It was May of 1977. My dad and I sat in our seats at the Eric’s Place theater in Philadelphia as the house lights dimmed and those now-famous words appeared on screen: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” I was ten years old and for me, Star Wars was an absolutely stunning cinematic experience. I was too young to appreciate the context, subtext, and film references. All I knew was I was blown away by the first shot of the never-ending Imperial Star Destroyer and from that moment I was completely immersed in this incredible world with its amazing characters and engrossing storyline.
Years later I am still a huge fan of the series, and yes I own all six movies on DVD. (No Blu-ray yet, though. Hint to anyone thinking about what they might want to get me for my birthday this year.) When I first got Episode IV, I remember watching the “making of” documentaries and learning about George Lucas’s directing style. The actors talked about how after nearly every take, the entirety of Lucas’s direction boiled down to one sentence, “Let’s do it again. Faster and more intense.” It became a running joke during the production, but it apparently worked, since the movie is still considered a classic 35 years later.
Last week, schools in Pennsylvania received their raw data from this year’s state assessment. Although the state has not yet completed its AYP calculations, many of us do our own rough estimates based on the available data, and it’s a time for reflection by administrators about the work that was done in the past year and preparing for the coming year. Even though we spend a great deal of time thinking about a great number of things during the school year, and we work hard to focus on children and their needs, every July the whole year is reduced to one question: “Did we make it?” And regardless of the answer, it’s not a comfortable place to be.
I’ve written previously about some of the consequences of this mindset. When the efforts of hundreds of people over a thousand hours working with thousands of children gets reduced to one yes-or-no question, shortcuts get taken, and I believe we have gotten to the point where we have wrung as much out of the existing system as it is capable of giving. Politicians and activists continue to cry that all we need are more effective teachers and the problem will be solved. But this approach is in essence directing our professionals in the same way George Lucas directed his actors: “OK, let’s do it again, faster and more intense.” We are attempting a brute force approach to increasing student achievement by micro-focusing on individuals and subgroups and scattering an array of programs, packages, and assessments across the instructional landscape. Teachers are asked to do more and more every day: keep teaching your regular lessons, and in addition, also teach these research-based programs (with fidelity of course, which often means “follow the script”) and track huge volumes of assessment data while you use it to plan the next set of lessons. Faster and more intense. Every day.
While the problem may echo Lucas’s directorial style, one solution may in fact also come from Lucas’s direction. The George Lucas Educational Foundation, through its professional outreach Edutopia, has identified six core strategies that it believes can make a real difference in effective teaching and learning. These strategies work, and there is research to back them up. Edutopia has identified schools who are doing these things and making a difference in the lives of children.
So why aren’t we all doing them? Because effective implementation cannot be done by making microadjustments to the current system. We cannot, for instance, install project-based learning as a new layer on top of the standard instructional approaches we have. We cannot squeeze real teacher development into three annual inservice days and a monthly faculty meeting. Each of the strategies requires us to rethink and redesign the whole system from the ground up and build it collaboratively.
And all of this has to take place while we continue to teach kids and continue to feel the relentless pressure from outside our walls for unfaltering and ever-increasing improvement. The risk associated with those foundational changes increases every year, and most schools have not been able (or willing) to risk the possibility of the unknown. When given the choice between something that has been at least moderately successful (the status quo) and something with no guarantees for improvement, we choose the safe route.
There are going to be huge numbers of schools and districts in many states which find themselves on the wrong side of the AYP line this year. Two things are likely to happen as a result. Much of the public will finally begin to realize that the expectations of 100% proficiency are unrealistic and start to support deeper changes in the system that moves us towards a greater emphasis on real learning. And others will see it as confirmation that we just haven’t put enough pressure on yet and that we need to increase accountability even more, and tell the educators to work even faster and with more intensity.
In Star Wars, Princess Leia sought help on behalf of the Rebel Alliance. “Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” Obi Wan responded, bringing together an unlikely team and asking them to do things that were not only untried but outside of their comfort zone. Risky? Unbelievably so.
Which side do you fall on? What do you want to happen in the schools where you live or work? Where your children attend? Where you pay taxes?