Transcription of the episode “Audit culture: The dehumanization of education

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] Hi, I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is William Stroud. He was the founding principal in two New York City public schools, the Urban Peace Academy in East Harlem and the Baccalaureate School for Global Education in Queens. He Is currently an international education consultant and lifelong student of political economy. He has worked as an instructional leader and trainer in schools around the United States and in Jordan, Palestine, Poland, Thailand, Brazil, and Turkey. Welcome, Bill. 

Bill S: [00:00:46] Thank you.

Amy H-L: [00:00:48] Bill, you said that within our current school systems, it’s possible to create individual schools that are great, but that these will be anomalies until there are larger changes. What do you mean by that?

Bill S: [00:01:02] The current systems? Well, we’ve seen really the educational system really exists within the framework of larger society. And fundamentally the education system today is designed around test scores and a culture of mistrust where many of the policies from state education departments or from school districts, the relationship between those institutions and individual schools is really dictated by the standards movement, accountability measures that rest fundamentally on test scores, but they’re also reflections of larger the way larger society is organized.

So for example, here in New York City, we have highly segregated schools ,which exist throughout the country. So I think that sort of, as a society, you have a lot to be desired. And within that larger framework, there’s a possibility for individual schools to create spaces for adults and children and families to have really wonderful experiences. But the way the overall system is constituted as more of a reflection  of the larger society, which is stratified by wealth and income and race and class. So I think that one of the things that we have to think about is how to create new systems or networks of how schools work together.

Amy H-L: [00:02:52] What do you mean by a culture of mistrust?

Bill S: [00:02:57] Well, that’s the, sort of the leadership model that is mostly implemented, I think reflects corporate hierarchy. When I was a principal. I’m trying to remember what year this was. I think must have been in the late nineties, the Department of Education brought in Jack Welch from GE  to talk to large groups of principals about leadership and what they suggested, some of his specific suggestions at the time, were we should be able to eliminate 10% of the teaching force because the bottom 10% shouldn’t be there. And it was very much based on supervision. The supervision model has been part of the training of educational leaders for the longest, but I think the mistrust is enforced partly through compliance and it doesn’t necessarily mean that there are not some good intentions and all this, to make sure that there’s adequate sort of educational experiences for students, special ed students or English language students, so that they’re given attention within the school system. But in all audit cultures, which the accountability system is basically an, audit culture, what happens in those cultures is that people come to see the work as performing to the audit rather than the actual content of the work itself, which is teaching students, collaborating with colleagues, creating an institution within a community that’s highly valued. But the fundamental driver of the actions and accountability of audit cultures becomes the record keeping and the compliance and the attention to the value added measures and accountability systems and sort of the purpose of education really becomes undermined. None of us became teachers or school administrators because we wanted to make a lot of money or because we wanted to answer to a group of supervisors around test scores or the compliance issues. So I think, think increasingly, sort of what we’ve seen in a corporate model of leadership is that there’s a very defined hierarchy. People see the district superintendent or the principal as educational hero. And these, even in the research literature, you can clearly see, these are not effective ways to create good schools.

Jon M: [00:05:50] You just mentioned desegregation or the segregation of New York City and other schools. And you said that desegregation would be one of the most powerful quality assurance steps that a system such as New York City could take. Could you elaborate? What does that mean, and why would desegregation be one of the most powerful quality assurance steps?

Bill S: [00:06:13] Well, I spent a few years at Columbia Teachers College with a research consortium and looking at the characteristics of high quality schools, high performing schools, classrooms, schools that are performing or school districts that are performing sort of at higher than expected levels. and the research literature, it’s pretty clear that desegregation has resulted in, even in accountability systems, higher levels of student achievement, generally for schools in those districts. So you see, for example, Wake County, North Carolina. Berkeley has desegregated according to sort of zip code because of the sort of legal issues involved around quotas that people object to, or that have become illegal through the years. But we see that in integrated classrooms and integrated schools and districts, generally the level of student achievement is higher than their neighboring schools in segregated districts or segregated schools. So I think there’s research evidence around that. Wake County, for example, for several years had good results and there ended up being a political backlash by the community. I would assume, I don’t know a lot of the details about it, I would assume it’s the sort of white community that didn’t want to desegregate and objected to their students traveling across town to other schools or on buses, but there’s quite a bit of evidence that desegregation results in better outcomes for all the students in a district.

