Teach for America (TFA), the Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family, among others, are pushing an agenda that replaces education with testing and a one-size-fits-all educational approach that they say will help our students to succeed in the global marketplace. The catalysts for their approaches stems from the problems that face our educational system: high dropout rates/low graduation rates, students who graduate yet cannot perform the basic skills needed to be successful, and students with low motivation to succeed. Rather than address underlying reasons for these, which I will discuss further, they take the easy route and blame teachers, teachers unions, and the educational system for these social ills. These three items are not necessarily the fault of our schools, but of our society as a whole. What they are calling education reform does not address these problems; it just blames the teachers for them. It is like blaming the fire department for there being fires. After all, if there were no fire departments, then there would not be any fires, right?
The problem of high dropout rates/low graduation rates is not the fault of the educational system as a whole, but the fault of our society as it does not value education as highly as other countries in the world. The media constantly bombards us with news of how US students are behind students in Japan, China, Russia, or Finland. What they do not show is the culture of those countries values education as a highly important part of a civilized society. In China and Japan, for example, parents pressure children to do well in school and it is shameful if students slack off when it comes to schoolwork. The homework assigned is much more than in the US, but it is meaningful, it counts, and it comes with the expectation that it will be done on time and correctly. Students are expected to ask for assistance if they need it. As a teacher, I faced numerous times when students would not do their homework or ask for extensions. When I attempted to enforce a no late work policy, they complained to their parents who many times went to administration who then forced me (and other teachers) to give in and allow the student to turn their work in late. When I attended school in the ‘70s and ‘80s, this did not happen unless there were extreme circumstances. Furthermore, students who committed discipline violations that caused them the consequence of an out of school suspension were allowed to make up their work. Also, a rare allowance for my generation.
Another cause for the high dropout rates/low graduation rates is that educational programs, especially at the middle and high school levels, only address the academic areas of success. By this, I mean that many do not offer vocational programs for students who are not academically inclined. Instead, students are told that they all have to go to college in order to succeed. While that is a noble idea, the facts are that some students simply do not want to go to college, but would rather enter a trade. If there are no vocational courses, these students fall through the cracks and many become disruptions in the classroom. They see no need to study the academic areas in depth if they plan to become an auto mechanic or a cosmetologist. Yet, where is the funding cut many times, vocational programs and the arts. The arts are another area that usually faces cuts in funding, as they are not seen as necessary. Many students, including myself when I was in public schools, needed the arts to give me a reason to go to school. The arts connect with every academic area and many students who are gifted with a talent, when allowed to learn and use that talent, will also succeed academically. If you do not believe these to be true, listen the next time when a school board threatens to cut funding. The public remains relatively silent when vocational or arts programs are threatened with cuts, but when cuts to athletics are mentioned, the outrage is tremendous.
The next area consists of those students who manage to graduate without mastering the basic skills needed to succeed in the workforce. Again, those in power want to blame the educational system for this. However, take a closer look at why they are not mastering the basics and you will find another story. Part of it ties in to what I already mentioned prior to this, but another part points to the darling of the so-called reformers—high stakes, standardized testing. Students are taught the test in some places from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Yes, the mantra is that teachers teach to the standards not to the test. Bullshit. When a teacher’s career and salary are tied to how their students do on the tests, then the teacher teaches to the test. That is the reality of it. In addition, the tests themselves, which are products of big businesses such as Pearson, do nothing to measure usable skills. They measure how well students take tests. Most of them are multiple-choice where the student must simply figure out which answer the test makers want them to bubble in. They do not allow for a student to choose an answer and defend why they chose it. That would be placing learning above test taking skills as it calls for critical thinking and reasoning skills rather than bubble completion. Would those tests take longer to grade? Yes. Would they measure student knowledge better? You bet they would. The global workplace demands the ability to think critically and reason, not to fill in a bubble. I taught a great number of students who could bubble in tests with great success, but if assigned an essay where they needed to think critically, they faltered and many failed. The love affair with standardized testing has to end. Good teachers know this. Good teachers know that students must grapple with problems that cause them to think, to research, to reason, and to defend why they come up with the answers they do. That is what made America great over the years. Standardized testing only serves to enable students to work at places like Walmart or fast food because they do not really have to think, but just do what others expect them to do.
