Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Today is a snow day at my school, and I’m happy about that because I like to think and write. I love my job, and I love being around kids, but a snow day gives me a chance to stop and wonder. There isn’t enough time for wondering when you’re working, unless you’re better at managing your time and energies than I am.

There is a lot of angst for a school leader when it comes to declaring a school day. I tend to watch closely what neighboring school districts do so that “we can all be wrong together,” as I like to say. And I watch the weather, of course, and I drive the roads. It’s “better safe than sorry” that often wins the day with me. One bus in the ditch on an icy day on which I didn’t cancel classes, and I have no choice but to blame myself for it.

I often think about school leaders in states to my north: Colorado, upstate New York. I suspect that if they saw the panicky skittishness of a Texas superintendent when the temperature is 25 degrees and there’s icy specks clicking against the windows, they might shake their heads and laugh. Sometimes we in Southern schools–just before we call for an early release to “get these buses off the roads before it gets worse”–will say things to one another like, “You know they wouldn’t call off school for this weather in Vermont.” It’s just something to say, and maybe that stuff doesn’t really come out of anyone’s mouth but my own, but I’ve said that who-knows-how-many-times. It’s a way, perhaps, of admitting our own limitations and maybe even probing the edges of those limitations, expressing a desire to better them, to expand our own possibilities.

It may not even be true, but I suspect Northern superintendents have a higher ice threshold than Southern superintendents. But it isn’t because they’re tougher than us or because they value classtime and learning more. It’s because–assuming that the suspicion is even true–they have more experience than we do dealing with the challenge. More experience plays out in a predictable way. More experience with a certain challenge results in more tools for moderating the impact of that challenge. I was in the New Mexico mountains one Spring Break and it was icy. My car slipped and slid, but the locals all had chains on their tires. Confession: I don’t even know how to put chains on my tires. Confession #2: I don’t even know where to buy chains for my tires.

So there’s a lesson in here, and it just happens to conform with my way of thinking about things in general. I was on Twitter last night (@johnkuhntx)–which I am on way too much in the evenings–and I watched some education pundits giddily trashing Sir Ken Robinson. The tweeters reminded me of that movie Mean Girls, but that’s mostly probably because I like Sir Ken Robinson. I chose not to weigh in because Twitter fights start but they never end–we all have to get the last word in, so they go on and on. Their issue with the famed TED talker was that, according to them, he deals in “pabulum.” My understanding of Robinson’s message is that he urges a less mechanistic approach to teaching and learning, and he advocates an embrace of creativity and a shunning of an overly prescriptive and exploration-limiting pedagogy.

That seems like a rich vein to me. “Pabulum” to me means that something is shallow, ill-considered, and airy or light on meaning. I don’t think the issues raised by Robinson qualify as “pabulum.” As a practicing educator, I see his concerns as valid.

Now, let me be generous, because I’m trying to coach myself to “assume good intentions” when I engage with other education thinkers. So, I think what these four guys were really decrying was the popularity of Ken’s message, and I think their worry–despite how they expressed it–was less that Ken peddles fluffy meaningless ideas, and more that we all who love his message might embrace some extreme version of it and wander far off into some kind of educational anarchy wherein learning standards and “the basics” are completely forgotten in our delirious dance with creativity.

I think these guys are trying to hold a line they value: the line of minimum learning and of “important stuff kids need to know.” The technical (and possibly trademarked) terms for this include “core knowledge,” “core curriculum,” and “cultural literacy.”

This is an important zone of investigation for me. This is where I lose the handle on whether I’m a progressive or a conservative. I personally think Ken Robinson (he of ‘more creativity and student-agency in schools’) and E.D. Hirsch (he of ‘a minimum body of learning that all successful Americans need to know’) are both correct. The angst of both sides is legitimate. Learning can be too unstructured, and learning can be too structured.

I read somewhere that one prominent education activist once embraced the concepts inherent in the unschooling movement, only to come to the conclusion that unschooling tends to work best with students who have had a certain level of academic support in the home. The upshot was that Sudbury-type schooling works pretty well for affluent children whose parents had them reading at a young age and whose basic aptitude equipped them for a schooling life of ideas exploration, but that students from a more deprived background don’t thrive in such an environment.

It isn’t that the poor can’t handle as much freedom as the rich. That’s an offensive concept. Rather, the issue as I see it is that children who come from something I’ll call “educative” homes–and these homes could be financially wealthy or impoverished–homes in which from a very young age the children have access to an open spigot of knowledge and are led to connect to and drink from that fount–are better equipped to make the most of their academic freedom. They would most likely find the absolute freedom of unschooling to be liberating and would pursue their interests with a voracious curiosity. resulting in deep and meaningful learning. These are the children for whom, like Bill Gates and Albert Einstein, traditional and restrictive schooling is a hindrance more than a help.

But students from less educationally-rich homes–which, again, could be financially well-off or financially poor–may well find unschooling to be an exercise in futility. These students may lack the basic foundational proficiency to be able to invest academic freedom in any kind of pursuit that would expand their horizons whatsoever.

All of us have limitations on our human agency, and those limitations are driven by our prior experience. If you put me and my dad in a room with a pen and paper and give us absolute freedom, I’m going to enjoy myself more than him and probably produce a better product. But if you put us in a room with a hammer and lumber, he’ll come out with a work of art and I’ll produce yet another monstrosity that will inspire great laughter from my wife. I’m not smarter than my dad, and he’s not smarter than me. We could each interpret these events to indicate our own general superiority if we were that insecure or disliked one another sufficiently, but we aren’t and we don’t, so we wouldn’t.

