Posted in Public Ed, Testing

Talking Education: Educate Yourself

Brian Langley is an award winning secondary-level science teacher in the Detroit area. He began teaching, as most of us did, with the intention of making a difference in people’s lives.

The day I officially changed my college track from dentistry to education, I ventured into Barnes and Noble and perused the shelves devoted to my new major. I switched to education for the opportunity to positively impact the lives of young people, though I admit a small part of me wanted to play a role in “saving education” as well. I stared at the rows of books realizing I had little idea what needed to be saved let alone how to save it.

Scratch any teacher and you will likely find someone who wants to change the world…one child at a time. We want to make a difference. We want to make an impact on how people live, how they think, and how they view learning. Most importantly, we want to change our students’ lives for the better so they can grow up to be happy, productive citizens.

For the next decade and then some I focused squarely on improving my classroom. Like so many teachers, I cared about the world of education swirling around me but the demands of the classroom occupied my time.

It’s likely that most public school teachers in today’s America are aware of the battle over education being fought in the legislatures, media and corporate offices. It’s a battle between those who want to preserve America’s public schools as a public good and those who want to fundamentally transform it through corporate control, privatization and the imposition of the “business model.” Other conflicts have sprung up as side issues of the debate — unions, testing and standards, teaching methods, teacher training, poverty, public sector workers/pensions, and the whole drive to privatize the public sector.

Educators, those who are actually practicing the trade, have been mostly left out of the conversation. The art of teaching…the science of teaching…has been analyzed, discussed and dissected by billionaires, pundits, politicians and media moguls, and rarely are actual teachers involved. Think about who gets the most media time in the education discussion…a Harvard dropout, the businessman mayor of the nation’s largest city, a secretary of education with no education training or experience…millionaires (or billionaires) all. Why is that?

Part of it, of course, is money and power. Money gives credibility to those with none. Most businesspeople would only hire credentialed attorneys, CPAs, financial managers, or physicians to take care of their personal business and personal health needs. Nationally, however, power is important…and money buys power.

For most teachers, though, the wider debate over public education is a distraction from their daily mission which is to provide the children under their care the best possible classroom experience they can construct. Teachers are frankly too busy and too worn our from their daily quest for the perfect classroom or perfect lesson to be bothered by the seemingly irrelevant debate going on around them. Their focus is , and should be, on helping their students succeed.

Lately, however, teachers have been feeling the effects of the outside world creeping into their profession — and by lately, I mean, the last 20 years. The status quo is no longer the professional public school teacher designing curriculum, teaching lessons and helping children grow as much as they can. Over the last 20 years the status quo in education has been, and continues to be, a standards-based test-and-punish curriculum, where the quest for success has been replaced with the quest for survival and real learning is sacrificed for test prep and triangulating assessments. The average classroom teacher has found herself overwhelmed by the amount of testing and paperwork needed to justify and prove her worth as a professional, and demoralized by the time it takes just to keep up.

Our teachers are drowning in a sea of standards and testing, scripted curricula and increasing class sizes, accusations and blame. Is it any wonder that many of them have neither the time nor the energy to fight back against the billions of dollars worth of insults and abuse hurled against them as a profession?

Imagine the frustration you would feel sitting at a Saturday evening social gathering listening to your friends and/relatives talk about the poor quality of teachers these days, those union thugs running schools for the benefit of adults not children, and the greedy teachers getting thousands upon thousands of dollars in salary, benefits and pensions. Imagine having spent the last week (weekends included) — 50-60 hours — struggling with behavior issues, academic issues, and the immense quantity of paperwork in the form of papers to grade, reports to fill out and parent contacts to be made. Imagine how angry you would feel after spending several hundred dollars of your own salary to stock your classroom with items that the school system couldn’t supply because of budget cuts. Imagine all that…and then imagine how you would feel if you didn’t know how to respond because you had spent most of your waking hours working rather than watching politicians and college-drop-out billionaires spout off about how easy teachers have it…how much money they’re making…and how they’re doing things all wrong.

Brian Langley describes his response…

Consequently, even after a decade in the teaching profession I still found myself inadequately prepared to intelligently talk about the state of education with similarly uninformed family and friends. After one of those uncomfortable talks I began a personal quest to decode the confusion of public education for myself. It has been a revealing three-year effort keeping up with blogs, deconstructing documentaries, highlighting books, examining reports, and bouncing ideas off colleagues. I have found public education more complicated than I had expected; certainly more nuanced than what is presented in most magazine articles and TV specials.

What did he discover?

What follows are five lessons I think I know now and think you should know before engaging in your next conversation on American education.

The lessons he provides are simple on the surface, but, like lesson #5, need to be looked at more deeply to really understand them. He offers both the surface treatment as well as deep understanding, complete with references to back up his assertions.

When Talking Education: Five lessons to inform conversations

Lesson #1: Americans think the nation’s public schools are troubled, just not the public schools their kids attend.
Lesson #2: The U.S. has never led the world on international exams.
Lesson #3: We are not a country of average students.
Lesson #4: Teachers are the most important school-related factor, though out-of-school factors matter more.
Lesson #5: Nothing in education is simple.

