Keeping the Faith—in Kids and in Schools
by Peter Gow, ICG Executive Director
(This post originally appeared in the ICG’s April 2017 newsletter; it has been edited and updated for this format.)
In a recent conversation with ICG Board member Sean Raymond of York School (CA), we got to talking about the ways in which so many forward-thinking educational practices seem to wind up being framed, at least by some or for a time, as conflicts, with brave little educators screwing up their courage to whip stones at giant, apparently impersonal organizations or systems.
Think of the schools that came together to form the proto-Independent Curriculum Group, huddling together for mutual support as they sought, in their view, to liberate themselves from the Advanced Placement program. Think of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, whose powerful and very affirmative official narrative is often re-cast, on a person-to-person level when people discuss it, as a little group of schools working against the monolithic “college admission industry.” Think of the narrative in public education around annual standardized testing, where opting out is so often read and presented as “resistance” (and where we tend to cheer for the “resisters”). Think of the last time you heard a school administrator complain about faculty members who impede change or a teacher complain about the administrators who want to make them change their ways.
There is logic to these ways of looking at things. Change is hard in education, whether on a school level or on an industry-wide one, and the stakes can feel enormously high. Change invariably involves risks that are themselves often perceived in stark, zero-sum kinds of terms, as in, “If we do that our kids won’t get into college any more.” Or, “If we don’t do that, the school down the street will, and they will steal away all of our students.” Or, “This thing they want me to do feels like it invalidates everything I have ever done before.”
As a deeply conflict-averse person who has probably lost more battles than I have even known I was supposed to fight, I try not to look at situations not from a David-and-Goliath or Good Guy–Bad Guy perspective.
Rather, I attempt to look at big ideas for change both pragmatically and idealistically, enumerating the interests and perspectives involved and then trying to put together a broader picture of how the ideas might make the experience of school better for kids. Back “in the day,” when I was an academic administrator and the designated change agent at a founding ICG school, I tried to make sure that we made our decisions, whether to move beyond our AP-designated courses or to tweak the schedule, not only with students in mind but in conformity with the stated mission and values of the institution.
This approach didn’t always yield complete or happy success, but it kept my attention, at least, on the goals and not the drama. Did I sometimes feel as though I were on someone’s enemies list, or could I have made one of my own? Sure, but I knew that wasn’t the point. And in the end, the school got things done.
When we sat down a little more than a year ago to create the ICG’s Principles of Independent Curriculum we tried very hard to frame these not as oppositional standards or as provocations—at least as provocations to anything more than deeper and more intentional thinking about the ways in which academic programs can meet the needs of kids and reflect the core aspirations of schools. We’ve been called out on aspects of the Principles a couple of times, and I’ve tried to make a point of explaining, not defending.
I mentioned that I am conflict-averse, and I imagine that plenty of us are in the education realm because we want to be positive and helpful rather than be at constant war with our nemeses and other enemies. I’d urge every reader to try to stay positive, and to take a look at the ICG’s Principles if you might be looking for positive ways of framing what seem like fraught and scary initiatives or ideas.
Of course there IS worthy conflict. We’ve just posted our latest episode of Independent Curriculum: The Podcast, in which arvind grover of our Partner Grace Church School in New York City explains what the “Anti-Racist School” might look like. I was humbled and inspired when arvind challenged me and the ICG as a whole to step up in our efforts to make our schools places in which justice and equity are built into the systems and infrastructure of the school and not just add-ons or programs we like to talk about. This is an area where the struggle against prevailing attitudes and entrenched systemic racism must, quite simply, go on and on.
Chances are you entered this world because you believe in kids and in the idea that schools should and can serve them well. Choose your battles, but above all, Keep the faith.
(Author’s note: When this appeared in our newsletter I was called out by one reader on the final sentiment being a “Hallmark-y and hollow reduction of what is needed to effect change.” Hallmark-y it may be, but recent events have had me working hard to hold onto Hallmark-y optimism. And in my work in and with schools, I wrote to this reader, I “have generally been on the lookout for the people of good will,” and “I find a lot of them, eager to change to do the right thing and to explore the better angels of their own and their schools’ natures and to work to make that happen”–even to work sincerely to fulfilling the best imperatives and implications of high-minded mission statements. So I stand by my words, and if nothing else I ask that readers spend some time examining the nature and boundaries of their own construction of the “faith.” It can’t do anything but good, I think.)