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What’s Our Why? A Human-Value Judgement for Equity in Education

Presented by Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD, at the SGG Colloquium, November 13, 2023


PART ONE:  


This is Claude Monet (1840—1926). 



If you don’t know much about art, but you want to sound smart when someone asks you who your favorite artist is, just say Claude Monet—and then look knowingly into the eyes of your conversation partner…  


I respect Monet for his commitment to his craft. 


He was a man in touch with his purpose. He knew his Why?   


You can find Monet’s paintings everywhere….   


Among his many accolades and accomplishments, he is credited with authoring this painting, Sunrise (Impression) 1872, which is credited as officially starting the Impressionist movement—which was at the time, a radical departure from the conventions of the mainstream art world…. 



Sunrise will be traveling soon, but its permanent home is at the Marmottan Monet museum in Paris.  


A Monet painting is an experience in consciousness… 


Brilliant art, like brilliant teaching, reveals something to an observant audience about the human condition. There’s profound intentionality in a Monet painting. Every stroke of the brush, every drop of paint, every choice that goes into his paintings is a step in the direction of purpose.  


Monet was thoughtful. He had much to say about art, and he made art through many difficult circumstances: the death of his wife, frequent debt, and severe financial troubles… even the loss of sight… Imagine? The painter who isn’t able to see clearly. What can be more challenging than that?


And yet, what did Monet do? He doubled down on his Why? He devoted himself to paintings that captured the essence of meditative moments in the peaceful presence of water lilies.  


It’s common now for us to think of Monet and his water lily installations like the ones at MoMA in New York City and at the Musee Orangerie in Paris—but this was so radical that when first revealed to the art world, Monet’s mental wellbeing was questioned by both critics and peers alike. 



I am deeply appreciative of Monet’s convictions because… as it turns out… he provides a model for the empowering possibilities of artful thinking. His agency and inner freedom are an inspiration.  


I am no Monet. I’m a teacher and a wannabe social scientist. But I too like to think artfully about my craft—about our craft.


Also, I try to stay in my lane. I don’t want to be one of these goofy people who feels compelled to have an opinion about everything. Opinions can be attachments, and we suffer because of our attachments…


I think a lot about my “Why?”


My work is spreading the word about Equity among my people. I’m a teacher. And teachers are my people. I think that my strength in working with teachers is that we have lots of rich and real conversations about our craft.  


In July, my book, Brilliant Teaching: Using Culture and Artful Thinking to Close Equity Gaps, was released. It’s hard to not be attached to how a book is received in the world. I can’t imagine I am alone in this regard. But this book in particular, is special because it’s a love letter to my friend and mentor, Professor Charles A. Tesconi.  


I met Charlie 25 years ago when I was a graduate student at American University, and he was the dean of the School of Education. We hit it off right away. I loved to listen to his stories. He was the kind of person who could see and bring out the best in people. Have you ever known someone whose mere presence makes you want to show up as your most outstanding self? That was Charlie.  


His mind was dope. He could make arguments so elegantly. His primary academic and intellectual project was to explore the intersections of schools and society. In one conversation, he’d draw on references from Greek Philosophy to Political Science theory—


to literature,

to sports, 

to cooking, 

to relationships, 

to fatherhood, 

to race…  


Charlie was a professor and philosopher of education. He would, as he liked to say, profess and philosophize


Philosophizing is not an exercise in finding what is true or false. Philosophizing is a practice—a tool for processing that assists in understanding. One isn’t philosophizing if the attempt is to be right. That’s just being obnoxious.  Philosophizing is the conscious effort to make meaning out of some area of human activity. Philosophizing is a search for new experiences in understanding. Philosophizing is how we stay in touch with our Why?  


Among many things, Charlie taught me about Equity. I was a young teacher, and he encouraged me to apply the concept of Equity to my thinking about teaching and learning in the classroom. I would come to realize that he was one of the original, pre-internet, thought-leaders in developing the concept of Equity in Education. Many people have mentors, and many mentors are smart. My mentor was wise. I miss him.  


A lot of chapter two of Brilliant Teaching, “Defining Equity and the Problem of Fairness” is what Charlie wrote about and taught me. Chapter two is the soul of Brilliant Teaching. I open with a quote from Charlie from his book Schooling in America: A Social Philosophical Perspective (1975):  


"But what of public education? What rational prescriptions can be made for it during these times? How can the school fulfill its traditional socialization functions when the norms, values, attitudes, and convictions that have traditionally shaped these functions are often in conflict with, or at least out-of-joint with emerging beliefs and values, or are merely lacking in support owing to the fragmentation of experience? In short, where does the school find its values and locate authority for transmitting them and for constructing curricula in a time when just about everything appears to be relative and so transient?" (p.37) — Charles A. Tesconi



This book was published nearly 50 years ago in 1975, and it’s just as relevant now as it was then. Today, I want to build on some of Charlie’s thinking as I focus my comments on What’s Our Why? A Human-Value Judgement for Equity in Education  


Have you seen the viral video of the kid who yells out when entering the classroom “IT’S CHEM TIME, BABY!” That kid would be my favorite student of all time!