Amy H-L: [00:08:15] How does the culture that surrounds these schools impact the schools themselves?

Bill S: [00:08:25] Well, I think I’ll speak to the issue of segregation. It’s been my experience, I don’t know that I could generalize about this, but I’ll talk about my experience for a couple of minutes, that diversity in all its forms is a condition for learning .So that when you have a segregated system or a segregated school, there’s a tendency for the kids to experience, very similar kinds of life conditions and thinking and attitudes and understandings. And I think part of learning is sort of challenging our ideas and our presumptions and encountering people who have different experiences and listening to those experiences and understanding what that means for people who are our neighbors, or live with or live in the same ciy, but sort of challenging sort of our routine daily ideas. I think as part of the learning process, sort of that cognitive conflict that exists. So diversity, whether it’s ethnic diversity or a diversity of opinions, if  we have people who share the same ideas or hold similar opinions, I  think it’s less conducive to more learning than we would have in more diverse settings. But that we live in a highly segregated world. The neighborhoods, our neighborhoods are segregated even in cities. I was watching something about Milwaukee last week. And in the great migration from the South to Milwaukee, in spite of the fact that there’s an African, a significant African American community in Milwaukee, it’s a highly segregated community as are  the neighborhoods in New York City, we’ve seen with redlining and the housing issues. So I think when we come out of that environment, most of our experiences are formed through our family connections initially when we’re young and then our neighborhood environments. And that’s what children bring with them to the school. So whatever the issues are in the neighborhoods we come from are the issues that come into the schools that we deal with.

There’s a lot of talk about schools changing society and I think that needs to be examined more carefully because fundamentally schools are more a reflection of society than a transformation agent.

Amy H-L: [00:11:23] When we speak about diversity, certainly currently we’re talking about, mainly about racial and ethnic diversity, but I’m not sure that that is the same thing as ideological diversity. So, yeah. So I think that when we talk about learning and how learning benefits from a lot of ideas, right, so we don’t get just get one version of anything, we’re not really talking about people of different races. We’re talking about people with different thoughts. So how do we separate the two?

Bill S: [00:12:04] Well, this is sort of one of the great myths, that there’s some monolithic white culture or Black culture, when we’re seeing all those myths challenged these days. The diversity of ideas in all ethnicities is, is vast. One of the problems that we’ve seen in our country in the last years is the entrenchment of political ideas. And people see each other as antagonists rather than human beings with different points of view, trying to understand what people, where people are coming from, what ideas and values they hold and how to go forward if we’re going to try to live together and make a better world some way. But I think that’s a particular challenge for us now, because there seems to be an inability of people who hold different political ideologies or opinions or goals to be able to talk with each other and communicate in a real way rather than being locked in their positions or being sort of stuck where they are.

Jon M: [00:13:19] So I want to continue talking about culture. You said when we were talking before the show that local or national culture is one of the most powerful forces on schools. How does that work? 

Bill S: [00:13:35] Well, it’s something that I became more aware of in the work I do internationally. And I’ll mention something that we had talked about, which was really eye opening. And then I realized sort of in different cultures and contexts, there’s a similar power, but the last three years I’ve been working quite a lot in Thailand on a science inquiry project, where we would ask students and teachers to create questions around science content, science ideas generally. But questioning generally as a classroom practice is fundamental to inquiry, the ability for teachers to ask good questions, for students to ask good questions about content of themselves, of the teachers. The culture of Thailand is, and I’m generalizing from sort of my limited experience in the snapshots I have. I’ve been probably in 30 or 40 schools in Thailand for a day or two at a time in most of the schools. But I’ve never seen a student ask a question in a Thai classroom because asking a question is equated with questioning the authority of a teacher or a principal or an authority figure. So as a learning mechanism, asking questions, which is fundamental to learning and inquiry in particular, is very hard to enact in Thai culture in the schools.

