Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What Is Really Needed in Education, Anyway?

I recently finished reading Amanda Ripley's book, The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, and it raised many questions about what is really going on in the world of education (or in education in the world!) and what really needs to happen.  Ripley makes some good points, particularly about the vast differences in educational experiences in different states, different districts, and different schools in the United States.  My experience as an educator is entirely within the top school districts in Massachusetts, so that's my vantage point about educational quality, but as a student I attended a small school in a small rural town in the Midwest and my experience as a student was very different from the experience I see students receiving in the MetroWest area west of Boston.

The high school I attended was nowhere near the quality of the schools where I live now.  On the end of course physics exam, which was a state-provided exam, the highest score in the school was 39% (yes, that was my score -- the next highest was, I think, 25%).  Once, when I was a senior, our debate team traveled to one of the suburban Minneapolis schools for a meet; we were in an English classroom and on the board was evidence that the class was studying British writers (writers I'd never studied) at a depth of analysis and understanding that had never occurred to me.  I went home and went to talk to my English teacher about the class (in my high school, my senior English class featured lessons on agreement of subject and verb, watching and writing about silent movies, and slowly reading books aloud in class).  I showed my English teacher the information I had copied from the board in that suburban Minneapolis classroom and asked if we couldn't study some of these writers or if he could at least give me a reading list of what I should read to be better prepared for the next year when I would be at the university with the suburban Minneapolis students who had experienced this depth of teaching.  His response was that the rest of the students in the class would not be able to do the work, and, no, he could not put together a reading list for me.

More recently, for the past many years that I was a school principal in a good MetroWest school district, I consistently noticed that students moving in from out of state were almost always behind our students and needed help to catch up.  There was often culture shock, as they absorbed the differences and tried to manage both the workload and the level of the work.  I have also visited other schools in Massachusetts and seen gaps between what their students were doing and what our students were doing. Books such as Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities have documented the disparities in a dramatic and powerful way.

So, I am aware that Ripley's analysis of the vast differences in educational experiences and quality of schools is accurate.  I also think that her recommendations relating to improving teacher education and creating a societal culture where everyone, including the kids, understands the importance of education are good.  I do wish she had looked at some of the top American schools, though, such as the Massachusetts schools with which I am familiar, because without that the book does end up giving a limited picture of U.S. schools, and I fear that the book will play into the hands of those who think the solution is additional high-stakes testing, more top-down mandates and micromanagement, and more undermining of public schools and public school teachers.

I think we can acknowledge the existence of the problem that Ripley identified -- that there are large differences in the quality of schools across our country, and that there are schools where student achievement is lower than it should be -- without coming to the conclusion that the problem is that teachers don't work hard enough or aren't good enough, and that the way to fix it is to remove teachers' job protections and pensions and generally make the teaching profession as unattractive as possible.  How about. . . focusing on teacher education programs and making sure that they are excellent, providing additional support to schools that need it, eliminating the provision in federal law allowing our neediest students to be taught by new recruits with 5 weeks of training, providing teachers and schools with support and the autonomy to do their jobs well, and improving working conditions for teachers?  I have frequently said that if I ever won the lottery (which I probably won't since I never play) I would love to use the money for an experiment -- find a school, any school, in need of help, NOT change the faculty, but provide them with small classes (preferably very small) and the time to plan and collaborate with each other (U.S. teachers spend much more time with students and have much less planning time than teachers in any of the high-performing nations) -- and I am willing to bet that you would just watch student achievement soar!

Now -- what do you think will be the logical result of current approaches -- removing teacher job protections, cutting budgets so that teachers have to provide their own supplies, increasing class sizes, making teachers' jobs depend on how students do on the standardized testing (or worse, on "student growth percentiles" -- watch for another post on this topic), or even, as the Massachusetts education department recently suggested, making their licenses depend on that?  Somehow, this list makes me think that the teaching profession will disappear, and that teaching will be done by kids just out of college, for a couple years while they're figuring out what they really want to do -- it does not make me think that teachers will somehow manage to work harder and/or that teaching will improve and lead students to higher achievement.  What on earth are they (politicians, corporate financiers, education department personnel) thinking??

For a particularly interesting article with solid, thoughtful suggestions, check out the November 2014 issue of Kappan -- suggesting (1) developing career ladders for educators, (2) increasing compensation to attract top talent, (3) changing how teachers' time is spent (fewer hours of class time & more time for preparation & collaboration), and (4) developing a professional model of peer-to-peer acccountability.  I hope that those "in charge" will wake up and change direction before our government policies destroy public education.

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