation with Moskowitz. She was pleasant and unpretentious – qualities not usually associated with her public image. I also found that she knew quite a bit about education.

The environment was not completely joyless. It was colorful and clean. But as I observed classes and kids, the conformity seemed stifling. Kids in groups, sitting on the floor in perfect circles in their neat uniforms, were attentively watching their teachers, who frequently commanded them to keep “eyes on the teacher.” The students were not silent, but responses all came from very specific prompts requiring very specific answers. The teachers seemed to be following a very formal protocol. There were color-coded behavior charts on every classroom wall, where a child’s ability to behave (or not) was publicly displayed. A level of privilege, or withholding of privilege, was associated with the color of a child’s chart dots.

The New York Times published a video of a student being denigrated by a teacher in early 2016, inciting a flurry of criticism of Success Academies’ harsh discipline. But, as with most other exposures of these practices, the furor was quickly extinguished by a flood of well-orchestrated propaganda and denial.

These kinds of charter schools are a junior size version of what I encountered in U.S. Army Officer Candidate School in 1967. Uniforms, walking silently in lines, judgment by test score, slogans on banners, catchy phrases to be repeated – all of these things extinguish individuality and reward unquestioning compliance. Education reform wants children to be good little soldiers.

Harlem Success, KIPP, Democracy Prep and other charter schools also feel children should pull mighty hard on their bootstraps. School hours are longer, Saturday classes are frequent expectations and school years are longer. Given the widely reported attrition rates, these schools’ slogan might be, “Comply or Goodbye!”

I don’t mean to unconditionally defend public schools and vilify charters. The charter movement, long before corporatization and standardization, arose because much of urban public education needed a good kick in the behind. There are remarkable charter schools rising from neighborhoods by parent initiative or founded by real visionaries. Many of these schools are quite progressive. But that initial impetus has been co-opted by charter chains and educational management organizations. These charter schools are the starkest examples of an industrial, standardized approach to education.

America has largely abandoned urban neighborhoods of color and these young children are paying the price for our neglect, either languishing in decaying, bleak public schools, or being trained in charter schools that resemble military academies.

The negative consequences of these approaches to education don’t affect only children in the most and least privileged communities and schools. The policies and practices I’ve summarized have affected all schools, public and private, across America.

First Do No Harm: Progressive Education In A Time Of Existential Risk

The majority of Americans attends, or attended, schools that are far from the barbell ends of privilege, ordinary schools in middle or working class communities – rural, suburban or urban. These schools, whether in Dallas or Des Moines, have been virtually indistinguishable throughout my lifetime. They all used the same or similar textbooks, the same or similar curricula and teaching. Some kids worked hard, got good grades and went to highly selective colleges. Many others muddled through, did well enough to go to a state school, community college or trade school. Others went from high school to work, in a local manufacturing facility or other business. Some joined the military or apprenticed in a trade. During my years in Ohio, Michigan, Vermont and New York, no one thought twice about any of this. It was just how things worked. I suspect this is still the case in many places around the nation.

I don’t write with nostalgic intent. The conventional education provided in such schools wasn’t ever particularly good. Some kids navigate this tedium more successfully than others, making schools sifters, where certain kinds of intelligence and temperament are rewarded and other kids are just not considered “college material.” That unenlightened understanding of education has been the default approach for generations, and it has shortchanged a great many kids who are intelligent in different ways or don’t succumb easily to dreary school routines. But that’s nothing new.

The more recent intense focus on the most and least privileged schools and kids has negative consequences on education for all kids, not just those at the barbell ends.

The frantic chase for academic prestige, which produced Denise Pope’s “Doing School” phenomenon and other toxic fumes in the most privileged schools, has polluted schools everywhere. In typical high schools, like those described above, the currency of “success” now includes the Advanced Placement curriculum, an increasing emphasis on GPA, and a competitive culture that drives more and more homework.