Amy H-L: [00:15:22] So what do those classrooms look like then? Are there conversations in the Thai classrooms?

Bill S: [00:15:33] No, they’re very teacher dominated. It’s not unlike. It’s interesting in that classrooms all over the world, have a very similar format. Basically the teachers talk a lot, the students talk little. They’re often organized in desks that you would see in the United States or Thailand or Jordan or Poland, rows of desks. It’s sort of a ubiquitous format for classrooms. The teachers use the chalk boards in front of the rooms that have now become, with more modern technology, smart boards. You see smart boards and screens a lot in classrooms. I think I had mentioned to you, and when I was working in Palestine, sort of the significance of modern education was indicated by the number of smart boards that would exist in a school, but the sort of the basic teaching and learning methodologies haven’t changed very much. The teachers use the smart boards, do a lot of presentations. The students are sitting and watching. It’s a very passive sort of learning environment in many ways that can be transformed, but, but it’s the, the hierarchy. We have adult relationships with children and who’s in control. This notion of control about supervisors controlling principals, who control teachers, who control students. And we see this pervades school cultures all over the world.

Jon M: [00:17:04] So in terms of Thailand, you also mentioned that you had talked to some people and asked them what they wanted students to take away from their education. I found your answer really fascinating. And how does that compare to what you see in the United States? What do we expect students to take away from their education?

Bill S: [00:17:30] Well in the U.S., the evaluations are fundamentally based on testing scores, so teaching to the test has taken over a big part of U.S. education in schools. I think in, most of my work in the United States has been in cities and sometimes in sort of underserved communities that on standardized tests have sort of lower scores and that becomes more of a priority because that’s how you’re judged as a school. It’s probably less pervasive in middle-class or suburban districts that are, have more resources, but it’s.

The other incredible thing I find in United States schools is the level of competition that students engage in, like this idea of the highest possible grade point they can get. And, you know, doing all these activities to enhance their resume for their college applications. And there’s a whole system built around achievement and competition and who gets in and who doesn’t get in. In Thailand, when we work with schools in Thailand, we’ve created networks of schools. And one of the first things we do, on the first day when we entered schools, is we set up focus groups where we talk independently with groups of students, groups of teachers, groups of administrators, and try to  get as much information as we can. One of the questions that I initially ask, with all of the teachers and administrators–we’re working either in schools that have grades six through nine or kindergarten through nine. And I asked them, “You have children here with you for several years. What’s the most important thing that you want students to learn while they’re here? What’s the biggest takeaway for you as, as adults in a school?” And what was remarkable to me was that the answer was the same or a slight variation of the same answer. Without missing a beat, people would always say, “We want our students to be nice. We want them to be nice to each other. We want them to be good citizens.”

And I think, I mean, it’s deeper than that. Like at surface level, it’s interesting. What does it mean to be nice or good citizens? But I think, you know, for them it means being respectful. It’s respectful to the royalty. It’s respecting your elders. But it’s also treating each other with kindness. And when I come back, not just for you, Jon, when I come back and talk with teachers here in the United States, they’re always a little bit taken aback that that’s the primary takeaway that the adults value.

Jon M: [00:20:34] We know that in the United States, at any rate, some schools develop many cultures that are not driven by the values of the dominant culture. Under what circumstances do you see that these schools can survive within larger systems?

Some years ago, when I worked in the research consortium, it was, I was sort of the token, I don’t say that in a negative way that I was the token practitioner in a small group of really excellent researchers, but we worked on applied research. Can we take the findings from experience and accomplished educators and from the research literature and develop programs for school improvement? One of the things that we were committed to at the time was that school cultures were based on principles, not personalities. And that we thought that if we could organize schools with commitments to a set of principles, guiding principles for their decision making, that the sustainability of these cultures would be much longer lasting than otherwise. And what I have found is that school cultures fundamentally align with the leaders, with the leadership of individuals, that when individuals leave school, cultures change. And there are some ways to address that. One of the schools I started in New York City was an International Baccalaureate School. The International Baccalaureate has a set of standards, the practices that have to be maintained in order to keep your accreditation as an IB school. So I thought, all right, this is going to keep the school culture, which it largely does. However, at the time when the school was created, we were committed, sort of, in probably what would have been challenged legally by the Chancellor’s office, of one quarter Black, white, Latino, and Asian. And the school over time has become probably a 95% white and Asian student demographic.

