Our future depends on preparing today’s young women and men to be thoughtful, creative, engaged citizens. They must be fully alive, in love with the natural world and each other. They must be skeptical, not compliant. They must be deeply idealistic and speak truth to power. They must see the planet as their home, not as an endless source of material goods. They must see all people as their neighbors, not as their competitors in a global contest for military and economic superiority.
-From First Do No Harm, Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk
Rather than continue the unrelenting assault on public education that is taking place in the United States, what if we actually worked to develop an American public education system that provided each and every child with the ability to live more fulfilling and productive lives?
That is the essential question that underpins educator and education advocate Steve Nelson’s new book, First Do No Harm, Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk.
Using a straight-forward, direct and forceful approach, Steve Nelson lays out the fundamental prospective that rather than turning our classrooms into standardized testing factories and profit centers for the corporate education reform industry, we must reject the dangerous and failed strategies that rely on the expansion of conventional “factory-styled” education, charter schools, the Common Core, the Common Core testing scheme and false assessments that serve as the basis for the notion that punishing students and teachers is was the way to improve academic achievement for America’s children.
In First Do No Harm, Progressive Education in a time of Existential Risk, published late last year, Steve Nelson lays out the tremendous opportunities that come with rejecting our failed education policies and instituting programs and systems that are based on the progressive education model.
Defining the purpose of education, how we got here, and the power and promise of progressive education policies, Nelson eviscerates the nation’s present course of action when it comes to our public schools. He also systematically destroys the arguments that are being peddled by the modern snake oil salesmen who claim that the path to more successful schools – and more successful children – is paved with the “test and punish” education system that is being pushed by the bi-partisan corporate education reformers and their allies in the charter school industry.
And there is absolutely no doubt that Steve Nelson knows of what he speaks. He is a proven expert on the value and effectiveness of progressive education policies. As the author biography explains,
Steve Nelson has been Head of School at the Calhoun School, on Manhattan’s Upper Westside, since 1998. Calhoun is one of America’s most notable progressive schools and serves 750 students, from pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade. Calhoun is particularly well regarded for its commitment to diversity and social justice. Since 1997 Steve has been a columnist for the Valley News, the daily newspaper in the mid-VT/NH area on both sides of the Connecticut River. He has been a regular contributor to The Huffington Post since 2010, writing about education and politics.
Nelson’s background and experiences have positioned him to be an extremely authoritative voice about the state of America’s schools and how to improve them.
Beginning with his introduction to the book, fellow education advocate Matt Damon lays out the framework of Nelson’s views, writing,
Things have gone very wrong in education in recent years. Many of us know this, but few of us really understand what has happened and why. But Steve Nelson does. And in this book, he helps us understand education in a way that deepens our awareness of the profound impact education has on children’s lives and the society and world we live in.
And by way of that core understanding to a more comprehensive and holistic approach to educating children, Steve Nelson explains;
A natural view of children and child development must account for individual variances in development. Consider the words “standard” and “standards.” Anyone with children, or anyone who was once a child, knows that humans are anything but “standard.” Yet nearly everything about the design of educational settings would have you believe otherwise. Grade level standards and expectations are ubiquitous in schools and education rhetoric. Grades themselves – 1st, 2nd etc., are organized around the notion that all children can and should do certain things at the same time and in the same way. This may seem like a reasonable way to arrange a school, but it has very little to do with real children. Abstract children can be neatly divided by age, but real children differ significantly from each other.
The social and constitutional aspects of education and education policy are complex. If government, particularly the federal government, is the primary culprit in furthering the dominant factory system of education, then perhaps we should just get the government “off our backs.” Tempting, indeed. But wrong. There is a role for government in education, as in many realms where the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are at stake. That role is to affirm that equal educational opportunity is a universal right which is implicitly enshrined in our founders’ intentions and explicitly affirmed in case law. The right to educational equity is codified in many states’ constitutions and statutes. Here the government’s role is clear and unambiguous – in order to assure equal opportunity under the law, government has a role in the allocation of resources and the enforcement of all constitutional rights.
After thoroughly laying out the problems associated with today’s public schools and the alternatives that a progressive education system would provide, Steve Nelson completes his work by producing a Bill of Educational Rights that provides the vital elements that are needed to transform the nation’s failing education system into one the respects, supports and honors children. In the Bill of Educational Rights, Nelson writes that we must;
Recognize the broad consensus that early childhood education should be primarily dedicated to free, imaginative play; • Provide arts programming, recognizing that the arts are critical to all learning and to understanding the human experience; • Provide ample physical movement, both in physical education classes and in other ways, recognizing that exercise enhances learning for all children; • Exhibit, in structure and practice, awareness that children develop at different rates and in different ways; that strict age- or grade-level standards and expectations are meaningless and damaging; • Acknowledge the large body of evidence that long hours of homework are unnecessary and detract from children’s (and families’) quality of life; • Exhibit genuine affection and respect for all children; • Honor a wide range of personalities and temperaments; • Encourage curiosity, risk-taking and creativity; • Cultivate and sustain intrinsic motivation rather than relying on elaborate extrinsic systems of rewards and punishment; • Understand that brain research supports active learning, engaging all the senses; • Understand that children are intelligent in multiple ways and that all these intelligences should be honored and developed; • Listen to each child’s voice, give them real experience in democratic processes, and allow them to express their individuality; • Know each child well, appreciate the unique mix of qualities each child brings, and never demean, discourage or humiliate any child.
As for the book itself, Matt Damon wisely sums up its contribution by observing,
This is ultimately a hopeful book. Steve spells out a vision of real education reform that we just might be ready for now… All children deserve an education that will enliven their lives with joy and possibility and help them contribute to the betterment of society and our planet.
Parents, teachers and those who support better educational opportunities for all of our children should start 2017 by reading Steve Nelson’s First Do No Harm, Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk.
At the same time, the book should be a mandatory read for our elected and appointed officials, whose understanding of the benefits of true public education is needed now, more than ever.
If they truly understand where we are, where we are headed and the alternative approach that would serve our country and its children, they would use First Do No Harm as a guidebook for their policy actions.