It wasn’t long ago that only a few kids in places like rural Michigan ever gave a thought to Harvard, Yale or Princeton. Now, with US News Report rankings and other cultural pressure to achieve at the highest levels, millions more kids are in the rat race. This is a major cause of the dramatically increased numbers of applicants at the most selective colleges and universities.

It leads to the misperception that college admission is a rare prize, and that stress, competition, AP courses and perfect grades are the only avenue to success. But that is just not true. As has been widely documented, there is no shortage of places for students who aspire to college. An article in The Atlantic in April 2014 [32] reported that the number of college slots has increased and that the number of high school seniors is shrinking (slightly and temporarily). The prestige game is driving millions more American kids into thinking they’ve failed if they haven’t gotten into a highly selective school. On balance it is no harder to get into a good college now than it was in 1992. It is just a whole lot harder to get into the most selective colleges, and these colleges have been complicit in making a whole lot of kids work a whole lot harder for a goal that is neither important nor attainable.

The collateral damage from the chase for glory in privileged communities is bad, but the political hand wringing over low achievement in poor urban schools has wreaked far more havoc. The concern over a small number of so-called failing schools has unleashed a torrent of really bad policy and practice that is washing over schools everywhere. Education reform is like trying to put out a fire in the closet by turning the hoses on the whole darned house. Which would be bad enough, but education reform policies are pouring gasoline, not water, on the fire.

My daughter is a wonderful teacher, trained in the Steiner (Waldorf) philosophy. For more than a dozen years she worked in several progressive Waldorf schools, engaging children in play-based activities, rich in the arts and lively, creative experiences, and all the other things a good progressive education provides. Then, in fall of 2014, she began work at a semi-rural public school in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. There, she encountered the slightly diluted, but still pointless, expectations of educational reform. I recently had a conversation with her in which she described, with real frustration, the automated assessment system the State of Vermont imposed on her pre-school. Several times a year she has to assess each of her students on 52 separate variables that supposedly represent important academic benchmarks for 4 year-old children.

Because real 4 year-olds are all over the developmental map, these benchmarks are meaningless, but she nonetheless must go through the exercise. And here’s the real kicker – even the kindergarten teachers to whom the kids will be entrusted next do not review the assessments. The assessments are dumped into a massive database, never to be seen again. The hours wasted on this exercise are hours taken from real engagement with the kids, or from my daughter’s time with her own child! She teaches pre-school, so the impact is less severe than on teachers of older kids. At least her job and school funding are not dependent on producing higher “letter recognition scores.” The superintendent and principal clearly hired her because of her more progressive sensibilities. But she and they must work around the requirements of federal and state policy in order to do the work they love.

The expectations and requirements emanating from No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core and Every Child Succeeds Act are making life more difficult for teachers all around America – for absolutely no reason. Their schools are not failing, their students are doing no worse (or better) than they’ve ever done before, their communities aren’t concerned about the schools, and yet the tentacles of mindless “reform” are strangling the life out of their schools.

The 2012 MetLife Survey of The American Teacher: Challenges for School Leadership report [33] shows that teacher morale is plummeting. In 2008, 62% of teachers reported being “satisfied” with their work. In 2012 that percentage shrank to 39%. This tragic fact is due to the policies and practices of educational reform and to the decreasing resources available to teachers. The extrinsic structures imposed on all public schools are the root cause of this demoralization. It is hard to imagine a scheme more dependent on extrinsic rewards and punishments than what is currently imposed on teachers.

Consider the intrinsic motivations that might lead a young woman or man into the teaching profession:

  • A desire to instill a love in learning in children;
  • Enjoying genuine, warm relationships with children;
  • A deep interest in a particular subject and a desire to impart that passion to students;
  • Wanting to help mold thoughtful, ethical citizens;
  • Learning things along with the students;
  • Helping each student to grow and thrive;
  • Enjoyment of being part of a profession where practitioners share values and sense of purpose.

I’m sure every teacher could add to this list.