Bill S: [00:22:59] So the commitments of individuals largely defines, for better or worse, school cultures and that, but I think still today, having an explicit set of principles and maintaining those, or a platform like International Baccalauriate, where there’s, certainly the academic standards and practice remain intact in that school. It continues. Students continue to do well there, but I think it’s very difficult for school cultures to survive beyond the leaders of the schools and the system that we have. You no doubt have examples of that, that you have experienced yourselves. Okay. Like when Debbie Meier, for example, left Central Park East, you know, over five or 10 years, it changed dramatically. We probably have lots of examples like that. 

Amy H-L: [00:23:56] The pandemic has led to an acceleration of trends toward online learning. What will be the impacts of greater online learning? 

Bill S: [00:24:08] Hmm. I’m not a fan of online learning. I think we have to find ways of educating children and adults that does not rely on online learning. So my, my fundamental sort of objection to online learning is, you know, it’s based on the relationships that exist in a capitalist society more generally. So what we see in capitalist society is that technology has become a mechanism that mediates relationships between human beings. So in industrial production, the workers become an appendage to the machinery and, uh, and the industrial line, the division of labor and  we’ve seen in the office, the development of technology in offices, where a lot of craft skills have gone by the wayside in an attempt to become more efficient and eliminate labor costs. And the technology in all fields comes more and more to dominate the design of the work and the relationship that human beings have to each other. My fear in online learning is that it’s going to continue to take control out of the hands of teachers. Teaching is sort of part craft, part science. Science in that we know from sort of research evidence, that there are some things that impact relationships and learning more than others, more effectively,that are more humane, that results in higher achievement. I mean, it’s a craft also in that it’s individualized to the students that you have sitting in front of you and understanding who they are and what their needs are and how to best address those in order to achieve the goals. If the extent to which technology has sort of the learning process, the teaching steps, and the results and the moves that teachers make embedded in the technology itself, so that what teachers become more, more and more required to do is enact the technology with a group of students and that they’re interacting with students through the technology. It’s another step of detachment between human beings that I think is inhumane.

Amy H-L: [00:26:42] I’m going to challenge you a bit on that. I sort of see technology as like nature. It’s neither good nor bad. You know, people say this is all natural as though that’s a good thing. Well, you know, nature brings us tsunamis and you know, all sorts of bad things. So I guess I see the online learning as sort of a world in itself. And while there is a danger of the technology itself, taking over the learning process. I do think that as teachers become more accustomed to it, that there will be a way of personalizing the learning process and making it humane. I mean, clearly there are pitfalls  and weaknesses, especially given the larger society and given the fact that we have a wealth gap and we have students living in apartments that that embarrass them or where they don’t have privacy, or where they don’t have bandwidth, you know, their internet access. So sure. There are a lot of problems with it, but I do see teachers sort of developing ways to create humane spaces. 

Bill S: [00:28:06] True. I think that exists and I hope you’re right. And I’m going to argue with you on a couple fronts. First that the technology exists within a bigger culture in a bigger context, which, you know, my claim is that these cultures are fundamentally based on mistrust so that students are largely rewarded and have been for a long time as much for obedience and not making a fuss as their knowledge accrued and their ability to think, and, and become accomplished and knowledgeable in certain fields. But, and also kids learn to get by, by staying under the radar and being obedient. But the technology that, the big question that you raise for me is is technology really a neutral factor in human development, or is the technology design specific to social systems and values that.reinforce that system? And I would like to think that you’re right in the sense that we made all kinds of progress around technology efficiency and speed, and the ability to make calculations and have information available so that if we live in a different society, that wasn’t fundamentally class-based and hierarchical based on income and race and ethnicity. Could we use the existing technology to create a better world? I think that’s what we would hope for, that in the hands of, in a different power structure, we can use that technology differently. I’m not sure that the technology would look the same if we valued each other as human beings and  were really fundamentally attuned to supporting each other and caring for each other and providing for people, according to their needs in a way that doesn’t exist with the design of the technology and that society be similar to what it is today. And I think not, I think the technology is based on speed and scope of information and immediacy, and detached from human values in a way that is detrimental to us today. And I hope we get a chance to test and see tf under a different power structure. Technology can be implemented differently.

