Deborah Kenny’s “Teacher Quality Manifesto”

Ask someone what’s wrong with education in our country, and you’ll hear dozens of answers. “Not enough money” usually tops the list, though governments have been throwing money at education for decades, with worsening results.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have made some noise about the amount of time spent in school. We rank behind a number of industrialized nations on math and science (the current holy grail of educational endeavors). The notion that US students won’t be able to “compete” against  the children of the world has captured the imaginations of numerous education reformers.

This idea has shaped recent educational policy response, shifting the focus to assessment (especially testing) and standards. The DoE has tied money to test performance, which significantly changes the educational game. It becomes not a human endeavor but a business endeavor, which fits perfectly with the “competition” quote above.

Deborah Kenny, CEO of Harlem Village Academies, identifies the industrial mindset of American education–and its effect on quality schools–as the problem. In A Teacher Quality Manifesto, she writes that creating a “culture of learning” has improved teacher performance as well as student performance. One of her most compelling statements comes near the end: “Schools need to elevate learning by creating a rich intellectual environment where teachers are treated as scholars and everyone is passionate about continually growing.”

That schools could be anything but an “intellectual environment” is pretty startling. After all, schools should instill in their students a love for learning, which will go with them long after the last bell rings. Such a love does not come from a lesson plan, or from a particular activity, though both certainly contribute. A love for learning can be cultivated by teachers (including parents) who love learning themselves, who model that love for the students they teach.

At my school, Dominion Classical Christian Academy, we talk about becoming a community of faith and learning. And Kenny is right; the teachers at my school have developed more of a love for learning as they’ve moved beyond the bureaucratic, industrial mindset toward a humane, liberal-education mindset. She’s also right when it comes to core values.

That same article also quotes Kenny’s core values for HVA students:

“I had five core things in mind for my kids, and that’s what I want for our students,” she said. “I wanted them to be wholesome in character. I wanted them to be compassionate and to see life as a responsibility to give something to the world. I wanted them to have a sophisticated intellect. I wanted them to be avid readers, the kind of person who always has trouble putting a book down. And I raised them to be independent thinkers, to lead reflective and meaningful lives.”

That sounds similar to Dominion’s mission statement:

Dominion Classical Christian Academy provides an education that cultivates wisdom, joyful learning, and love for God.

I’m grateful to be a part of what Dominion is doing. I’m eager to see what Dominion students will achieve. I’m most excited, however, to see the kind of people Dominion students will be–rich in character, wise, and eager to learn.

Is a shift such as Kenny describes possible in our country as a whole? There was a time… Before the government took over education, there was a time when public schools were begun and managed by communities–often in their churches. Those schools were focused on liberal education, the kind of education that cultivates freedom. Not so anymore. Schools are created and managed by HUGE bureaucracies, and they are bullied by powerful unions and money-driven standards that drive away excellent teachers. And the education they provide is more servile, which tends to cultivate materialism and careerism.

Is it possible to do what Kenny does in public schools? I don’t know. Kenny’s story is amazing, a wonderful testament to what is possible. What you don’t get from the WSJ article is that Harlem Village Academies are non-selective public schools, yes, but they were started with private money (the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). (They don’t teach to the tests, either, but that’s another post.)

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