Saturday, February 19, 2011

To call things by their right name...

We just finished watching Into the Wild in one of my senior classes, and the ending of the movie always sends chills down my spine. When Chris writes his final note, and signs it with his true name...it brings the entire movie into perspective for me. And, every time I finish watching it, that line sticks with me for a few days.

This time around, that line has combined itself with the other current thoughts swirling around me head (sorry for the pirate-speak...in other unrelated news, the newest game app I purchased for the iPad is Pirates vs. Ninjas vs. Zombies vs. Pandas...every time you get ready to launch a pirate, you get a good ole' "ga-harrr): why aren't we looking at the state of education in this country and seeing it for what it truly is? Why can't we step back and call things by their right name.

I came across two items on the web, both shared with me by my colleagues. The first was shared with me last Spring, as our contract was up for renegotiations, and the threat of "student-progress-as-a-part-of-teacher-evaluation" loomed near (brief footnote: I am not against this...I just don't trust any lawmaker who wants to make such a significant decision on paper and then "figure out what it looks like" after the fact): this idea (from superintendent John S. Taylor) takes these ideas surrounding teacher evaluation and applies them to dentists...the resulting analogy goes to show how ludicrous an idea can be when applied to a slightly different context. The second article appeared recently in the Washington Post on The Answer Sheet entitled "Why Teacher Bashing is Dangerous": it is an edited commentary by Stan Karp, a man with some excellent insight into the state of education today (be warned...it is a LONG piece, and that is only the edited version - full version can be found from link on that page).

The first piece is just entertaining to read, but I think it sheds light on the fundamental issues with the current thinking behind teacher evaluation - if the cavity is the bottom line, and cavity count is all you measure, is that a true assessment of "dental skill"? What if the "clients" are, in fact, consuming too much sugar outside of the dentist's office, or what if they don't brush often enough? Or what if they have a fear of the dentist's chair, and put off showing up for a check up, thus complicating the problem?

A now-retired teacher (who was, incidentally, my 11th grade teacher as well) gave me a great piece of perspective that got me through the really rough days: "you only see them 44 minutes a day, 5 days a week. They are making decisions that are beyond your reach during the rest of the day." When will the lawmakers realize that? Give me any student, and I will give you a set of decisions that child is faced with that are completely beyond my control (context: I teach high school). Those decisions will affect the child's education, and somehow I should be responsible for that? It seems to me that we need a social shift - the "blame" falls across all the failed areas of society (an entitled population, a lack of stable family life, the instant gratification of NOW, etc.).

Some quotes from Karp's piece that struck me:

  • First with No Child Left Behind, and then with Race to the Top,Democrats have been playing tag team with Republicans building on the test and punish approach. Just how much this bipartisan consensus has solidified came home when I picked up my local paper one morning and saw Gov. Chris Christie, the most anti-public education governor New Jersey has ever had, quoted as saying “This is an incredibly special moment in American history, where you have Republicans in New Jersey agreeing with a Democratic president on how to get reform.”
  • We need accountability systems that put pressure on schools to respond effectively to the communities they serve. And in my experience, parents are the key to creating that pressure and teachers are the key to implementing the changes needed to address it. Finding ways to promote a collaborative tension and partnership between these groups is a key to school improvement.
  • Teachers count a lot. But reality counts too...
  • Spending more money on standardized tests is like passing out thermometers in a malaria epidemic. People need better health care, more hospitals, and better-trained doctors, they don’t need more thermometers.
  • (from the comments below) Let's face it, 50% of all kids will be in the lower half of their class. 

Why don't the people with power listen to the people with the right ideas? (How's that for the utopic- naive statement of the day...). I am afraid of what the lawmakers are going to do, and I think they forget that any change they make will take 12 years (k-12) to cycle through to the results - and by then, four other change will have been made. And who deals with all the upheaval? Teachers.

And, far more importantly, students.

Folks, let's open our eyes, blinder-free, and take a serious look at what CAN work. This needs to be a conversation between ALL members involved, not a one-sided, corporate-politico discussion.