Tag Archives: Jonna Perrillo

Native Education and the Pursuit of Happiness

The following post is the third in a series by Jonna Perrillo, NCTE’s Historian.

ExploringNCTEhistory“Indian people need to be doers, rather than objects to which things are done,” Rough Rock Demonstration School Director Dillon Platero proclaimed in 1970.[1] One of the longest lasting of the 1960s experiments in community control, Rough Rock, a Navajo-operated school in Chinle, Arizona, sought to combine local control of the school with a curriculum that served its population educationally, politically, and psychically. Students at Rough Rock studied (and continue to study today) in English and in Navajo, and they learned Navajo art and science traditions in addition to the standard curriculum. Through a deep, cross-disciplinary immersion in their own culture and history taught largely by Navajo teachers, Rough Rock students could better understand their people’s intellectual traditions and ideas and, by contrast, those of others, as well.

The Demonstration School (called thus because it demonstrated what Native schools could look like and accomplish) marked a break from the federalized public schools that otherwise dotted Indian reservations. Since the early 1900s, both boarding and on-reservation schools had sought to “kill the Indian and save the man” with differing levels of explicitness. Often, schools sought to divorce Native children from their home languages, customs, and dress. At Rough Rock, Platero explained, the aim was just the opposite, and “the child’s self-image and feeling of worthy personhood is not shattered so mercilessly, as often happens, when the difference between what is actual life and what it taught in school strikes the child at the age of six.”[2] Rough Rock sought to dismantle historical traditions in Native American schooling, starting with the psychic damage committed on children.

The NCTE archives hold an extensive collection of materials related to language instruction and literature designed for Native American students in the late 1960s and 1970s, including some focused on Rough Rock. In one of the most important of these documents, a report on the school from 1969, four Navajo external evaluators examined the school in its third year, tasked by the Rough Rock school board to determine how well the curriculum was working.

In so doing, the evaluators looked for the three things:

  1. Is the child happy?

  2. Is the child learning?

  3. Is the child interested?

The school received high scores in learning and interest, 83 and 86 percent, respectively. But in happiness, they found, the school truly excelled, with a score of 94 percent.[3] In asking these questions in this order, the evaluators understood what we often forget now—that happiness is both a political and an educational act, a precondition for individual autonomy and growth as well as community health and identification. People learn better when what they learn deepens and stretches their sense of self-worth and place in the world.

By contrast, school reform policies of the last twenty years have diminished the time and activities in which children are often most happy: physical education, recess, and the arts. We have cut into children’s independent reading time with computerized comprehension tests partnered with material incentives and rewards, as if these are ample replacement for the enjoyment of reading. Writing focused on test prep has taken over, and many students possess far less experience in developing real ideas of their own.

Altogether, the areas that have faced the greatest sacrifice in the past decades are school activities in which students feel most autonomous and free.

Each month, news articles appear applauding the quality of education in Finland; no small number of these articles point to the ways in which student happiness is part of education planning there. Yet it is important to remember that we have traditions of education happiness in our nation—traditions that teachers have been able to prioritize and maintain despite the restrictions and challenges that our schools face and that schools serving low-income populations face all the more acutely. We can learn from our own examples and from the unique perspectives that educators like Platero were able to embrace, often because historical circumstances pushed them to do so.

From its early days, Rough Rock demonstrated far more than what an Indian school looks like; it demonstrated what a school that pushes against history and puts students first looks like. It is not too late to pay attention.

[1] Dillon Platero, “The Rough Rock Demonstration School, Navajo Nation, 1970.” The School in the United States: A Documentary History, James W. Fraser (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001): 312–18, 318.

[2] Platero, 314.

[3] John Y. Begay et al., “Navajo Evaluators Look at Rough Rock Demonstration School” (Washington, DC: Office of Economic Opportunity, 1969), 7. National Council of Teachers of English Archives, Record group 15/73/008, box 7.

Teaching, Feminism, and School Rule

ExploringNCTEhistoryThe following post is the second in a series by Jonna Perrillo, NCTE’s Historian.

