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School “urgency” and the loss of the human dimension

Sarah Fine is a former teacher and a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her work has appeared in Education Week, Teacher Magazine, and the Washington Post.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to visit a well-known charter school in a major city on the eastern seaboard. The school, which largely serves minority students living in poverty, exemplifies what has been dubbed the “no excuses” model: Students are required to wear uniforms, adhere to a strict code of behavior, and remain in school long past the two o’clock bell. The school proudly advertises its unrelenting focus on the twin goals of character education and college readiness, and in recent years almost 90 percent of its students have passed state tests in reading and math.

As I had expected, the school was a bastion of order and, in some senses, of learning. Classes were focused and goal-oriented. Teachers appeared to be genuinely invested in their students’ progress. Students moved through the halls without clamor. And yet, as I moved from classroom to classroom, I began to notice a curious pattern.

The teachers seemed stiff and preoccupied; they rushed through the material even when it was apparent that the students had more questions or needed more time. The students, for their part, were compliant but uncharacteristically solemn. The whole school seemed to be held captive by the kind of energy that I associate with the moments before a major exam: Formal, anxious, and subdued. When I asked one tenth-grade girl how she felt about the school, she told me, “The teachers are always stressing out and it’s like they put that stress on us… I guess it’s good ’cause we’ll be ready for college, but it’s just like work, work, work all the time here.”

Within this grim and filmy atmosphere were moments of minor but real disrespect. In one seventh-grade English class a gangly boy came bounding into the room with a joyous whoop; his teacher told him to “Get out and try again.” The next period, in an eight-grade history class next door, I watched as a student entered the room only to have his teacher level a brusque and critical “Tuck your shirt in” in his direction. Neither teacher thought to address their “problem” students by name before correcting their behavior. They were too concerned with starting their lessons on time, and with the gravity of the task at hand.

These interactions were disturbing not because they indicated character flaws on the part of the teachers (which they didn’t), and not because they seemed antithetical to the school’s emphasis on “character” (which they did), but rather because they were deeply familiar.

Over the last two years I have visited public schools of many varieties, and many seem to share some level of this ruthless intensity around “on-task” and “forward-driving” work. In all of them I recognize the image of the achievement-hungry school where I spent four years teaching. There, the rhetoric of urgency and seriousness loomed above all of us like a shadow. On the one hand, it cast our practices in a new light, allowing us to become more focused and driven. On the other hand, it clouded our vision, making us feel desperate to make sure that we were meeting goals and closing gaps. It was all too easy sometimes to lose track of the human dimensions that underpin the best teaching and learning: Respect, dignity, curiosity.

All of this is cast into vivid relief by an urban project-based charter school where I spent six weeks last spring. In many ways, High Tech High in San Diego is like the first one I described: it is racially and socioeconmically diverse; it does very well on conventional performance measures; and it places a heavy emphasis on college.

The first thing I noticed while observing at High Tech High, however, was how profoundly comfortable both the students and the adults appeared to be. They co-inhabited the building with the easy ownership of being at home; work and play seemed to coexist without contradiction. Teachers, for their part, held their students accountable for high-level work but gave them real flexibility in terms of how they used their time. There was scant evidence of the uneasy micromanagement that characterizes so many schools in this era, and the learning that took place seemed, as a result, more organic and authentic to everyone involved. When I asked students if they felt disrespected or overly pressured by the adults in the school, they invariably said no.

This is not to say High Tech High is perfect, or that project-based work might remedy the problems that I have described. I am all too aware that school culture is complex and contextual, and that successful models are difficult to replicate. Nevertheless, the contrast between the schools that I describe serves as a reminder that urgency, in the extreme, can be self-defeating.

As No Child Left Behind evolves into a more flexible and empowering model of accountability, schools should be intentional about reclaiming the human dimensions of their work. They should aspire to enact cultures of learning that are forward-driving but not relentless, insistent but not ruthless. They should remember that to be serious about the work does not always mean being serious, and to be urgent does not always mean to be hurried. Empathy, patience, and even playfulness might propel us father toward our goals than we can imagine.

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