As a teacher, I looked forward to the first few minutes of every class. The sense of community is rich, there’s a vibe, I almost always hear some interesting conversation or kid gem.…  I especially enjoyed teaching writing and literature. I have fun teaching.  


To be a good teacher, it helps if you enjoy working with kids…. Every kiddo we’ve ever had in our classroom is a unique blend of talents, penchants, histories, tendencies, abilities, and dispositions.


And this is bringing me to my thesis:  


I don’t mean to be ridiculous in my reductiveness, nor would I want to be naive enough to flatten a complex matter into a simple statement of the problem… BUT standardized testing is kinda evil… and by that, I mean, oh yeah, for sure, it’s definitely evil. But I’m not going for pathos here. I’m actually trying not to sensationalize.  


Okay, so a better way, a more accurate way to say it is that standardized tests aren’t evil or even kinda evil, but the paradigm of standardized testing has had and is having an evil effect on the systems of education. Standardized testing was a means to an end. But the goal of standardization now has become an end in itself.  


I want to walk through an argument here:


The measure of standardized testing has become a monster, an invasive species that devastates the host environment re-centering all energy unto itself. With a goal of standardization, the overriding aim of the system is the minimization of variables and the elimination of the unexpected and unpredictable. The measure of standardized tests builds up and sustains pressures for standardization and sameness. The consequence being increased uniformity in curriculum and instruction.  


Standardization as a goal exercises a negative power to transform humans into test scores because it’s tests scores, and not humans, that have value to the system.


The humans in the system, and I’m generally focused on the human teachers and students—because teachers and students are most directly involved in the central transactions of teaching and learning. These human students, like the It’s chem-time-baby-kid are treated as standardized objects, not as unique human beings with unique needs. But the very fact of the uniqueness of students necessitates something beyond uniform approaches to our craft of teaching.  


The goal of standardization threatens the artistic sensibilities of the classroom, and artful thinking is essential if there is to be Equity in education because where a painter is an artist who creates on the medium of a canvas, a teacher is an artist who creates through the medium of experience.


And this is a BIG part of our Equity problem. Equity is at conceptual odds with the standardized testing paradigm.  


 

PART TWO:  


In Brilliant Teaching, I talk about Integrated Understandings and Specialistic Knowledge… 




An integrated understanding acknowledges the whole. An integrated understanding is useful and durable. An integrated understanding incorporates reason and affect. An integrated understanding is relevant within a range of schema and content areas. An integrated understanding connects, relates, and unifies concepts in various situations. An integrated understanding is performative and can be demonstrated by exploring, identifying, organizing, and synthesizing ideas and information to describe and solve problems. An integrated understanding is empowering because it is accessible through a range of cultural fluencies. An integrated understanding illustrates relationship with other specialistic parts of the whole. An integrated understanding expands self-knowledge. An integrated understanding clarifies one's mental models for solving problems. An integrated understanding is meaningful and provides traction for further understandings. An integrated understanding is life changing. (Stembridge, 2023, P123)


A point central to my claim is that integrated understandings are related to but qualitatively different from specialistic content knowledge; and further, integrated understandings are more consistent with the goals of Equity because they allow for students to better connect new knowledge with the concepts, fluencies, and understandings they bring with them into the classroom.  


To understand something isn’t merely to convincingly nod your head, or even to explain or apply. To understand something is to gather it in and call it yours. When we understand something, it becomes integrated into our person, our being… as in anything that we truly understand is integrated in the head and heart—both our feeling and reasoning capacities. The philosopher might say that once we understand something, our human experience is revised, updated—and we are not the same as we were before we understood.  


I’ll use these words interchangeably, human and person. A person is a human, and a human is a person. That which touches us personally, reaches our person or the deepest parts of our humanity. In this way, I can say that the role of the teacher is to encounter the person of the learner… to assist in the examination of the subject matter from the student’s own human perspective.  


Students want to be engaged. They want to feel their education, to be touched at a level of human sensitivity. A student with agency in their own learning is empowered to make sense of concepts and experiences in deciding what knowledge means and how it fits into a life being lived—in this place in this hour, by this human. An empowered learner is the only agent in the teaching-and-learning process who is in the position to convert knowledge into understanding….  


The thinking that happens in classrooms can be a joyful experience. The joy of learning is in the experience of personal discovery and meaning-making. Not only the discovery of some discreet knowing about the content. But also the discovery of the feelings about that knowing as it enters one’s life. Thinking leads to understandings, and understandings can be empowering. One can make a good life with the right understandings.


