Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Here I Am, Stuck in the Middle With You

I read an encouraging article today in our local Charlottesville newspaper, The Daily Progress titled "Expert Seeks Deeper Education Reforms." Dr. Pedro Noguera from New York University believes that we place too much effort trying to get students passing scores on standardized tests. Noguera also says, "we have found ways to insure that with the right strategies we can educate all kinds of people.” I appreciate the use of "strategies" versus "strategy."

I certainly appreciate Dr. Noguera's point of view, but to paraphrase a quote from a previous post, "we're drowning here and he's describing the water." A few solutions are hinted in this talk. He states “the people who make policies have never been educators and they simply don't understand, and even when they see it firsthand, they still don't understand what it takes to get young people excited about learning.”

I agree, but would also add that I don't understand what it takes to get an urban New Yorker or a rural Georgian excited about learning. I'm confident that given the right support and a little experience I could learn quickly, but the expert on exciting these young people about learning are the students themselves, their parents and caregivers, and the teachers who interact with them daily. Until the power to inform educational policy shifts from the distant politician and insulated departments of education to the stakeholders most invested in public education real education reform will not be realized.

The article closes with another quote from Noguera, “when you have students entering high school and reading on a third-grade level that is not a high school problem... that's a systemic problem.” We have learned in various disciplines that system problems have system answers. Top down reform cannot fix a systematic problem. In a hierarchical system, the actors at the top have too much vested to entertain significant change at the top level. What we end up with are myriad changes at the bottom of the pyramid which still support the unchanging structures at the top.

Where does this lead? As a teacher, the title of this post is addressed to my students. We are stuck in the middle together. Academics and educational experts know what quality education looks like and they expect us to deliver. Politicians and district and state level administrators expect us to meet standard measurements of performance delivered in the form of test scores and pass rates. This means that I live in two realities, with my students. We balance the demands of both, but more and more, the weight on the side of standardized testing grows and grows.

Here in the classroom, we are stuck, in the middle. The article referenced above stuck out because it is proof for me that people understand what we need in public education. Yet still, schools and teachers are torn between serving two masters. One master says test scores are the only metric we care about and the other says focus on learning that matters and not the tests. (Someone wise had something to say about serving two masters.)

That's the end of the post, but I can't create a title like this without giving proper credit, so here's a little Stealer's Wheel for your Wednesday afternoon.

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