Now consider the extrinsic factors embedded in current educational reform policies:

  • Preparing students to perform well on standardized tests;
  • Compensation that is contingent on students’ test performance;
  • Covering material that is provided, in most instances, by a third party;
  • Expecting all students to attend to and master the same material and skills, regardless of their own interests and abilities;
  • Doing these things as a condition of continued employment;
  • Enforcing disciplinary procedures that degrade the student/teacher relationship.
  • I’m sure every teacher could add to this list too.

As extrinsic rewards and punishments have become public policy, teachers’ intrinsic motivation is declining proportionally. Add to that the gratuitous teacher bashing that is part of the anti-union, anti-tenure, pro-charter movement and the result is driving many of the finest teachers in America out of the profession. Teaching requires sacrifice enough, without having the personal satisfactions taken away too.

The teachers most affected by this shift from intrinsic to extrinsic are those in charters and other public schools that increasingly employ young men and women, like Teach for America (TFA) graduates, who have been told that these extrinsic motivators are necessary and good for children – and for them as well. Many quickly realize that this is a false promise. The burnout rate for these young teachers is frightening. According to a January 2014 report [34] by the National Education Policy Center at the School of Education, University of Colorado, Boulder, more than 50% of TFA graduates quit after 2 years and more than 80% leave after 3 years. I believe this is largely due to the policies and practices that have imposed extrinsic rewards and punishments on them while inhibiting those things which are intrinsically motivating to good teachers.

This epidemic of plummeting morale is not confined to young TFA graduates. In the Washington, D.C. system, plagued by serial scandals, 70% of teachers leave by the 5th year. Education reform has made the profession an untenable life choice for many teachers.

The annual attrition rate for faculty at Calhoun, where progressive practices keep intrinsic motivation alive, is less than 4%. And virtually none of those leaving are leaving the profession. They leave for various reasons, but they usually continue to teach. Teacher satisfaction needn’t thrive only in explicitly progressive schools. Teachers in very conventional schools once had the autonomy to do many things that were essentially progressive – things like field trips, fun projects, musical theater, science experiments, debate classes, and other experiential, sensory-rich activities. Now, with the stringent, all-consuming expectations imposed by NCLB, RTTP and Common Core, good teachers simply don’t have the time or freedom to do such progressive things.

The financial ramifications of education reform are also damaging schools around the country. As mentioned previously, funding for public education has declined. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

States’ new budgets are providing less per-pupil funding for kindergarten through 12th grade than they did six years agooften far less. The reduced levels reflect not only the lingering effects of the 2007-09 recession but also continued austerity in many states; indeed, despite some improvements in overall state revenues, schools in around a third of states are entering the new school year with less state funding than they had last year. At a time when states and the nation are trying to produce workers with the skills to master new technologies and adapt to the complexities of a global economy, this decline in state educational investment is cause for concern. [35]

The phrase “trying to produce workers …” diminishes my enthusiasm for the Center’s point of view, but the facts are alarming nonetheless. The reasons for the decline are complex, including the “lingering effects of the recession” they cite. But this trend will continue despite the clear economic recovery. In part this is because the tide of “economic recovery” has floated all the luxury liners – but not so much the middle class rowboats.

First Do No Harm: Progressive Education In A Time Of Existential Risk

As mentioned earlier, most schools are still funded by a stagnant or shrinking property tax base. Finally, and although this is a relatively small factor, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of households in America with children under age 18 has been in steady decline, so too many of our citizens see education as someone else’s problem.

These economic factors are exacerbated by the constant political rhetoric, which is parroted by educational reformers and conservative commentators. These bullet points are all false, yet they control much of the public debate about education, resulting in a widespread belief that schools don’t really need more resources:

  • Money doesn’t fix education – we spend more than (choose your nation) and get worse results;
  • Class size doesn’t matter;
  • Teachers are overpaid and don’t even work all year;
  • Teachers unions are only interested in the status quo and ripping off the rest of us;

The reason that schools are bad is because parents are irresponsible – “It’s their problem. I’m not paying to raise their (usually black) kids.”

