Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Reformers Have Broken Thanksgiving

Mmm...More Gravy please.
With Thanksgiving Break just ahead I thought I get it started a bit early.  So I hustled from my classroom into the crowded cafeteria during one of our 24-minute lunch periods eager to grab a meal and scarf it down before the bell rang and the hordes of students headed out the door, some back to my class.  I waited patiently to place my order in the line.   I could have cut as some staff do but that never seems right to me.   The menu featured turkey, stuffing, green beans and mashed potatoes, all among the most American of meals.  I stepped forward and said "I'll take some of everything..and gravy on all of it too please"  But before she reached for the first helping of Turkey with the tongs, she paused.  She looked up just for a moment and then paused.  I hung on the slightest movement.  Then it happened.

She signed and said "You cannot get Mashed Potatoes and Stuffing Together."


She apologetically offered "it's not up to me" and she simply was not able to serve the two together.  The words stung me like a slap to the face.  I recoiled and said "Oh?"  I added a second later that "sounded pretty Un-American to me."  She agreed and I reluctantly chose the stuffing as she added to my gravy across styrofoam tray.

This scenario should not serve as an indictment of my school's or any other cafeteria in the nation.  She and they are doing their best.  (Nevermind the choice to throw away thousands of styrofoam trays a month...that seems flawed.)  But the un-Thanksgiving-like choice forced upon me illustrates the point perfectly and is a microcosm of education.  In an well intentioned effort to make things better, decision makers had done something that just wasn't right.  Sure child obesity is a major concern and yes healthy meals are important, but that did little to assuage my discontent.  Could anyone who decided that two starches cannot go together look me in the eye and make a rationale case for why that was so in this particular case?  I think not.  As a result of their decision, quality didn't get better, it got worse. 

And at every turn classroom teachers are facing similar sorts of situations.  Reformers, working to make things "better" are too far removed from ground level.  They've lost touch and in many ways are affecting change without really knowing the consequences to students and teachers.  The result is we feel powerless to help things improve and do what we know would make things better.  Paternal activism in this case is a bad thing.

I see it every day where testing, data collection, standardization and top down policy inadvertently interfere with the ability of talented classroom teachers to do their job well. But like the lunch lady, what choice do we have?  When we speak up we run the risk of being labelled an agitator or not a team player.  It's tough.

My colleague said it best:

"The only way to get common sense reform is to put decisions 
in the hands of those closest to where it matters most"

But we continue to move in the opposite direction in our misguided national effort to improve education quality.  No magic elixir exists and issues facing schools are as diverse as the students themselves.  Solutions and reforms should be local and driven by those with the greatest sense of understanding.  So unless you want to be told what you can't do as I was, then encourage decision makers to entrust people in schools to direct and affect change in the way they see fit.  Let them give me both stuffing and mashed potatoes.  It's the right thing to do

Monday, November 18, 2013

Is it Ever Going to Get Better?

“It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary,” Duncan said. “You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.”
Overcoming that will require communicating to parents that competition is now global, not local, he said.

So says Arne Duncan this week in Richmond according to a report from Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet.
It’s alarming that policy is directed in this nation by those so far out of touch with reality.

First, he’s attempting to frame opposition to Common Core in emotional terms. This shuts off rational discussion of pro’s and con’s by placing one side on the rational/objective side and the other on the emotional/reactive side. We see this as well when people evoke the mantra of “student’s first” or frame dissent in the corner of “status quo.” So far in America, this has worked. Reasonable opposition to modern education reform, questions and criticism that could lead us toward informed cooperative change, are dismissed.

Second, he’s assuming that accepted metrics of student and school performance are valid. I’ve given several tests this year and each of them has given me different information about students and their environment. I’ve learned a few times that students do poorly on tests because they haven’t taken the responsibility to prepare. I’ve found that other times the test was perhaps too hard, or my instruction didn’t prepare them well enough for expectations. I’m able to determine if a test score is the result of effort or lack of understanding in conversation with students about their performance. The test score doesn’t speak for itself.

Third, he overlooks the successes that we see in public education systems. How should the “white suburban moms” respond? We thought our schools were good. My oldest child graduated, went to a good college, and has a successful career now. I guess we were fooled. Now that we’ve got the “data” it’s obvious that this school sucks.

But perhaps the biggest problem is this. Common Core implementation is pretty new. I’m not sure that many locations have actually seen results of their implementation and the results of the testing. How are these “white suburban moms” already reacting to something that hasn't happened. It seems like Arne already knows the results or at least has a hope for what they will be. Are the Common Core standards an effort to measure the educational quality of the United States or are they a plan to prove what reformers want to hear?