Jon M: [00:31:05] As you’re talking, it reminds me of a book I read many years ago that I don’t know, it might even be out of print now and it wasn’t particularly about education. But it was Harry Braverman’s Labor and  Monopoly Capital. And he was talking about how technology in the United States is used to de-skill. Whereas, he gave an example. I believe it was from Sweden, where strong unions were able to be involved in the development of the technology in,  I think ,the auto industry, and they were able to shape how the machinery would build on their strengths rather than being focused on their, on their de-skilling. You know, it’s a fascinating book. I think it was published around 1974 or thereabouts. 

Bill S: [00:31:54] I like that book and it addresses sort of white collar work, right, that the de-skilling of office workers and the introduction of technology in the labor process.

Jon M: [00:32:06] And household, household work, that new technological development is supposed to free housewives. In fact, what each one of them did was to de-skill, make housework or work in the house more boring, uh, make it more, tie it more into the commercial world, which of course happens with technology in schools as well. So, yeah. 

Bill S: [00:32:31] It’s interesting. I mean, I haven’t given this a lot of thought, but the two of you raising this sort of fascinates me in that if increasingly there’s well, the assumption would be that we have more free time as human beings, right, and that free time would be more valuable than working. First of all, I’m not sure that there is with all of the technological development over the last 50 years. Do we spend less time at work? My guess is not. So it hasn’t really freed people up,.But secondly, what do we do in that free time? In the world that’s designed for us now, it’s fundamentally about consumption of commodities that we can buy, often junk commodities or frivolous commodities, but through the advertising sort of world, we’re told that we need all these things all the time. So free time becomes how can we engage in the economic process of consuming more and more during our free time rather than using our free time in different ways. So that’s one issue. The second issue is if there’s more free time and less work, what’s the, how are people going to have an income that they’re able to survive? And what are the implications for sort of the disparities of wealth and income?

Amy H-L: [00:34:00] Let me take a stab at that.

Bill S: [00:34:03] Great. 

Amy H-L: [00:34:05] So  first of all, I think that we, or at least  the dominant society still takes the Protestant work ethic seriously. So the more time we spend working the better, it makes us better people. This is way different from a Deweyan approach to ethics. You know, we wouldn’t necessarily think that working 12 hours a day is a good thing. And when we look at the impact that that has on our families, our communities, humans, animals other than human, the planet. And none of the [inaudible] does working 12 hours a day create benefits. So as a society, we should be able to work fewer hours because we’re more productive. Would you agree? 

Bill S: [00:34:55] Yes. 

Amy H-L: [00:34:56] So that just requires either an evolution or a revolution. And a different framework. And once we do have free time, I think culture also has to evolve too, to empower us to, you know, to stretch ourselves. For example, we have an unfortunate emphasis on excellence. So a lot of us don’t do anything unless we’re really good at it, right. Art, for example, which is integral to many cultures, is not integral to the dominant culture in the U S at all. If you create art, you’re an artist, but it’s not normal for. regular people to just make art or to make music, you know, past your piano lessons until you’re 12 years old. So I think there are a lot of opportunities for people to derive a lot more, from their relationships, from their hobbies, their communities, if given that time. But we don’t, we certainly don’t value that in our society, we value busy-ness and working.

