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Monday, September 3, 2012

A bit of a rant on educational reform

“Can teachers successfully educate children to think for themselves if teachers are not treated as professionals who think for themselves?”
Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education 
There is no such thing as a fix-all in education.

A fellow doctoral student and friend has steadily made one of her missions in education to expose the hidden agendas of corporations, misinformed politicians (large list) and how the media unfairly portrays American education. I’m jumping on that bandwagon.

 Our national education system is unmistakably becoming Orwellian and subversively being pushed in a direction that will ultimately hurt children and benefit large, wealthy businesses that create some of the fires we parents and educators need to often extinguish. I try to keep an open mind. I balance what I read between very knowledgeable educationists such as Diane Ravitch, who is spectacularly savvy regarding testing, curriculum and most issues, and neophyte educational reformers who really do not understand the underpinnings of our public education system.

As an educator and parent of two children, it has been my mission to learn everything I can to help our young population. I want to learn what I can do as a practitioner, what schools can do as institutions, and what universities can do as research vessels to provide solutions. The more I learn, research and understand about American education, the more I realize that for the most part, American students are performing wonderfully amongst their peers and compared to those around the world. If you disaggregate the subgroups and compare our non poor, regular education students, we perform similarly to the highest performing nations.What's often in the media and supported by large educational companies like Pearson Learning and many others, is that our schools are failing. That is a terrible and very inaccurate statement that floods newspapers and political rhetoric. However, I do wholeheartedly believe that the traditional format of schooling, where students are the receptors of knowledge by the teachers is a model we need to move away from rapidly, (more on this in my next blog entry).

We are failing. The real issue with modern education is not a problem with students or teachers; it is about poverty and cultural poverty. Poverty is by definition the deficiency of necessary qualities of life. Cultural poverty is another layer of poverty. It is the feeling of being destitute or powerless to change one’s life situation. According to the erudite educational philosopher John Dewey, it is impossible to change a school without changing the community. So in essence, if you want to improve schools then the community needs to change. If Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven school systems want to prepare students for a comprehensive work force and create life-long learners, then the politicians and the public need a strong, long-term plan to end poverty, period. It is fascinating how this reality is perpetually skirted. There is no magic pill, no creative program designed by university professors to address the growing gap. There is no such thing as an achievement gap, only an economic gap. The achievement gap is a fictional statistic that hides the impact of socio-economics in school systems. Don’t let the data fool you. I too have seen the results of prescribed educational plans make gains, but seldom are they long-term or panaceas for a larger issue.

I strongly believe that the true achievement gap can only be resolved when our communities, policy-makers and educationists acknowledge the growing caste system being created, the expedition of the separation of the rich and the poor and the intense inequity amongst poor and not poor. I am reminded of the Wizard of Oz with his smoke and mirrors hiding the vulnerable and willing man behind the myth. If we really want to change education, we really need to change our society.

I am writing this from a state that has a commissioner of education with minimal classroom experience. How many of us would employ a physician with six months of practicum experience to diagnose and treat a serious illness? Not me. Yet the commissioner has the Governor’s ear and was a big player in pushing through the SB24 legislation that uses language to identify teachers and pedagogy as the main problems in education. Why do so many believe schools can be fixed by data driven decision making, raising achievement scores and testing our children more? Raising achievement scores is NOT the answer. Moreover, to introduce a bill that would affect all 169 cities and towns is ridiculous. The lawmakers assume that this design would work in New Haven and Westport, Bristol and Avon, New Britain and New Fairfield? Each district has unique populations. To assume a one-size-fits-all mentality is stupid. This is just another example of what happens when people do not deeply understand how to fix something. I am genuinely terrified that there are people making statewide decisions and seriously think that this is the direction we need to go.

Yes, there are terrible teachers out there. Certainly less and less each year, but they are there. There are terrible doctors, lawyers, bus drivers and pilots too, but they’re not to blame for problems with the medical field, justice, or transportation. Those systems are complex and require complex solutions. I draw the analogy of blaming teachers for the condition of public education to blaming the autoworkers for producing poor vehicles. If I buy a lemon-I blame the engineers, the planners, not the people working the line. Yes, they may forget a bolt on a car but they are not to blame for a faulty design on a whole line of cars. Why do teachers receive the blame for education? My answer is that the true problem is too large for any politician to address. So they just keep the public in the dark. That’s the American way isn’t it? Blame some other group for the blight of our society.

The answers lie in equity, creativity, and thinking about changing the education system from its industrial-framed roots to a place that inspires and draws eager minds. It has to be out there, somewhere.