Gravity

No, not that “Gravity.”   I like my cinema closer to home and just a little bit lighter.

No. Forget the movies.

Imagine instead a Pearson Common Core multiple choice question that might go something like this:

The gravity of the state of American education cannot be underestimated.  Which of the following answer choices best defines  gravity as it is used in this sentence?

A) weight

B) magnitude

C) the attraction of the mass of a planetary body at or near its surface

D) solemnity

Don’t misunderstand.   I don’t dislike the Common Core.  As an English teacher, I am a huge fan.  I love close reading.  I love supported, well-crafted argument.  I love that implemented appropriately, the Common Core will simultaneously challenge both high achievers and reluctant scholars.

No, the Common Core is not the problem.

Those most closely  connected to instruction –administrators, parents, teachers– agree, too:  American students must be well prepared for their post-high school lives.  This is not negotiable.  The success of a democracy rests in an educated populace; the success of a competitive economy resides here, too.   There is no contention about this shared goal.

So what’s the problem, then?

Education has become a prop in the theater of American politics.  Contenders for public office who may know little about the ingredients of successful instruction wave education about, making sweeping promises, sometimes vilifying teachers.   They glad-hand voters, swearing that more rigorous tests are the answer. More tests will promote learning.  More tests will lead to accountability.  More tests will provide the data necessary to fix what ails US schools.

But politicians who mislead the public into believing that more high stakes testing will somehow magically yield  universally stronger students over- simplify an extremely complex issue. Rigid adherence to the notion that linking teachers’ annual ratings to standardized tests will lead to improved performance fails to account for the intangibles that affect instruction, things like poverty and security.   Kids who come to school hungry will not perform well on tests.  Kids whose health care needs are not met will not perform well on tests. Kids who are anxious will not perform well on tests. Schools that are underfunded may not have the resources to support student achievement.  Time devoted to testing would likely be better spent cultivating a culture of intellectual curiosity,  nurturing the thrill of discovery, fulfilling the potential of every child in every classroom.

Gravity.  So much rests on education.  It’s not about number two lead pencils or  tabulated data.  It’s about the weight of wanting to know more tomorrow than you know today.  It’s about a solemn promise we make to all kids that if they work hard, their futures will be bright. It is about the magnitude of the responsibility we have to promote preparedness and achievement.  It’s about the pull of the moon, Mars, Venus that will draw today’s students to become tomorrow’s explorers.

 

P.S.: Again, I thank everyone for following/reading this and my other blog.

Advertisements

What Would Socrates (or Annie Sullivan or Albert Shanker) Say?

Socrates.  John Dewey.  Maria Montessori. Jaime Escalante. Christa McAuliffe. Annie Sullivan.  Even by the most stringent application of the Danielson rubric, these folks are examples of highly effective teachers.  What would they say to high stakes standardized testing, APPR, Race to the Top?

Fade in on the scene: A stark corridor outside the closed door of the governor’s office. Fine mahogany door frame, frosted glass on the door, the governor’s name spelled out in three inch gold letters.    The characters are seated on uncomfortable institutional folding chairs waiting to speak with the governor regarding his educational policy.

John Dewey:  Everyone knows that children will excel when school is experiential.  Great Caesars’ Ghost, man, people  are assessing kids with a number 2 lead pencil?  To what end?

Albert Shanker (excitedly, spitting a bit as he speaks): To tear the heart out of the teachers, that’s what end!   It’s all about breaking the bonds of union solidarity.  I tell you, once teachers are assigned numerical scores, brotherhood will jump right out the third floor window of Roosevelt High School.  Defenestration. When that happens, people, it’s all over.

Jaime Escalante (sporting a a backward facing beret):  It gets worse, Jack-O.  When demographics “prove” that minority kids are destined to fail, some number two lead pencil pushing jerk in the state house or white house will say they cheated because everyone knows minority kids can’t learn calculus.

Dewey:  Surely you jest!

Socrates (adjusting his toga, standing): Say what you want, but teachers are used to being whipping boys for what ails society. When things go bad, it’s always the instructor’s fault.   Look what the Greeks did to me!  But if I may, how will students learn to think if all they are doing is coloring in spherical dots arranged in groups of four?  Moreover, how will teachers know what they have learned?  Likewise, won’t this tempt teachers to tailor instruction simply to meet the demands of the test?

Shanker: Hey, you with all the questions, Socrates, listen for a minute, will ya? None of this is about learning.  Not really.