But the goals of standardization prefer compliance over agency. Our education systems are not designed to produce integrated understandings. Our education systems are designed to produce test scores. The standardized measures have hijacked the system.  


Through the artistry of teaching—Brilliant Teaching—our students must be brought into a personal encounter, an experience with their own learning, an experience in understanding. If an experience expands and intensifies the awareness of one’s place in a larger world, it is educational. If it doesn’t get personal, students can’t be certain whether the meanings of what they’ve learned are truly their own—or do they belong to the teacher? The school? Or the system? Without the agency to assemble meaning for oneself, to get a look at the subject through the conceptual prism in front of our own eyes, it’s not possible to see anything clearly—it’s not possible to understand.  


 

PART THREE:  


The problem we have now is the goal of standardization has created a culture in American public education which makes its own demands: efficient, empirical, replicable—sameness.  


Standardized tests have fed a kind of standardizing ideology, a compellingly supra-systemic way of thinking, a rationale grounded in a proposed paradigm for policy and pedagogy which penetrates deeply into the psychological and philosophical thought of the actors in education systems—the policy-making big shots in central offices, the building-level administrators in schools, and sadly, teachers and students too. No one is untouched by this monstrous influence. Many smart people have had their own moral persuasions mangled by standardization. It has twisted the ethical dimensions of education into a wicked distortion.  


Our school systems today deal heavy in hierarchy. If we’re being honest about it, most school systems operate like a beehive.  Superintendents have cabinets, and cabinet members oversee divisions, and divisions have departments, and departments have teams, and all of this hierarchy is supposed to support the central purpose of the education endeavor, teaching and learning.  


The worker-bee “individual” is subordinate to the needs of the system. And significantly, the systemic goal of standardization and the resulting division by specialization means that the worker-bee-individual need not hold an overall view of the system’s operations—it’s processes, goals, and such—in order for the system to meet its goals for standardization.  


Standardization as a goal for education encourages compartmentalization and specialization in curriculum and instruction. It defines the ways in which systems are structured from budgets to scheduling to hiring to contract negotiations.  


Standardization depends upon the quantification and abstraction of institutions, processes, and persons.


Standardizing-systems create norms that correspond to habits in individuals. These norms that become habits manifest ego-involved attitudes, and these attitudes bear nasty fruit:


Turf issues. 

Alienation. 

Repression. 

Fear. 

Isolation. 

Anxiety. 

Noninvolvement. 

Loss of self-esteem. 

Lack of personal responsibility. 

Dehumanization.  


Systems established by the goals of standardization, expressly or by the subtle and yet powerful homogenizing influences of policies emphasizing uniformity, have a dramatic effect on classroom teaching and learning. How could it not?  Pedagogically, the goal of standardization disincentivizes brilliant teaching. It represses the art making impulse.


The goals of standardization limit the opportunities to be responsive to students in the interest of pacing guides and following curriculum “with fidelity.” But “with integrity” is greater than “with fidelity.”  


The same systems whose leaders proclaim that relationships are essential for culturally responsive teaching—I agree, by the way—invest huge sums toward the purchase of standardized, one-size-fits-all, curriculum programs… in the name of Equity, mind you! But a standardized curriculum, if it is to presume the standardization of learning outcomes given implementation “with fidelity” is also an effort to standardize relationships in such a way that individuals are interchangeable. Even if the pre-packaged curriculum is put together by the smartest, most wonderful, and compassionate educators on the planet, it’s still a resource—not a sacred text. A resource developed by people who may be content experts, but they do not know your students.  No curriculum should be followed with fidelity because our goal isn’t to teach the curriculum. Our goal is to teach students.  


This kind of “commodity-exchange” view of teaching and learning emphasizing the interchangeability of individuals and a system free of dependence upon personal qualities—human qualities—all of this contributes to the increased sense of disempowerment and lost self-esteem that we are sadly all too familiar with in too many of our students and teacher-colleagues.


Standardization as a goal bullies the core values and philosophical foundations of teaching that emphasize and align with culturally responsive or equitable or art making practices. The standardized testing paradigm that compels standardization as a goal for outcomes and by extension, as a goal for schooling, is the biggest enemy to Equity currently in American public education.  


This definition for Equity in Education is at least a half-century old: 


Equity in education is the policy and practice directive to provide quality and effective learning opportunities so that background and identity are neither correlative nor predictive of student performance and/or achievement outcomes. (Stembridge, 2023, P38)


The goals of Equity are not the same as the goals for standardization. The systemic push compelled by an assessment paradigm dominated by standardized testing reduces human students and their teachers to automatons, quantifiable objects whose primary utility is the attainment of some abstract, predefined system goal. The worth of a human isn’t equal to a test score, and the value of an education can’t be solely quantified by any standardized measure. “The highest function of education is to bring about individuals who are capable of integrated thinking and thus dealing with life as a whole.” (Stembridge, 2023, P124) A quality, integrated understanding enhances one’s human qualities which has far greater exchange value for our students’ lives than anything represented by a test score.  


