In consideration of the 1,600[i] public school supporters from Baltimore who demonstrated in the rain in Annapolis on Thursday, March 11th, 2011 protesting the proposed budget cuts in education spending, I felt it necessary to reflect on the event and how it relates to the state of education. I found myself immediately questioning what effect this demonstration would have on education even if successful in preventing cuts in spending.

It seems that every year in Maryland there are threatened cuts to education funding that has been promised based on findings by the Thornton Commission. The Thornton Commission was charged with providing a plan to fund “constitutionally adequate” education in every Maryland public school. The commission’s findings included a recommendation for a new funding formula that incorporated a Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI). This index was to be designed to internalize the external factors that affect each county in Maryland, thus making education spending more equitable across the state. For a full description of the Thornton Commission see the ACLU of Maryland website.[ii] I am impressed with the Thornton Commission and the legislation that has been based on it because it proposes higher funding for schools based on need. There are problems with public education when some schools have money and quality teachers and others do not. The idea seems quite radical to me, but only addresses how schools are funded, not what their priorities are or how they are educating our children.

I am intrigued by the idea of equity in education, but thinking about it only in terms of money and our current school system seems limiting. For the last three years I have worked for non-profits in after school and in school programs in Baltimore City. I have had the pleasure of working with some incredible teachers, young people and institutions. I have also, however, witnessed the shortfalls of our schools and the pedagogy they are based on. 

I do not want this article to devalue the amazing teachers out there working successfully in the system. I do however, want to delve deeper into what is needed for our schools, beyond the matter of funding.  We are missing more than money.  Learning happens whether one has money or not.  The only difference is in what one learns. We need to look at what schools are really teaching and whether this is where we should be investing our dollars.

There is a plethora of writing on the shortcomings of schools. Most recently I picked up Derrick Jensen’s Walking on Water[iii].  Jensen’s book opens with a quote from Jules Henry, “School is indeed a training for later in life not because it teaches the 3 Rs (more or less), but because it instills the essential cultural nightmare fear of failure, envy of success, and absurdity.” Jensen goes on to say in his opening line, “As is true for most people I know, I’ve always loved learning. As is also true for most people I know, I always hated school.  Why is that?” The only answer I have to Jensen’s question is that schools’ priorities are not learning.

At their best young people learn in schools, but schools are not required to be places of learning. More often schools are environments of conditioning. Young people are conditioned to sit still for hours on end, listen to a person of authority without questioning, internalize their discontent and remain silent about unfair power dynamics. Schools also teach testing. With the rise of standardized testing, education has taken a hit. When I moved to Baltimore in 2007 testing was a large part of the curriculum, but in the schools I worked in, there was still time for project based and experiential learning. Over the course of the last four years, I have seen test prep replace almost all other programs in the school day.

True learning happens through a process of action and reflection. Critical consciousness cannot happen without both doing and thought. Taking tests in subject areas is not doing or thought; it is instead memorization and regurgitation. It is stressful on students and instead of being excited, curious and able to follow their interests, they are tired, stressed, and worried about doing well on a test.  I can see it in my classes. This year all of my teaching is in after school hours and during these last two weeks while schools have been testing, my students can barely hold it together for after school programs. They are exhausted and burned out. Another after school teacher told me about one of her students who came in looking really upset, she asked him what was wrong and he told her they had taken the Maryland State Assessment (MSA) in school that day and he didn’t think he did very well. He sat with his head in his hands, looking depressed for the entire program.

Failing has to be an option. To truly learn how to do something, one has to have the possibility of doing it wrong, of failing, of being able to figure out why one was wrong and then have the opportunity to do it right. Testing takes away the redo. If students don’t do well on a test, they fail and feel like failures. In my own process of working with youth, I learned how important mistakes are. When I try something or say something in my classroom that doesn’t work, I have an experience to build on in my next class, I am able to change, try something different, something that is more successful. Students also need this opportunity.

John Holt begins his book, Instead of Education “in favor of doing – self-directed, purposeful, meaningful life and work – and against “education” – learning cut off from active life and done under the pressure of bribe or threat, greed and fear.”[iv] Schools are often learning cut off from life, but I have seen teachers and programs in which students are learning, doing and motivated by their interests in bettering themselves and those around them. These programs more often than not are happening outside of schools and school time.

I have seen students who out of school have truly applied themselves and been happy, creative and productive learners. If given the opportunity young people seek out additional ways to expand what they know and gain meaningful skills. I have had the pleasure of working with several nonprofits that value learning, which I will highlight below. What does the kind of learning I am seeking look like?  A young person creating with clay, filming a video that they wrote and are directing, on stage performing a play based on lived experience, running a non-profit, grant writing, fundraising and planning after school programs.

I give my support and respect to all of the education advocates who spent their time in the rain demonstrating to ensure that education is being funded, but I also challenge them to make sure that money is not the only thing we are requiring for our education system – that we also speak up to ensure that learning is a priority in schools and that our children are learning more than how to take tests. Yes, money is important, but we need more than money for quality education.

These are some fantastic organizations that are providing spaces for young people to learn. Follow the links to find out more. In no way shape or form is this list a complete representation of all the amazing things happening in Baltimore and I encourage readers who are interested in education to seek out organizations and schools (because there are some out there) that value learning, the growth of their students and provide a place for action and reflection. Please share your favorite places of learning by posting them in the comments!

Baltimore Clayworks is a non-profit ceramic art center that exists to develop, sustain, and promote an artist-centered community that provides outstanding artistic, educational, and collaborative programs in ceramic arts. Clayworks’ community arts program conducts arts activities beyond its doors, developing collaborations with grassroots and cultural organizations, schools and public agencies, to connect Clayworks' artists with individuals of marginalized communities of Baltimore and provide access to quality hands-on arts programming throughout Baltimore City.

Wide Angle Youth Media is a 501(c)3 non-profit that provides Baltimore youth with media education to tell their own stories and become engaged in their communities. Through after school programs, community events, our annual Youth Media Festival, and our youth-run television show, Wide Angle strives to make media make a difference.

Wombwork Productions, Inc. is a fully comprehensive production company that preserves and re-empowers families and communities through creative arts, music, dance and theater expressions. Wombwork is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that creates and presents healing theatrical productions. Our productions help the participants release from the stress of an unbalanced society and creates for the audience a mirror in which to view themselves, past, present and future, to analyze their conditions and make better choices that will enable them to rise to their highest potential.

Youth Dreamers, Inc. envisions a community that values its youth, acknowledges their strengths, and inspires them to reach their potential for leadership and service. Youth Dreamers, Inc. provides a unique safe haven with opportunities for youth to accomplish personal goals, develop leadership potential, and participate in improving their communities.


This article was also published online by the Indypendent Reader here:

[i] Number reported in the Baltimore Brew:


[iii] Jensen, Derrick. Walking on Water.

[iv] Holt, John.