Tuesday, January 11, 2011

True Reform Cuts Too Deep

My Psychology class has just finished learning about the theories of Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis. An underlying principle of these theories is that some things are too painful or hard to deal with so we protect our ego through defense mechanisms. I'm not sure if it is just the leadership of our school systems, or American Society in general, but I believe that public education bashing has become a communal defense mechanism to displace the blame of our national problems.

Just over a decade ago, states across the nation began moving toward accountability through standardized testing. From my observations in Virginia, schools largely rose to the challenge. Virginia SOLs viewed as a minimum standard became a benchmark for certain under-performing schools, and a starting point for others. If the Virginia Standards of Learning are quality measures of student performance and school success, our students are doing well. Statewide results can be found here.

After looking at statewide results for all students, with the exception of one category at 83%, every other category shows pass rates of 86% or higher. We can do better, but we're not doing bad. In my classes, when less than three-quarters of my class performs up to par, I question my overall approach. When ten to twenty percent of my students aren't getting it I question my approach to those students. Public schools in the United States are not failing the majority of our students. Our political and educational leaders continue to look "outside" for the answers and demand greater measures of accountability to drive improvement.

Perhaps the answers to "fixing" our system of education can be found within the system itself. What stops us from looking at the qualities of schools, teachers, and students who find success in and through school? For one, I realize that part of the problem is that a "one-size-fits-all" system of education cannot work. That is one reason that some students succeed while others struggle, we use the success of the majority to justify our methods to educate the population. However, I also think that we are somewhat afraid of asking that question because of what we would find.

Two recent articles illuminate part of the answer to this question. The United States ranking in the international results of the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) administration has renewed criticism of the efficacy of American Public education. In a Washington Post op-ed piece, Robert Samuelson states "what we face is not an engineering problem; it's overcoming the legacy of history and culture." In another piece regarding the reform agenda of Michelle Rhee, the media's infatuation with her ideas, and the results of PISA, we get this comment: In large part, the answer is drawn from our brutal history, a history “reformers” don’t like to discuss.

The American public education system is exemplary. We have long realized the necessity of making every effort to guarantee an education to all children within the borders of our land regardless of race, parentage, disability, or attitude. In the drive toward accountability and the results of subsequent testing (whether this is valid or not would require more treatment than available here) we realized that we were doing well in educating the populace, but we are certainly falling short with some.

Now that we know which students are failing, we continue to do our best in the classroom to reach those at risk of being left behind. I can't take credit for all of my successes in the classroom. I've had great mentors, helpful peers, and most importantly some excellent students who sometimes perform well despite my efforts rather than because of them. Likewise, I cannot bear complete responsibility for the failures of my students. Critics of our system(s) of education from within or without do a disservice to our nation's children by leveling the blame on "failing schools" and "under-performing teachers." I agree that those problems should be addressed, but I will candidly admit, we can't do it alone.

Education reform that simply introduces new technologies and instructional strategies won't get us there. Calls for greater accountability and greater testing won't move us forward, they will simply continue to illuminate the problem that we all know exists. Privatization and business models will sell to the public and make someone rich, but won't get us where we need to be.

Any honest discussion of education reform must address the societal issues that impact the students we serve and their varied needs from community to community. That's hard work and requires us to think about more than just changing the way schools do business, but changing the fabric of our communities.

1 comment:

  1. Rhee's words to Oprah... "Our country's education system is broken right now," Michelle says. "It is failing our children. The children who are in school right now are going to be the first generation of Americans who are less well educated than their parents were. We're falling further and further behind our global competitors. "

    Sadly I missed that episode of Oprah...Rhee could not be more correct, but this is not the whole picture as you describe in your post. We live in a great nation, one that offers opportunity to all. We should appreciate all the good America represents but know we can in fact do better! There is of course the other not so pleasant side of American history. One that must be confronted and understood and when necessary corrected. We can improve much for the future with education. Some reform is always needed but complete reform in an effort to remedy all our flaws might just be a huge misstep. Only time will tell...

    Consider public perception of schools. Indeed the many troubled urban schools are failing and too many within other schools throughout the country are not being properly served. I am no data expert but I suspect this is not that new of an issue. So when Rhee claims we are failing the message is something new...not exactly accurate. What is new is that these issues have become a major focus as they should. In the process many of these reformed schools are now the sole model for all other changes. So we all agree we need to change some things, the question is to what degree we change. What happens to students being served fairly well? What happens to what schools are doing well? To paraphrase... schools are an easy scapegoat for all the failures of our society(family, poverty, race, business interests, economic issues).

    Schools are an easy punching bag and while they generally withstand the abuse over the latest blows from reformers and those driving agendas may indeed be too much for the strongest school to withstand. They are different somehow. They imply that nothing we have is working and that simply is not the case. Many others buy into this rhetoric and jump on the radical reform bandwagon.

    That's what is starting to scare me. Unless steps are taken to build schools up instead of tearing them down, the damage might be irreversible. Then they really will be broken and we(more importantly the students) will be no better off. Maybe just maybe Rhee realized this and got out before she herself was held accountable.