18 January 2011

On the role of schools in modern America.

There is a classic truism among educators in America. It is said that teachers in elementary schools and middle schools get into teaching to teach kids, and that high school teachers get into teaching to teach information. 

I, being a high school teacher, tend to believe that this is true. I got into teaching because I love history. I wanted to get paid to talk all day, every day, about history. However, like most high school teachers, I soon discovered that the history got boring. The kids, on the other hand, were never boring. They always bring new insights, jokes, and great answers (see: boat, U). This revelation, that I actually liked being around high school kids, literally changed my life. 

It meant that going to work was fun. It meant that I could build relationships with kids. It meant that kids would ask me for advice, and not just about that Frederick Douglass paper. It meant, in short, that I could change kids' lives. It meant that I began to see that all students were individuals, and that many of them were facing hardships at 15 that I would struggle to overcome at 30. In the long run, it made me much more compassionate to my fellow human being.

And this dichotomy, between teaching information and teaching people, is at the center of the debate on school choice. Critics of public school, and there are many, often decry public schools as places where children don't learn; or don't learn enough. To make this claim, they rely on test data. Data is the holy grail of education today. Data can get you to the promised land of Annual Yearly Progress. But there is no data that can measure the impact a teacher has on their pupils, especially impact outside of the realm of tested information.

Critics don't like to address this, because they want to live in a world of black and white. They want schools to run like businesses, with a balance sheet, and an easily measured outcome. Schools don't, indeed can't, run like that. Schools shouldn't be about creating automatons who know all of the answers on the state or national test. Schools should create young, independent people, capable of making socially responsible decisions. They should create people who can think. 

If you want schools to create students who have all of the answers on the state and national tests, I think we can do this. Just fire the teachers. Hire a bunch of people to babysit, and show videos. Kids will learn if you repeat the information enough times. Sure, they'll be sociopaths, but they'll make AYP. 


So, what is the solution?

I think several things are needed. Since this is a blog, I'm going to list those things, because it makes me feel like I'm important if you read these things.

1. There must be a clear mandate from the upper levels of state and national government as to the role of schools. No more of this "make AYP, have certain scores on certain tests, get graded "Excellent"". No; schools should be told what we already know; that our job is to train young people to reason, think, and interact in society as contributors, not just consumers of knowledge. I don't mind some accountability given to the level of knowledge our students have, but that should not be our mission. Our mission should be to teach them to use that knowledge.

2. Reformers, especially of the cost-cutting type, must recognize that students are taught by more than just classroom personnel. They must understand that students are shaped by their environment, and that means that a custodial staff which is a part of the building community is vital. When custodians feel like part of the team, they maintain the building better. When the building is clean and well maintained, both teachers and students feel valued. When those people feel valued, they perform better. The same goes for food-service and secretarial staffs. Too often, in the name of saving money, these vital services are outsourced to companies like Sodexo, and the people they put in the buildings are not a part of the educational team. 

This seems like a small deal, but it isn't. The classified staff in a building are more than just their hourly wages and job duties. They are adults who interact, in meaningful ways, with students. Many students confide in security guards, secretaries, and lunch ladies things they would never tell other adults (like teachers).

3. We must, as a nation, find some consensus on the role of schools (and yes, I know this is like point one, but I was raised in a church where the sermon ALWAYS had three points, it's all I know). Are schools supposed to change children to fit into society, or should we change the way we teach, and our expectations, to ensure students learn the material? Is it more important that a student know all of the state mandated information about the Great Depression, and therefore be allowed to turn in late work, to use their phone on a quiz, to not do the homework, and only the assessment; or  is it better that the student not learn the details, but be held to a standard that future employers will hold them to in regards to punctuality and attentiveness?

This is a question bigger than this humble blogger. I don't know. But I do know that the educational system cannot much longer survive without these issues being addressed. If schools are simply to put facts into young peoples' brains, that can be done, but schools need to be massively restructured, and many teachers will leave education. 

If, on the other hand, schools are still expected to teach all students how to be productive members of society, then schools need to be evaluated on the intangible things which they do. I don't know how you measure "lives changed" but I'm willing to bet that most students can tell you at least one teacher who changed their life. 

In the end, maybe putting those testimonials on the "school grade cards" would be a better measure of success than AYP. But what do I know, that's just what I've spent the last 9 years trying to do.

And now, as a reward for reading all the way to the bottom, a Soviet poster equivalent to that "don't stand on chairs to hang things" poster from your work. Remember, when using a pitchfork, don't stab your coworker!

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