Bill S: [00:36:15] I would like to live in that world you’re envisioning, but I think this is, I mean, this is really sort of the point of our discussion here, right? Like if we have the ability to envision this and the means to do it, And in particular schools are socializing agents for what kids learn to do and what the value and where they come from and who they can be and what their possibilities are, how do we in schools become more human, more humane, and that process rather than what exists today?  So as you’re saying, you know, that’s not what’s valued, is it. And it’s also why I say we can create individual places where schools can do that. I think those are anomalies, unfortunately, because the greater society, it sort of dictates who we are in the structures that we work within.

Bad systems make good people do bad things. And we have bad systems all around us. One of my stepdaughters asked me recently, are there any good systems for human beings under capitalism? And I was hard pressed to think of one. 

Jon M: [00:37:34] You know, it’s interesting thinking about this issue of free time, because I think that, and this relates directly to schools. I think there’s a deep distrust of free time, especially towards kids of color and working class kids. So that, you know, this, all of this, I remember a number of years ago and it may still be happening,  I just haven’t heard of it recently, but there was this whole push, you know, to push Black kids in particular. and poor kids generally, into boarding schools. Because the idea is that you would be taking them away from their destructive, you know, family and community environments. Similar to what was done with Native American kids. You’re going to take them away and control their environment and make them whatever it is you want to have them become. And I was thinking in terms of, for example, Finland, I’d say, or Denmark where some of the, I mean, Finland already had this in terms of shorter schools, space and time for kids to spend more time outdoors whereas those seem to be. you know, all the pushes here are for longer school days and to make summers more school like and so forth. Do you see any ways in which the pandemic, if people push for this, could end up having any positive consequences in terms of how we’ve used school time and what happens in schools?

Bill S: [00:39:10] Yes. I’ll say something about that. What you’re talking about, the two of you remind me. So the forms of colonialism have changed over the decades or century, but really we’re talking still about sort of the adaptation of colonial forms of taking kids out of their neighborhoods and schools removing young children from their communities and putting them in boarding schools or Jon, as you mentioned, the Native Americans. And those tendencies are still all around us. They’ve just sort of changed in superficial ways, but the basic sort of substance of relationships may not have changed so much.

I was on a webinar a couple of weeks ago with two Danish professors who were talking about the experience Denmark had had during COVID. And they closed down the schools, kept everyone at home for I don’t know if it was two weeks or three weeks or four weeks. And I went on the webinar because one of the professors had written a book called “Teachers’ Relationship Competence,” where the book is fundamentally about a fundamental condition of learning is this relationship of knowing each other, between teacher and students, and trusting each other and able to challenge kids in a way where they don’t feel threatened and shut down,.But she was on this webinar. I thought, all right, given a COVID era, how would she describe building relationship competence? Through virtual learning, which seemed to me to be a contradiction. And she didn’t address that so much. I would like to correspond with her more. But they did say three things that they felt had been positive outcomes for the school systems in Denmark. One is they said, and, and the children are really only fully back in school, if we call it fully back in school. In elementary grades, I think. Middle schools, secondary schools, and are not fully back in school. 

The first thing was the class size got smaller, that rather than having groups of 20 or 25 students, because of the virus, they were only allowed to have groups of 10 or 15 students 10 or 12 students in a classroom at one time. And that there was more, much more attention to individual students and relationship building. And that relationship building was attention to sort of hygiene and taking care of the classroom and a hygenic way and the health of everybody and attention to sort of is everyone okay. And, and in ways that hadn’t  existed before the virus. So one was the impact of smaller classes. The second was they spend much more time outdoors, which is just lovely because kids sitting in classrooms all day long, moving from classroom to classroom, is just a terrible way to treat young people. I remember my youngest son, his first day of school, when he came in, I said, “Daniel, how did school go today.” He said, “Oh, it was just awful.” And it had me quite worried and I said, “well, what was awful about it?” He said, “I had to sit at my desk all day long.” And that was his main concern, So the second thing was being outdoors a lot. And the third was they have shortened school days, which they saw as a big advantage because it connected the adults in the school to the lives of kids outside of the classroom and ways that they wouldn’t because, so the attention wasn’t like all the learning happens inside this classroom or in the school building.

