By John Sener
I’m glad that the recent Washington Post article, “How to Fix Our Schools: A Manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and Other Education Leaders” (10.10.10), was written since it captures current thinking about schools which has been bothering me for a long time: if schools need “fixing,” when did they break? Who broke them, and were they working just fine before that? If they’re now “failing,” when in the past were they succeeding, and what happened to change that?
Asked this way, of course, the reality reveals itself: schools have never worked fine for every child. They have always worked for some, and not well at all for many others. They need massive improvement, not “fixing.”
The distinction is crucial: saying schools need “fixing” opens the door to all sorts of handy “solutions” to fix what’s “broken” or “failing.” Saying schools need improving at least offers the possibility of seeking approaches which recognize the situation in all its complexity.
Unfortunately, it was no surprise to see that this manifesto offers a handy solution, as illustrated by this quote:
A 7-year-old girl won’t make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master’s degree – she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success. By contrast, a poorly performing teacher can hold back hundreds, maybe thousands, of students over the course of a career. Each day that we ignore this reality is precious time lost for children preparing for the challenges of adulthood.
Translation: “blame the teachers.” This is foolish, destructive nonsense – specifically, the ill-conceived notion that there is a force out there which propels all students to a college career, and the only thing holding thousands of them back is a “poorly performing teacher.” It is tempting to wish that any leader who spouts this idiocy be required to spend their time instead dealing with all those other factors holding children back – feeding hungry kids, getting uncaring parents to care, not to mention creating the jobs that are currently not waiting for graduates if by some miracle this manifesto were to succeed. But let’s be more charitable and simply say that the leaders who promote these ideas are colossally misguided.
Teachers do share the blame. Goodness knows there is a multitude of problematic teachers out there. “My teachers could have ridden with Jesse James for the time they stole from me” has long been one of my favorite quotes. But the notion that a cadre of poorly performing teachers are the reason why students don’t succeed in school is pathetically, if not necessarily willfully, blind. It was this kind of nonsense which precipitated the misguided thinking of Disrupting Class – simply get the teachers in line/on board, and everything else will fall into place.
It is also an example of the rational-scientific paradigm run amok, as illustrated by the embedded elements of efficiency, control, and compulsion – “precious time lost” as if learning happens on a massively synchronized timetable; using technology to “make instruction more effective and efficient” as if that is the sole or best way to use it; compelling students to reach for “success” as defined in the narrowest of terms, which in practice means reading and math test scores. It’s bad enough to judge teacher and student performance based on one or two snapshots, but it’s gotten even worse than that – performance is being reduced to a single simple equation, as exemplified by the one used to rate LAUSD school teacher performance (see p. 4 of Richard Buddin’s “How Effective Are Los Angeles Elementary Teachers and Schools?” LA Times, Aug. 2010) – an efficiency expert’s dream, but a human nightmare in the making.
It is this reductionist vision of education and the leaders who espouse it that are failing. Perhaps a remedial homework assignment will help:
Review the research on education achievement and current thinking on future challenges, then write a 500-word essay explaining why “teacher quality” is an inadequate factor for student success:
- Discuss the possible role of grade point average, family income, parents’ education, socioeconomic level, and other extracurricular factors.
- Discuss the tentative nature of most research findings and explain why commonly cited factors such as grades and test scores account for so little of the variance in students’ future performance.
- Make sure to mention the political advantages of ignoring these other factors and focusing on teacher quality instead.
- Describe how the current emphasis on standardized test scores ignores and marginalizes the vast majority of moments in education and elsewhere (e.g., the home, the neighborhood) where learning actually takes place.
- Explain how instruction organized around preparing for standardized tests helps students develop the ability to generate creative solutions to problems, understand other cultures, think and collaborate creatively, and otherwise be prepared to work at jobs and deal with problems which don’t even exist yet.
- Briefly describe how you would remedy the situation by dealing with its complexity rather than offering simplistic solutions instead.
(Better make that 1000 words.)
But the really massive error being made here is the notion that we already know how to educate everyone, and we just need to remove the remaining obstacles like “poorly performing” teachers. We have raised our expectations to reach every child through education, but we haven’t yet figured out how to meet them. It is a noble, historic, risky, and ultimately awesome enterprise to undertake, but it is badly undermined by pretending that we know how to do this, or ever did.
The reality is that we don’t know how to educate everyone so we need to build and learn and develop new skills we don’t currently have, such as how to introduce every child to the culture of education without turning schools into curiosity – and creativity – killing robot factories. There are obstacles to be removed – the bottleneck caused by trying to squeeze everyone into college instead of reviving multiple paths to adult success would be a good one to start with – but the creation process we have to do is far more important. That would be a manifesto worth getting behind…
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