In other words, some of us are equipped to “drive on ice,” as it were, and some of us need to have a snow day when there’s ice on the asphalt. I believe that it is best that my friends and I in Texas call a snow day when it’s icy, even on a day when a school leader in Michigan would look outside and say, “School is so on.”

I believe that Sir Ken Robinson is right in sounding the alarm that too rigid of an educational approach threatens to harm kids’  agency and, in turn, their motivation, investment, and returns. This isn’t pabulum, and those who say it is are being quite one-sided in their thinking.

I believe that E.D. Hirsch is also right in sounding the alarm that too loose of an educational approach threatens to deprive kids of a solid foundation that should serve as a launching point for their own giddy exploration of this world we share. Those who reject any-and-all standards are, in my opinion, ignoring the beneficence of a certain level of imposed cultural fluency and general academic proficiency.

The question is how much freedom do we give the learner, and when does it start? The answer to me–as sleet ticks against my back window here in Texas–is that we must customize K-12 education to the individual.

1. First, establish the minimum knowledge and skills that we wish all kids to obtain–yes, I know that’s what the Common Core State Standards attempt to do, but to save them from destruction they must a) be put before the mass of learners and teachers in America for comment and validation, with a real opportunity to affect them (thereby not to remain something done to them by masters from other places), and b) they must be opened-up for state-by-state editorial input so that they truly become “state standards” and don’t remain politically toxic, probably illegal, and likely-to-ultimately-be-rejected “national standards.” (I’m not being a concern troll here. I’m trying to tell my pro-standards friends that federally-imposed standards will not survive. Certainly not in Texas, in the current political climate, anyway. And probably not anywhere where the federal government is distrusted–and the zones of distrust will shift constantly as the party-in-power in D.C. shifts. I have watched standards-wars for years at the Texas State Board of Education, and I don’t think the eager dismissers of CCSS concerns understand the virulence of the state-by-state fight-over-specific-aspects-of-these-standards that is ahead. The standards will not survive politics if they don’t get teachers on board–which will only happen if the teachers have a real voice–and give the states the right to tweak the standards to better fit their populations’ tastes and needs. My two cents.)

2. De-link these standards from grade levels and ages.

3. Cut down on standardized testing by rejecting the corrosive test-every-subject-every-year-for-compliance model.

4. Embrace the “Boss Level” model of testing. Have students test online, on no set schedule (completely de-linked from their age), when they and their teachers feel they have mastered the knowledge deemed necessary to advance from the Basic Facts and Skills level of American education to the Personal Relevance level of American education. Give teachers the autonomy to permit or not permit students to test based on their observations of student learning in their classrooms. Let teachers be the gatekeepers for the tests, and let the tests be the gate-keepers for student advancement.

5. After a student passes the first test, let them choose their path forward by embracing Career or College, and embarking on studies in that vein.

6. After engaging in Career preparatory or College preparatory studies, the students could then face their second (and final K-12) “Boss Level” test, and it would test either Career Readiness or College Readiness.

7. To prevent the “tracking” of students from minority and economically disadvantaged backgrounds into vocational fields and away from college, accountability could shift from a focus on test score disaggregation to a focus on program population disaggregation. How many poor students is your school getting to and past the College Prep test? This could be a value-added approach, wherein the school must strive for growth and gap-closing.

8. Such an approach maintains accountability for rigor (basic knowledge) while also inspiring accountability for relevance (student agency).

9. It is a wonderful ideal that all American students should take Algebra II and be prepared for college. It is also grossly unrealistic. Students who don’t want to go to college shouldn’t be forced to by adults, and students who already know they want to make a living working with their hands in fields that pay a decent wage shouldn’t have to fend off well-meaning educationists before finally embracing their desired future. If you’ve ever had a kid who badly wanted to be welder sitting in your Algebra II class because the state said he needed it even if he didn’t think he needed it, you know what it does to the depth and breadth of what you teach the entire class. Force-feeding rigor does little good for that student and does harm to all the other students. (We shouldn’t let them all eat ice cream at every meal, but we also can’t shove broccoli down everyone’s gullet.)

10. Students who choose the Career preparatory option should be rewarded if they choose to include college preparatory courses in their studies by being awarded an advanced credential–a “distinguished” career certification. When a would-be plumber “chooses” to be in Algebra II in pursuit of a better career-related, personally-relevant credential (rather than being forced by the state to take the class in order to merely graduate and advance in life), the teacher has some personal motivation on the part of the student to work with. To quote Robert Frost, this makes all the difference.

11. Within the College preparatory and Career preparatory courses of study, there should be variation in coursework for the students depending upon their self-identified areas of interest. Some may focus on STEM, others on humanities, others on business.

Well, there should be enough in here to irritate and tickle people on both sides of the reform wars. Full disclosure: I’m a K-12 educator, so I’m biased toward those who think there’s too much testing and the data is being abused and misused right now. So, you know, grain of salt or whatever.

Anyway, thanks for reading. Kids will be awake any minute now, and I’m sure we’re going to go outside and try to build a snowman out of ice pellets. Don’t laugh at us, though–we’re from Texas.

*This article is cross-posted at and The Connected Superintendent.

John Kuhn is a public school administrator in Texas and a vocal advocate for public education. His...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.