So I thought all three of those things are interesting. Um, we talked about this a little bit on sort of in our introduction before this call that how that applies in a society that’s highly segregated and stratified with income and resources, it isn’t clear to me that there’s the same kinds of benefits.

Amy H-L: [00:43:39] Aside from the pandemic, we’re experiencing a Movement for Black Lives or what we hope will be the first stage of a Movement for Black Lives. What do you see as the effect of this on schools?

Bill S: [00:43:56] What’s clearly in our face is the Black Lives Matter Movement, challenging the social institutions that dominate our lives. It calls into question, do these institutions serve us and can we create something better? And clearly the answer with COVID is, you know, with the defunding of public hospitals and healthcare, and that public institutions have suffered and we’ve seen since 1980 have become increasingly privatized. And with that privatization is more disparity and more stratification of resources and quality of life between poor and rich communities. I think the Black Lives Matter Movement fundamentally challenges that, and it provides sort of the impetus for us in schools to do something because a protest movement doesn’t unto itself create new ways of being together, new forms of social organization. Those have to be developed out of that movement. So we’re in a period of time where those institutions are challenged. It’s clear that there’s a significant, if not a majority, of people who believe that there needs to be some transformation of those institutions.

What we’ll see, as we’ve already seen, is the dominant culture and these dominant organizations will try to sort of incorporate some of the ideas in the Movement. And where it will appear that they’re responding in some progressive social way where we see some token efforts. But I think for a school system, it provides opportunity for us to fundamentally rethink what education institutions look like, how they’re organized, what we call schooling in a way that can be much more radical than we’ll ever have a chance to do again. But again, the protest itself is not going to change the world. What will change the world is us figuring out in very practical ways how to create new structures. For example, we can abolish school districts that have sat like super structures on the backs of schools and educators and students for decades now, and find new forms of being together for networks of schools and then embedded schools in communities in a more localized and decentralized way. That’s not going to happen by the movement in itself. We need to sort of get behind the movement and be able to create these more practical things in ways so that we’re not recreating what existed before in slightly altered form.

Jon M: [00:47:05] Have you thought it in concrete terms, what that might look like in terms of following through on the vision of creating a different way of organizing schools?

Bill S: [00:47:19] A little bit, sometimes people ask me, you know, what’s the organizational form, and I think if we’re talking about education for democracy, that there has to be some attention to building what I would call a constituent assembly. Abolish school districts, get representatives from schools, maybe using community school districts that have existed in New York City or neighborhood organizations, but sort of religious organizations, community organizations, um, technical support providers, but fundamentally people in schools should be getting together and thinking about what forms of organization they want to have work together. I think district offices with lots of well-meaning people are an enormous waste of resources. We would be better off putting people in schools rather than in the districts. And that if we had a constituent assembly of some sort, eliminating sort of this division of executive power, and sort of rulemaking and implementation, but that it becomes decision-making by the practitioners themselves making decisions about how to get together and what forms that takes and what the guiding principles are.

But if it’s truly a decentralized democratic movement, nobody’s going to come in and say, here’s the model that we’re going to use going forward. What we need to do is bring people together. 

Amy : [00:49:06] Bill. Is there anything we haven’t talked about today that you’d like to mention?

Bill: [00:49:11] So the one thing that’s been on my mind most recently is sort of this question that I had mentioned to you, what’s the role of public education in creating  an intelligent citizenry, because the lack of an intelligent citizenry more generally is in our face, in this era. I think we talked a little bit earlier about schools as a reflection of society and the strength of schools being features of society more generally and the problems that we encounter in schools also being defined by the larger social context so issues of racism and sort of discrimination and levels of achievement are inherently part of what we face in schools and won’t be changed until there’s fundamentally a different social context. The political crisis is really a function of the economic crisis and the disparities of wealth and opportunities, the alienation that people feel. But we’ve done a really poor job in public education of just creating a baseline for people to be able to distinguish between facts, fact and fiction  and being able to sort of weigh evidence or make claims and supported by evidence, being able to evaluate different points of view. We live sort of in an era, as you know, where opinions, all opinions, somehow get equal validity, and it makes no sense. So we end up with, you know, with leaders like Donald Trump or DeSantis or governors who are able to present themselves in policies that are not in the interests, in the general public interest, and we have not been able to educate people in a way where the citizenry consistently uses their minds well or cares, as we’ve mentioned before, about the common good, and that associates freedom somehow with the having to wear a mask rather than, even Roosevelt and the Four Freedoms, freedom of speech and worship, the freedom to not live in fear. But I think we have to, we need to rethink what the curriculum of schools are and be able to address some of these fundamental issues that impact the quality of life in ways that we’re not doing now rather than the big focus on testing. 