Dewey: Not about learning?  Nonsense.  Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.

Socrates: The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.  Just sayin’. (He sits.)

Shanker: You are all missing the point here, people.  This about vilifying teachers.  It’s about punishing teachers for making a living wage. It’s about proving we are doing what everyone now believes he can do better than we can. It is about destroying one of the only powerful unions left in this country!  There is nothing in any of this about learning or kids for that matter.

James Carville (peeking around the corner for an instant): It’s about the economy, stupid! (He disappears.)

Annie Sullivan (adjusting spectacles):  But I have questions, too. What about the interpersonal nature of the student teacher relationship? Would anyone deny that the relationship I worked to develop with Helen Keller was an organic element of our instructional success?   Is there any way to give teachers credit for this?

Maria Montessori (with a trace of an Italian accent): Please,  someone, tell me how this system of assessing children and evaluating teachers will improve education, especially the education of the most fragile children with disabilities. I would like to know more, such as how choice and freedom of movement  and self discipline will be part of this instruction. I have always believed that the ultimate goal of education is independence and I would so like to see how this progressive means of  student assessment and teacher evaluation will achieve that end.

Annie Sullivan: Children require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction.

Shanker: Those days are gone, Annie.  Now it’s every man for himself.

Jaime (bitterly):  Yes, dream on, sweet lady. Leave no children behind, unless they are minority kids.

Annie Sullivan (sadly):  Or deaf and blind kids.

Montessori: Or disabled kids.

Christa McAuliffe: To think I used to really believe that we touch the future because we teach.   People used to like us.  Teachers were respected.

Socrates: You think so, huh?

(The door opens and there is a collective sigh of relief among the waiting educators. The governor appears, nattily dressed in an Italian suit. He conspicuously adjusts his silk tie and clears his throat. He stands waiting as if there should be some type of acknowledgment of his presence. When no such gesture is forthcoming he addresses the group.)

Governor: Sorry that you all have been waiting so long, but I am afraid I am off to a press conference now followed by a fund raiser.

Dewey: But what about the children?

Shanker: What about the teachers?

Governor: No time for them right now.  I have a state to run and people to pander to.  See ya!

Fade out.

Initial this…

First it was NCLB.  Now in New York, we face APPR, RTTT, AYP, CCCS, SLO, RTI….should I keep going? Because there are more.  Lots more.  The feds and Albany have us treading water in instructional alphabet soup.

I hate acronyms.    Not just because I teach English and the point of reading and writing is clear communication.   I hate acronyms because I hate  pretentious malarkey and scams.

At content area conferences and at faculty meetings, presenters are all about the initials. Makes you wish you had a secret decoder ring to keep up as the people in the know dole out new clues leading to the next pit stop on the amazing race to instant instructional success.

Using acronyms sounds impressive, though.  It puts pedagogy right up there with NYSE or NASCAR, two big institutions of American muscle and know-how.  Politicians can roll out a statewide APPR with SLOs and CCCS, assuring the public it will pin point failing schools and weed out ineffective teachers.  All those initials sound pretty official, right? Besides that, it’s fast and translates for instant tweeting and texting, a quick fix to a very challenging problem.  But what does it mean?  Nevermind.  Boom. Problem solved.  Now vote for me.

Acronyms are a distraction

But obsession with initials reduces complex issues to a bureaucratic sleight of hand and that’s really what I hate about acronyms. While people on all sides of education–parents, teachers, administrators– try desperately to decipher the scrabble tiles on the table,  who is scrutinizing the substance or even the feasibility of these proposed panaceas?   It’s a new take on an old con and Americans–educators and parents alike– concerned about the country’s future, are the suckers, students the shills.

What acronyms don’t address

One thing is for sure: improving public education in America should be a national priority. History tells us that only an educated populace can sustain a functioning democracy.  The problems plaguing our schools are multi-layered, though, involving economic and social issues that none of these acronyms seem to acknowledge.  As long as there are families putting hungry kids to bed at night, we will have students who will struggle. As long as we have families living in cars or in daily fear of foreclosure, we will have kids for whom the immediate need of shelter trumps homework and state tests.  As long as we have kids who emulate role models who “win” by circumventing the rules or through violence, we will have pupils who don’t respect the hard work needed for academic success.

No matter how badly we would like to believe in what the initials stand for, acronyms aren’t the answer.  America needs someone to speak plainly, to tell the truth: teaching and learning are hard work.  Boom. It takes more than initials to raise a child.