It’s time to go back to school and time to return to arguing about how to make American K-12 education competitive again. (And the WiseGoddess requested a teacher post recently.)
I’ve written a few law review articles about education reform and actually taught in a Baltimore City public school, so I have a bit more informed perspective than others shouting about their pet school reform initiative.
It is necessary to measure progress, but standardized testing has gone a bit too far. Every spring schools mobilize for the Super Bowl of tests with pep rallies, prizes, and lessons on test-taking skills such as process of elimination and how to write out your answer to a problem that in real life does not require a written explanation. All of this for a test even my 3rd grade students knew didn’t ‘count.’ When I went to school, progress was measured with these things called grades.
The test needs to be designed to measure important skills and better integrated in to the adopted curriculum. It shouldn’t appear completely foreign to the tests students have been taking through the year.
Rewarding & Punishing Teachers
The common refrain in the education reform debate is we need to attract more highly trained teachers. Anyone who thinks we just need to provide better training has never sat through 3 hours of “professional development” where the trainers literally read the teacher’s guide to you. These used to really piss me off because I could have used those hours working in my classroom. The only reason we had to sit through that was so someone in the system (probably not the principal) could check off a box to say, “Yes, we sent our teachers through x hours of professional development. See what good leaders we are? We’re making our schools better by wasting our teachers’ time.”
Another common argument is that everything would improve dramatically if you paid teachers a lot more. I hate the hidden assumption that nobody seems to notice. Somehow by giving teachers more money they will suddenly be motivated to work harder. This is a slap in the face to most teachers I know who are trying their best every day. Sure, more money would be nice, but the effects would be minimal because most teachers can’t try any harder.
If I were all-powerful, the compensation I would give teachers is the ability to stop time. While everyone else is frozen, I could have gotten a full night’s sleep every night. I would have had the opportunity to cook healthy meals and get a lot of exercise. I could have kept up to date with all of my grading, called every parent every night, and kept my room spotless. In fact, with this power, I could have stopped time often during the school day to have as much one-on-one time with each student (assuming, of course, that I could bring them outside of the space-time continuum with me — teaching a frozen student wouldn’t work; though some days it seemed like that’s what I was trying) to achieve the pie-in-the-sky goals of differentiated instruction.
Pay-for-performance schemes are a joke. The most obvious flaw is that the standards are subjective. Grading teachers based on their students’ standardized test scores would make sense in a perfect world, but in our fractured system it is lunacy. In too many schools you have to be a great teacher in order to achieve a moderately acceptable outcome. It is not enough to be an overall good teacher or even to be great at most teaching tasks. The way the system is set up, you need to be a phenomenal teacher who is great with every aspect of the job. The pundits want us to find more of these diamonds. I’m asking why we can’t redesign the job so us more common gems can be successful, too.
The Traditional Structure No Longer Works
The adherence to the little red schoolhouse model might be tied in to this American Exceptionalism crap. Just because you’ve been doing something the same way for generations (the American way) does not mean it is an effective system in modern times.
The One-Adult-Per-Class rule has got to go. The job is just too big for one person anymore. Imagine you are asked to open and operate a large 5-star restaurant almost completely by yourself.
You have to design the decor to provide a fine dining experience. You have to do the decorating and arrange the tables. You have to plan the menu (although the government mandates the recipes). You have to gather all the ingredients. You have to cook the food and hope it stays warm somehow because you are on to other things. You are the host, greeting and seating. You are the server, waiting on every group, taking their highly individualized orders. Some customers are vegetarian; some are lactose intolerant; some are strictly kosher. You now have to alter what you’ve already prepared, hoping it’s still warm and edible. The wait is too long, some tables have left.
You bring some meals to the diners, and head back to the kitchen to prepare more. Meanwhile, some customers are refusing to eat. Some say it is too cold, another says it’s too salty, another says the plate is too round. You return to the kitchen to repair orders. Meanwhile, one customer stands up, walks to a neighboring table and smacks a forkful of food out of the hand and mouth of a satisfied customer. You are the bouncer, and attempt to remove this person from the premises. The authorities return him to his seat and tell you you have to feed him. You return to the kitchen. Said customer stands again, walks over to a different table, stands on a chair, steps on top of the table, lowers his pants and makes a deposit in the centerpiece you took an hour creating. The customers flee screaming. One, maybe two bellies are fed.
Closed for the night, you turn to the paperwork including all standard business accounting activities and government regulatory compliance. You notice on the calendar the next day is one of the twice yearly visits from the health inspector. Paperwork finished and you have to clean the mess and assess your planned menu for tomorrow.
That may seem extreme, but the little red schoolhouse models would be a restaurant with a less ambitious menu serving a half dozen, identical, 100% compliant robots.
Instead of doubling teachers’ salaries; first try doubling the number of adults in each room. You wouldn’t need every teacher to be good at every aspect of the job, just make sure to create teams whose strengths correspond to their teammates’ weakness.
This post is getting long now, so for now be sure that this is the tip of the iceberg. I’ll let you know soon what I think of the wholesale/retail approach to educating a diversely talented group of individuals.