Amy : [00:52:21] I understand what you’re saying in terms of teaching students to discern fact from fiction. How can we get them to care?

Bill: [00:52:35] Why do you ask such hard questions? 

Amy : [00:52:39] It’s my job. 

Bill: [00:52:41] Wow. What a great question. All right. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to answer this in any way to your satisfaction. I think particularly sort of in underserved communities that there’s not a direct connection in kids’ minds about the relevance of schooling. That it’s school, something that’s sort of that’s disconnected from their lives in some way. Middle-class and kids of upper class professionals, I think, see schooling as a way to achieve something, but kids in underserved communities have come to understand that we don’t really live in a meritocracy. That disconnect in what’s going on in school and their lives has to be addressed in some way so that if, in fact, a couple of things. One is if the content of school curriculum became more attuned to the issues that impact the quality of their lives, they would see a different connection and have a different motivation. Secondly, In most schools, there’s very little place for kids to determine what they study and what they’re interested in and how to pursue that study. It’s all a defined curriculum. I think we need a better balance between what we understand kids need to know in order to function in society and to be able to go into academic studies. But I also have a place for, a significant place, in the school day for kids to be able to pursue their own interests and study and answer questions that they have themselves.

It’s interesting, the research literature on this really is more connected to the teacher’s relationship with kids than the student’s own ability to choose a course of study, that kids have higher levels of performance when teachers are really motivated and passionate about the subjects that they’re teaching. But this lack of connection between school and everyday life, I think, is systemic. So they don’t see, they don’t see the relevance.

Amy : [00:55:17] Do you think students would have higher levels of caring if they felt that their teachers cared more?  I mean, is it all about…

Bill: [00:55:28] Yes. Yeah. I think that’s part of it, now that you’re asking that. Another, so something I experienced in Thailand. Most of the work I do is in smaller schools and in rural schools and in almost all of them, the focus has been middle grade. And when I go to schools in Thailand, often in the countryside, if I get there at 7:30 or 7:00, half an hour before school starts, there will be students carrying water from a well or a water source in buckets to all the different classrooms or filling containers of water. And after lunch, if I asked, when I first started working there, if I asked, I wanted to say thank you to the kitchen staff for making the lunches that we had, I would say where’s the kitchen staff. And it was the teachers in the school that had made the lunch. And outside the classrooms in the school, there’s a chart, what students are responsible for bringing supplies to the class and for cleaning up after the class and at the end of the day. But the point being that it’s much more of a self sustaining, caring community for each other about how do we take care of ourselves. It’s built into the routines and cultures of school that we don’t have here.

Amy : [00:56:58] Sounds like a family.

Bill: [00:57:00] Yeah. I think so. So that. That topic that comes up about, you know, how do we create a sense of community and caring that that exists for kids in their lives someplace, but doesn’t extend into the schools, I think is something that needs to be addressed explicitly. But kids have to be involved in that discussion and be able to be part of the decision making about how we do that. Otherwise, it’s just another thing that adults are imposing on kids.

Amy : [00:57:36] Well, thank you very much, Bill Stroud. This has been a fantastic interview. 

Bill: [00:57:40] Thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me. 

Jon M: [00:57:43] And thank you listeners. If you liked this episode, please consider subscribing and giving us rating or review. This helps other people to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles and subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops and classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs with a focus on ethics for schools and youth programs in the New York City area. Contact us We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschoolsschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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