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Posted: 11:06 p.m. Sunday, May 11, 2014

A plea to put creativity back in American education. But was it there in the first place? 

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Northview High School students work on a honors literature project in the hallway. Students at the school are given freedom to work on lessons and projects outside the classroom in the Duluth school, which was listed as the highest ranked metro Atlanta high school in the year's state report card. BRANT SANDERLIN /BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

By Maureen Downey

Bob Fecho, a University of Georgia professor in the Language and Literacy Education Department, and Stephanie Jones, a UGA associate professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice,  sent me a passionate piece about the standardization of education and the need to restore creativity to the classroom.

When you read it, I want you to keep a few questions in mind:

Was school ever an effervescent hub of creativity? Schools seem far more open to creative teaching and learning today. A generation ago, few schools featured hands-on or expeditionary learning. Schools expected kids to sit in their seats and listen to teachers talking and talking. If parents walked into a classroom then and saw kids talking in small groups or out of their seats, they would have assumed the teacher was absent or incompetent. Today’s classrooms are much livelier places with multiple activities, many of which are student-led.

The authors lament the increasing federal role in schools, but I have to make an observation about the accountability provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act. They made everyone – teachers, principals, superintendents – care about the kids in the back of the room who used to be allowed to sleep, daydream or draw on the desk. When I go into schools today, I see an effort to engage every student.  (Whether those efforts have been successful is another matter.)

A retired and much venerated high school math teacher told me recently she’d never be considered a top teacher today because she admitted and accepted there were disaffected students she’d never reach. And no one expected her to reach them. With abysmal math skills and no motivation to improve them, those teens were seen as lost causes. Now, she says young teachers lose sleep over how to get Jordan to understand non-constant single-variable polynomials.

With those questions in mind, here is the piece by the UGA professors:

By Bob Fecho and Stephanie Jones

“When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school,” famously kicks off Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome.” As damning as that line might be regarding the influence of school on learners, it’s the line that immediately follows that is the killer: “It’s a wonder I can think at all.” A few years later, Billy Joel wrote about the Pennsylvania city “Allentown” where the “Graduations hang on the wall/Although they never really helped us at all.” Importantly, he continued, “They never taught us what was real.”

But it isn’t just old white guys lamenting bygone school days. To no great surprise, hip hop lyrics brim over with assertions that school is a waste of time. KRS One in “You Must Learn” raps, “What do you mean when you say I'm rebellious/'Cause I don't accept everything that you're telling us.”

Before we go much further, we need to say that we are advocates for schools in general and public schools in particular. We have both taught in urban districts, are currently teacher educators, and collectively have over 55 years experience supporting teachers, students, and other educational stakeholders. We care deeply about schools as places where students and teachers have the right to cultivate creative ways of being in the world. That noted, we are not advocates for educational reforms that have historically made, and continue to make, schools a place where creativity goes to die.

Let’s put a few puzzle pieces together. Despite a slow but steady climb in U.S. graduation rates, nearly one out of four students nationwide leaves high school without a diploma. Those same rates for African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans living around the poverty level depressingly lag behind that of middle-class white students, with the rate for Native Americans hovering around 50 percent.

A classic study from the 1990s by CUNY social psychologist Michelle Fine reframed our collective vision of dropouts. Her work indicated that, unlike the stereotype of dropouts as learners unable to keep up academically, many students drop out because school fails to stimulate their intellect or relate to their needs.

More recently, studies by Rebecca Landis and Amy Reschly at the University of Georgia indicate that the lack of engagement in meaningful learning accounts for underachieving by gifted students. Teachers, in turn, suffer from lack of engagement as well. Another classic study from the 90s, this one by Margaret LeCompte and Anthony Dworkin, suggested that teachers burning out and students dropping out stem from similar sources of alienation: the institution of school.

A 2012 MetLife “Survey of the American Teacher” indicated that job satisfaction among teachers was the lowest it had been in two decades and that a growing number of teachers were planning to leave the profession. A study released in 2014 by Gallup revealed that 70 percent of the 7,200 teachers surveyed were not enthusiastic about their job and 1 in 8 was dissatisfied with working conditions.

Studies by Richard Ingersoll and colleagues argue that the alarming rates of teacher attrition among early career teachers — between 40 and 50 percent — are most frequently caused by job dissatisfaction. Factors contributing to dissatisfaction are combinations of low pay, lack of support, student discipline problems, and lack of influence.

Too frequently, creative teachers, if they stay in teaching, often abandon urban schools in poor neighborhoods. These schools are sites where more than a decade’s worth of federal restrictions have diminished autonomy and heightened scrutiny to ensure teachers’ “fidelity” to “deliver” one-size-fits-all curriculum and pedagogy.

Students most vulnerable to society’s already excruciating inequalities and needing high-quality creative educational engagement at schools end up on the losing side again. What the puzzle pieces reveal is that school has become — or, sadly, continued with intensification — a space of stultification.

Too many classrooms offer too few opportunities for imagination, innovation, engagement, and stimulation. Even if students and teachers don’t drop out physically, they frequently stay in school only to get the credentials or salary, and not the intellectual enrichment. Some argue that formal education has to be boring for the masses (picture filling in bubbles) since the masses will be slotted into (presumably) boring jobs awaiting them in cubicles, at cash registers, behind their computer screens, or doing repetitive tasks and carrying out orders where efficiency or fidelity could be at risk if creativity is exercised.

Let’s suspend hope and assume this is true for a moment – that the ways many youth will earn a living in the future are in jobs where creativity is frowned upon. Even if that would be the case, everyone deserves the basic right to a creative life, regardless if she or he doesn’t get paid for the creative efforts.

Music, dance, drawing, theatre, prose, poetry, construction, puzzles, sports, inventing, wood-working, gardening, performing, spoken word, gaming, and all the other modes of divergent thinking and doing in the world make life worth living. Not to mention that such divergent ways of thinking and being might get us past viewing the workday as the only thing that matters and schools as places that, in Lupe Fiasco’s words, “keep you at the bottom but tease you with the uppercrust.” Will schools and educators risk fidelity and efficiency to take up Sam Cooke’s exhortation that “a change is gonna come.”

Or will they stick to the program and be “another brick in the wall” for yet another stymied generation that will reflect their dehumanizing experiences back to us through art?

Like the Dixie Chicks sang, we’re “not ready to make nice” with our educational institutions where creativity goes to die, and we imagine a lot of youth, teachers, and parents out there are singing the same song.

We’ve heard some of the refrains lately: opting out of standardized tests, refusing testing, holding teach-ins, resisting the Common Core, challenging the national push to standardize teacher education, demanding more physical activity and outdoor time during school hours, questioning the role of police in schools, and criticizing budget decisions that reward corporate giants and punish teachers and students.

 Indeed, as Tracy Chapman would say, “it sounds like a whisper,” but “they’re talking about a revolution.”

A major backlash to the most recent decade’s attempts to standardize humans and the human processes of teaching, learning, making and doing is emerging. And we imagine these innovative efforts will be borne out of attempts to kill the creativity of students and teachers as they “get up, stand up” for their rights.

Maureen Downey

About Maureen Downey

Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for 12 years.

Connect with Maureen Downey on:FacebookTwitter

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