Monday, April 20, 2009


As a teacher in an independent school with three children of my own in public school, I often find myself torn on several of the big issues facing ed policy.

I think of myself as having a wide view given my experiences with schools. I myself am a product of 12 years of Catholic school, mostly in Baltimore. My old high school was one of those old two-hundred year-old affairs sitting in what now is another West Baltimore war-zone. After high school, I did a stint at the commuter arm of the state university before hitting the road and dropping out to become an artist full-time. A few moves and a few adventures later, I was sitting in a classroom in Harvard Yard where I would earn a degree studying the Classics. Turning down the opportunity to become more completely obscured by academia, I made a subsequent move back home with my family, took a job at a big public high school on the volatile East side of Baltimore County and started a grad program at Hopkins. At JHU, I pursued an interest in GT education, observing and studying the Center for Talented Youth as I continued to struggle at finding my voice as a teacher at the big high school. When the opportunity arose to start my own Latin program at a Catholic independent school serving Harford County -- a northern Maryland county comprised in its lower part of Baltimore suburbs and in the upper half of vast tracts of rural horse country -- I jumped at the chance. I've been here ever since.

With my own kids, the decision was how best to give them the education they needed. Neither my wife nor I being of the wealthy variety, we decided to buy the most decrepit old house we could find in the county with the best public school system. And so we are constantly maintaining a house built in the year William Henry Harrison met his untimely demise a full hour's drive away from the school at which I work. When my son was diagnosed with dyslexia, however, I knew that we had made the right choice.

And so, life has offered me the opportunity to experience all kinds of schools from all sorts of different angles. And that brings me to the topic of this post.

In each of those situations -- the Catholic schools in Baltimore, the state university, the Ivy League, ed school and the CTY, the big public high school, the semi-rural independent school, and the Blue Ribbon public elementary -- I've found one common link that separates the good from the bad:


I can not tell you how important it was to me to get into a situation where I could design my own program. Since coming here to John Carroll, I've expanded a two-year Latin program to a four year program culminating in AP Vergil. I've started an AP Art History course and a program in Digital Audio Production. I've worked it so that there are no pre-requisites to get into the AP Art History course -- so students who otherwise might be denied based on academic record or writing ability can take (and succeed at) a college level course in high school. And, of course, I made all of my courses paperless. NONE of this would have happened without the trust of the administration and the autonomy I've been allowed in the classroom.

I know that this is not the experience of all teachers and I feel very fortunate to be in the situation I'm in. But at the same time, many teachers make presumptions about the differences between top-down and bottom-up systems that just aren't true. The most crucial mistake people make is to think that classroom autonomy makes it 'easier' to teach. While certainly I don't have the pressure of meeting state goals on bubble tests, or following someone else's curriculum, I do face a different sort of pressure: I am completely responsible for what goes on in my classroom. This is not to say that teachers in other situations are not responsible, rather what I am saying is that when things go wrong in my classroom there's no one else to blame. I can't blame the department. Can't blame the administration or the district. Can't blame the test. And I refuse to blame the kids. It's just me.

It's a very Meursault place to be.

But I would not rather be anywhere else.

Is it idealistic to want autonomy in every classroom? Absolutely. And that's exactly why I am advocating it over the suffocating and cynical approach of state-demanded testing and standardization. The last thing I want for my own children is for them to be 'standard'. We need a little idealism around here. I respect teachers as professionals and as visionaries and I'd rather them share their vision than teach my kids the proper way to use a number 2 pencil on a Scantron.

And that's why when I receive bulletins from my kids' school telling me that all next week they'll be 'preparing for testing', I get all shook up.

If there is one thing I would encourage in education, it's not technology for technology's sake. It's not content for content's sake. It's certainly not more testing. It's autonomy. Autonomy for all teachers, public or private. And with that autonomy should come responsibilities. Responsibilities to the students. Because effective teachers aren't teachers who make test scores go up; they are teachers who raise their students up.

So that the students can be autonomous.


  1. Remind me to empty the buckets collecting the rain water in the bathroom.

  2. Right after I climb up and patch the roof...


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