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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Would You Hire a Lawyer to Fix Your Flatscreen?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the way education policy is handed down from "on high," and it seems to me that it's a very bass-ackwards sort of process. In a common-sense universe, those who experienced the problems first-hand and were most familiar with the specific issues involved would be those who designed the solution. Educators would collaborate at their various schools, compile a list of the problems that affect achievement and proposed solutions. This data would be tabulated, boiling it down to the most commonly reported items. These items would shape policy decisions, which would be made by a committee of current educators, those still teaching in schools with the lowest academic performance and who would thus be most motivated to find real solutions.

Instead, we have politicians making scapegoats of the very people they should be looking to for solutions. People with no pedagogical training or experience whatsoever suppose that they know enough about the process of education to be able to legislate success, realism and relevance be damned. The socioeconomic factors affecting educational outcomes are ignored in favor of the assumption that only if the teachers worked harder all students would succeed. Such policies demonstrate an appalling ignorance in two primary ways.

First, the assumption is made that teachers are not already working extremely hard and doing their best to reach all students. Such an assumption is highly illogical given that failing to reach students results in class disruption and an incredible amount of stress on the part of the teacher. All teachers want all of their students to succeed. All teachers put forth a serious effort to reach students and help all of them to be competent at whatever skills are being taught. There is no teacher who comes to school thinking, "I hope (fill in a name) behaves like a fool and fails this week's test." The idea that a lack of effort on the part of teachers is to blame is simply farsical.

The other problem with punishing the teachers is that such policies ignore the students' part in their own learning. No carrot or stick is used to entice students to learn. One might object to such a tactic given that the desire to learn should be intrinsic, but if such were the case no education reforms would be necessary. Intrinsic learners are already succeeding. In a school in which half of the school is failing state tests, the other half tends to be composed of intrinsic learners or those whose parents enforce high standards in the home. Consequences need to be attached to demonstrating proficiency. These consequences need not be punitive, but they must be personally important to students. In years gone by, unproductive or lower-achieiving students were "held back," meaning that they repeated the entire grade if they failed to meet all criteria for promotion. Since then, studies have indicated that this isn't very effective, and the practice of full-grade retention has been largely discontinued. However, the practice which succeeded it, social promotion, has had disastrous effects on students' sense of personal accountability in school. Many high schools are using a more balanced approach, with end-of-unit tests being given in each subject which students must pass in order to advance to the next level. Such a system should be universal in all grades.

Those inexperienced and untrained in the field of education are simply ignorant of the issues involved and the dynamics of implementing policy in a real-life classroom. Those who have been out of the classroom for five years or more should be excluded from making policy recommendations. Only today's teachers working with today's students are qualified to tackle today's problems. The fact that no reform or evaluation system lasts for more than a few years is evidence of the foolishness of having politicians formulate policy for educators.

I would challenge any politician who believes he or she knows what is needed to make schools achieve to anonymously substitute in an underperforming school for two weeks during congressional recess. Do all of the planning, grading, disciplining, motivating, and intervention required of a teacher. Deal with the clientele whose problems you suppose yourself able to solve through legislation. Practice, if only for ten full days of school, what you preach. Then use what you have learned to formulate some policies (with the help of practicing teachers) that actually make sense.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, found this blog via your NEA Today comment on the Demoralization vs Burnout article (which until I read I thought maybe I was the only one feeling..uh..demoralized!)

    I'm also an Indiana teacher(elementary)and have struggled to put words to what public education is becoming. You've done a superior job with that. Thank you for writing clearly, cogently, and concisely about the abysmal reality of education today.

    I'd love to see these published in the major metro papers in our state - Indy, Ft. Wayne, South Bend, Lafayette, Evansville. Who know what might happen! At the very least your pieces might 'educate' some of those 'powers that be.'

    Thanks and keep on writing!


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