Some quotes and comments…

Lesson #1: Americans think the nation’s public schools are troubled, just not the public schools their kids attend.

Did you know that only 19% of Americans give our nation’s public schools a grade of A or B? Did you know that when grading schools that their children go to, 77% of Americans give their local schools a grade of A or B? How can we account for that discrepancy?

We know that the perception of the nation’s public schools as a whole undoubtedly involves information gathered from outside sources: news reports, documentaries, political discourse, etc. The parental perception of local schools, on the other hand, relies heavily on personal experience. This data therefore delivers an encouraging correlation: The stronger one’s relationship with the public school, the more favorable one’s opinion. This data challenges the current national message portraying the education cup as not just half-full but practically empty. When it comes to their local schools, most Americans simply aren’t buying the message. They apparently experience something considerably more positive, though their optimistic perspective remains largely absent from the national dialogue.

Lesson #2: The U.S. has never led the world on international exams.

How important are international exams? We’ve always trailed other nations on those tests, yet we’ve had great success as a nation. Is it only because our leaders are products of private schools like the aristocracy of the 18th century?

[Note: 8 of the 17 American presidents of the last 100 years (Wilson through Obama) attended public high schools. 7 attended private schools and 2, Harding and Hoover, never attended high school. Harding skipped high school and started college at age 15, and Hoover earned his way into college through night school.]

…the U.S. has managed to secure its international role as an economic, political, and innovation leader without leading on international exams. Nearly 50 years have passed since our mediocre showing on the FIMS exam; during that time we have continued to produce test scores trailing other nations, all along warning that these test scores pose a threat to our national future. Yet 50 years of American prosperity have failed to support such a correlation.

Lesson #3: We are not a country of average students.

…the U.S. actually produces more high achievers than any other OECD country in math and reading. The numbers aren’t even close. In math, the U.S. produces nearly as many high achievers as the next two countries combined (Japan and South Korea). In reading, the U.S. produces more high achievers than the next three countries combined (Japan, South Korea, and France)…

In the big picture, we are a big nation (with over 316 million citizens, the U.S. is the OECD’s most populous country – roughly 2.5 times greater than second place Japan) with a globally substantial number of high achievers and a regrettable number of low achievers. Of course, there are plenty of students in between as well but it is from the extremes that we derive our achievement gap; a gap decidedly correlated to socio-economic status. This socio-economic impact is not unique to urban or rural schools but is true throughout the country. Anywhere that there is a child with a lower socio-economic status, that child has a high chance of being a low- achiever.

Lesson #4: Teachers are the most important school-related factor, though out-of-school factors matter more.

Out of school factors account for 60% of a child’s achievement. It’s time to hold the rest of the child’s environment accountable, too. Teachers don’t mind being accountable for what they do, but (1) non-genetic prenatal influences, (2) inadequate medical care, (3) food insecurity, (4) environmental pollutants, (5) family relations and family stress and (6) neighborhood characteristics exert their influence as well. (see http://nepc.colorado.edu/files/PB-Berliner-NON-SCHOOL.pdf) Policy makers and politicians who allow America’s child poverty rate to be among the highest in the developed world need to be held accountable.

…the consensus from research indicates that out-of-school factors play a far greater role in student achievement than do school-related factors, with teacher quality recognized as easily the most significant of the less-impactful school-related factors. Herein resides a number of lessons. First, we should be willing to admit what should already be obvious – learning does not merely take place in the vacuum of classrooms but rather accumulates through the continuous interactions of daily life. The classroom may be a concentrated effort towards educating, but a life’s education continues beyond the classroom walls so much so that the out-of-school environment proves most responsible for achievement in-school. Unfortunately, some of the current reform dialogue ignores out-of- school factors or even labels such factors as mere excuses. Research, on the other hand, seems to support acknowledging out-of-school factors and working on out-of-school strategies that could lead to more in-school success.

Lesson #5: Nothing in education is simple.

…not in the United States at least. US teachers spend more time teaching and less time collaborating and planning. States with strong teachers unions have the highest test scores. Value added results vary widely from year to year. Research shows that teacher merit pay schemes do more damage than good.

…misconceptions…abound among educators and policy makers as well.

In his Conclusion, Langley expressed satisfaction about his ability to converse about public education intelligently.

Today I feel more competent discussing the state of American education, though part of this competency includes accepting that every time I learn something new, a door opens revealing an unexpected roomful of data and arguments to humbly study. I am encouraged that parents generally approve of the service provided by public schools, that other countries see qualities in our students they would like to foster in their own, and that many of our students possess these qualities while also producing high scores on international exams. While accepting these positive messages, I recognize the tremendous challenge in meeting the needs of our struggling students, especially those with lower socio-economic backgrounds. I realize this is a complicated matter involving in-school and out-of-school factors, and without a single solution. Alas, nothing in education is simple. The five lessons presented in this paper offer a foundation for shifting the national narrative on education towards one of perspective and poise. The education of our children warrants as much.

~~~

All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.

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Stop the Testing Insanity!
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Author:

Retired after 35 years in public education.

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