“Women are destined to rule the schools of every city,” Chicago school superintendent Ella Flagg Young declared in 1909. Better qualified than many men, she contended, women were “no longer satisfied to do the greatest part of the work and yet be denied leadership.”[1] To Young, the nation’s only female superintendent, school reform was one of the nation’s most important feminist projects.

She would have been bitterly disappointed if she were able to survey the education landscape six and a half decades later, during the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment. Female superintendents were still virtually unheard of. While 84% of elementary school teachers were women, 81% of elementary school principals were men.  In high schools, 46% of teachers were women; over 98% of principals were men.[2] Women were underrepresented in administration for the same reason they were overrepresented in elementary classrooms: they were considered nurturing and “soft,” while men could discipline children and colleagues alike.

Women teachers in the 1970s, like other groups of working women, fought for maternity leave, equal pay, and access to administrative channels from which they had historically been shut out.  But to change any of the inequities of the job, they needed to address a professional culture that rewarded a minority of men.

With this mind, NCTE’s Committee on the Role and Image of Women in the Council and the Profession met in the fall of 1971 to draft recommendations for producing “positive change” for women teachers. The guidelines advanced a platform of self-reflection and personal narrative that paralleled the composition theories NCTE members were adopting in their classrooms.  They recommended an educative approach to sexism, one that focused on “awareness” and teachers’ “own unexamined assumptions,” and urged women teachers to “involve their colleagues and administrators in self-evaluations of their attitudes towards women.” Men needed to change, the committee argued, but so did women, who required encouragement “to participate actively in all professional meetings” and “to answer the questions men ask.”[3]

In the committee’s identification of “culture” as the enemy, it embraced a less radical and policy-focused version of feminism than what was being exercised outside of the schoolhouse, one that assumed that the penalties women teachers faced resided as much in their own limited professional self-perceptions as in institutional structures.  But this view also coupled personal accountability (in women and men) with professional partnership (between women and men) in ways that correctly read how healthy academic institutions should work.

Today teaching remains a feminized profession: 76% of all public school teachers are women.  But in the forty years since the committee issued its guidelines, women have risen up through the administrative ranks. Nearly 52% of principals now are women.  Even with a continued gender disparity between elementary and high school leadership, the difference marks a significant change that, along with changes in maternity leave and pay structures, reflects the realization of many 1970s feminist teachers’ goals.

Yet, as Kate Rousmaniere argues in The Principal’s Office, differences in school administration are due less to the culture within individual schools and more to wide changes in the profession.  Simply put, as the principalship became less attractive beginning in the 1980s—more focused on mandate regulation and management than instructional leadership—fewer men were interested in the job.[4]  Women have broken through a cycle Young described in which leadership was treated as “the inherited right of man alone,” but women’s own inheritance is a mixed bag.[5]

In many ways, today’s teaching environment is far less liberatory than that of the 1970s; women may have earned access, but they have lost intellectual autonomy.

Given that women continue to occupy the majority of positions in schools, advancing the profession—improving the job and the quality of education offered to students—will remain women’s work.  NCTE members are in a particularly strong position to continue to develop new sets of guidelines that address teacher and student disenfranchisement and highlight teacher leadership in our classrooms, schools, and nation.  The Committee on the Role and Image of Women in the Council and the Profession was right to see that attitudes toward ordinary teachers matter and that partnership in schools is key to reform.  This is as good a time as any to be reminded of what 1970s teachers already knew.

[1] “The Highest Salaried Woman in the World,” Western Journal of Education 14 (1909): 515–516.

[2] Tyack, David, and Elisabeth Hansot, Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 18201980 (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 183.

[3] NCTE Committee on the Role and Image of Women in the Council and the Profession, Guidelines for Confronting Attitudes that Penalize Women (Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1971).

[4] Kate Rousmaniere, The Principal’s Office: A Social History of the American School Principal (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2014).

[5] “The Highest Salaried Woman in the World,” 516.