The fascination with economy of scale and the use of technology also contributes to the erosion of funding. If folks believe that technology can make education leaner and meaner, they certainly have a point. Schools have indeed gotten leaner and meaner.

Most of all, the rise of charter schools, the mirage of school “choice,” and the hundreds of millions spent by hedge funds and foundations to fund a very small percentage of America’s schools, create the illusion that we don’t need a strong base of public funding for the public school system. The strategy of reformers seems to be to starve public schools of the funding they need so that increasing numbers of families will flee to the charters and voucher-funded private schools.

Because of destructive testing practices and the erosion of public school funding, educational reform has made many public schools worse and is decimating the ranks of America’s professional teachers.

Early Book Reviews

“This is ultimately a hopeful book.  Steve spells out a vision of real education reform that we just might be ready for now. His Bill of Educational Rights, based on the best of what is known from science and theory about human development and children’s learning, should be our manifesto. All children deserve a progressive education, not just the privileged few. All children deserve an education that will enliven their lives with joy and possibility and help them contribute to the betterment of society and our planet.” – Matt Damon, Actor, Writer, Producer

“This optimistic, anecdotal book offers useful ideas for changes in education.” – KIRKUS REVIEWS

“Parents, teachers and those who support better educational opportunities for all of our children should start 2017 by reading Steve Nelson’s First Do No Harm, Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk. At the same time, the book should be a mandatory read for our elected and appointed officials, whose understanding of the benefits of true public education is needed now, more than ever. If they truly understand where we are, where we are headed and the alternative approach that would serve our country and its children, they would use First Do No Harm as a guidebook for their policy actions.” –  Jonathan Pelto

“Steve Nelson knows full well that freedom begins between the ears.  He negotiates this space with clarity, charm and precision.  Ultimately he shows the reader how a good education is the mirror image of a proper democracy.  For too long our systems of education have shrink-wrapped our imaginations.  Nelson successfully argues for a new way of thinking.” – Colum McCann, Author of Let the World Spin and National Book Award winner

“Nelson’s thesis: To nurture all children – rich or poor – to develop an intrinsic desire to learn life-long. His is an educational bill of rights I wish we could implement tomorrow. Written in direct, jargon-free style, and using his vast educational experience, Nelson makes a compelling case that much of current educational reform is wrong-headed, focusing as it does on ‘compliance and conformity.’ Until we encourage ‘skepticism and originality’ – gained via progressive education – students will not fulfil their ‘limitless potential.’ A great, thought-provoking read.” – Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., Unidel H. Rodney Sharp Professor, University of Delaware, Co-author with Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells us About Raising Successful Children

“Nelson combines experience, knowledge, wisdom and brilliant writing as he invites us into school the way it should be. Using progressive education as his platform, he demonstrates how education can nurture engaged and motivated children who actively discover their world and grow up to be good citizens. Sound like a pipe dream? Read on. This book is for parents and educators who know that schools can and must do better.” – Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, Temple University

“This powerful, entertaining book is both a beautifully-expressed explanation of progressive education and a searing indictment of contemporary education policy and practice. As an teacher, I appreciate the inspirational, good-humored tour of contemporary research and theory. As a parent and an activist, I appreciate the Bill of Education Rights, outlining what we should expect from our schools. As a citizen, I appreciate the clear vision for what education can be — humane, equitable, meaningful and joyful.” Amazon Review, Amazon.

First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk

Author: Steve Nelson
Garn Press (264 pp.)
$24.95 hardcover, $17.95 paperback, $9.99 e-book
ISBN: 978-1-942146-48-3
Paperback & Hardcover Available: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound (local bookstore)
eBook Available: Amazon

Ebook just $2.99 on Amazon when you purchase the print book, available through Amazon’s Kindle Matchbook Program.


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