Standardization is not only NOT Equity, standardization is the worst kind of equality. Back when I was a graduate student, eager to soak up the wisdom of my teacher and mentor, Charlie was telling us, his students, of the dangers of the misappropriation of equality as a goal for education. In a policy and practice environment where standardization is the goal, the idea of equality doesn’t mean that “all persons are created equal” as much as it now means in function that all students are prescribed the same fundamental treatment as nameless, faceless, abstractions. In terms of standardization, equality is synonymous to interchangeability and is the very negation of our humanity.  


Algorithmic approaches to pedagogy are not equitable. To remove the agency of the teacher in crafting experiences that fit the immediate context is no pedagogical advancement. The goals of standardization are equal to indifference; and indeed, indifference is what unfortunately characterizes many of our most vulnerable students’ relationship to school.  


 

PART FOUR:  


Charlie wrote about the value of an education in our society. Actually, he argued that “we do not value education in this country; rather, we value what an education can purchase.” And to some extent, I’m actually okay with that. As long as we’re reminded that there’s a human-value judgment that also matters.  


Our students are not commodities. An education that doesn’t consider students’ humanity, is by definition, inhumane schooling. The humanity of our students can’t be standardized. Just like your own children and mine, they are something much more than an easily quantifiable bundle of marketable skills that can be exchanged for goods and services.  


I’m still holding on to the hope that an education is useful in the acquisition of understandings… understandings that empower one to make a good life—because each and every kiddo is entitled to an education that directs them toward their Why?  


Brilliant Teaching is responsive teaching. Brilliant Teaching artfully cultivates the agency and empowered inner freedom that justifies engagement in reading, writing, math, science, art, physical education, history and social studies, and just about any specialistic content area we currently teach in schools.  


The goals of standardization view this kind of teaching as wasteful and impractical. It would rather scripts and pacing guides. The goals of standardization assassinate the character of artfulness. The goals of standardization handcuff the very people who are most equipped and best positioned to be responsive to students. The goals of standardization are not reconcilable with the Why? of Equity.  


This is Woman with a Parasol (Madame Monet and Her Son), 1875. It’s part of the permanent collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  



I admire this painting for its portrayal of mother and child, the shadows, the attention shared by painter and subjects, the folds of Madame Monet’s flowing dress. She seems to blend in among the clouds—we can only assume her feet are anchored to the earth. This painting says something about the nature of the relationship between the subjects. The depiction of human presence in the landscape isn’t merely what Monet sees but how he sees it. Monet interrogates the nature of the interaction, and the inexorable question of how these conditions can be stated in artful terms.


Like you, I care about the nature of the goals that influence the policy and practice environment of public education. We have to interrogate these goals in a serious and philosophizing way because these goals can normalize norms and habits, some productive and some imminently destructive, in our education systems.


What I appreciate about this Student Growth Goal convening is that this work is taking a human-value view with respect to planning instruction and assessment with students’ humanity in mind.  


If standardization is the goal of education, then there’s no need for student growth goals. The goal of student growth as you are defining it is aligned with the historical definition of Equity in Education. I encourage you to protect the spirit of this work. You’re asking the system to do something that’s hard… it might seem that standardizing is easier and thus better. They’ll ask you to simplify the methods, to manualize it, to make it teacher-proof. They will try to convince you to make copies. But you want classrooms to make art.  


The beauty of a masterpiece is that it confirms that it’s possible to make a masterpiece…. Our goal isn’t to replicate—not even the brilliance of a Monet. This isn’t a painting-by-numbers, pacing-guide kind of project. 

 




The quality of an education is determined by the function of the acquired skills, talents, and understandings. But I’m not talking about function in terms of credentials, job titles, and social status


The quality of an education is determined by the function that allows students to determine the purpose to which these skills and understandings are personally applied… the agency to determine by students the relative emphasis placed upon these skills, talents, and understandings in arriving at their Why?  


An education that is responsive and empowering produces students with the skills, talents, and integrated understandings to advance the human cause. Credentialing isn’t the exclusive or even primary value of an education.


The world has many good scientists, 

many good architects, 

many good consultants, 

many good organizers, managers, and coordinators.  


What the world needs now are more good humans.


Good luck, and thank you for your patient listening. 



 

Works Cited:


Stembridge, Adeyemi. Brilliant Teaching: Using Culture and Artful Thinking to Close Equity Gaps. John Wiley & Sons, 2023.


Tesconi, Charles A. "Schooling in America: A social philosophical perspective." (1975).


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