The American public laments as to why “Johnny cannot read”, but they also fail to see how Johnny’s parents do not read to him or make him read. Past generations had a parent or someone who read to and with their children. A major form of entertainment for students was to read. It increased vocabulary, enabled the ability to imagine and think about the story lines and the various plots, and it caused the child to have to picture the action in their head. Today, many students are babysat by the television or the video game system. They can text, be entertained, and not have to think because the media barrage of images does it all for them including when to tell them to laugh even if the jokes are not funny. Reading is a skill and needs to be cultivated. Math is another area where we are falling behind. How often do the children of our nation practice it? Obviously, not often enough. It is also a skill that needs nurturing and practice. Science is an area where we are getting our rears kicked. One reason for this is practice, or the lack thereof, but also it goes back to a skill gained though reading—imagination. Think of some of the great scientific discoveries from America’s past and they have their genesis in imagination. Imagine if man could travel to the moon. People did and made it happen. Students do not have to imagine anything if the media just gives it to them. That is a travesty in our society, not in our schools. If more parents would just stop and read to their children, or find ways to incorporate math or science into their child’s life, then the educational gaps would start to disappear. Any good teacher could tell you that, if people would listen to them instead of the corporate donors and their puppet politicians.
Finally, the lack of motivation in our students is lamentable as compared with the rest of the world. Yes, they are motivated by not passing a class—sometimes, if their parents get on their cases. One cause for motivation stems from the lack of support educators and education in general receive from the public, including parents. If students do not see education as valued, then they are not motivated to do the work. Lack of motivation also stems from students not being able to see why all of what they are learning is relevant to them and their goals. I can attest to this as an English teacher. It is hard to convince a student that Shakespeare matters. Yet it does as his plays teach us human nature and psychology. It is up to the teacher to show it. Good teachers find the hooks needed to reel in the student. Do they succeed with every student and every time? No. However, teachers try repeatedly until something clicks. The vast majority of teachers never give up on their students even if the students give up on them. It emotionally hurts teachers when students fail. Teachers take it personally when their students do not grasp a concept when they have tried everything they could to help them to do so.
What the so-called reformers are calling educational reform is the application of business principles to education. This results in a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Many of the ‘reforms’ they call for have teachers reading scripted lessons to students some of which even have maps that prompt them to say certain things as responses to student questions. It is like having a robot teaching classes. Good teachers know that all students are different and they learn in different ways. This is why the vast majority of teachers practice differentiated learning with their students. One form of this is through the use of multiple intelligence theories with students. Multiple intelligence theory basically states there are different ways students learn and if the teacher locates the areas where a student is strongest and gears learning toward using those areas, then the student will learn better. For example, one assignment I would give my students was to read a novel each month. They were then to present the novel to the class in whatever form best suited their abilities. This resulted in the traditional book reports from some; however, it also resulted in student created comic books, artistic works, musical compositions, plays adapted from the novels, videos, collages, and a number of other projects that proved to me that the student read and understood the text. The point is that the student read the novel, but presented their understanding of the concepts, themes, and overall idea the author had in mind through a manner best suited to their way of learning. It took me a longer time to grade them, but the students accomplished my goal, which was to learn. Any parent who has more than one child can tell you their children are different and do things differently, even the same task. The problem is that these so-called reformers do not see this and would rather throw a test where students bubble in an answer as being the solution to the problem.
I do wish to address one thing that always seems to be touted by these so-called reformers before I end this piece. That is the myth that teacher unions protect those in education who cannot teach. While this happens, it is usually not the fault of the union, but the school administration. School administrators are human. Many times, they are become friends with teachers or the teachers do not rock the boat for them, and yet the teachers cannot teach. The administrators protect these teachers to keep things easy for them and reward them with high ratings. I knew Social Studies teachers who relied on showing videos the entire year rather than teach their subject area. These teachers kept getting good ratings regardless of the evaluation system being used. The teachers who took a risk did not always fare very well, especially under evaluation systems that looked for a standard set of skills rather than if the students actually learned anything. I had this happen to me as I presented a lesson where the students were engaged and learned for a formal evaluation one time. I received a low to middle rating in part because the lesson carried over to the next day when the evaluation would not be held. However, a few months later, when the students were taking their final exam, I was again evaluated and received a high rating because the students were demonstrating their skills because they were being tested on a paper test. The first one was active engagement, but it did not fit into the specified period allowed by the evaluation instrument. The second was just students sitting there taking a test. Not something one could really call active engagement with material.
Teachers unions do not want teachers who cannot teach. It is that simple. Many teaching contracts are written with plans in place for teachers who are not performing well to be placed on developmental plans to improve their teaching skills. However, it is up to the administrators to place the teachers on them. If a teacher is placed on an improvement plan, they are expected to improve whatever skills they are lacking within a set amount of time or face further disciplinary measures including being reassigned to an area where they could meet with more success and learn the skills they lack or termination. No professional organization wants people who are not professionals within it as that only make the organization look bad. Unfortunately, the unions do not do a good job of bringing this to light in the media.
A new school year is quickly approaching. Rather than cower in the shadows, teachers need to stand up and speak up for public education. Teachers need to unite and be vocal when politicians and special interests groups try to lament the problems with public education, especially when those problems are societal rather than within the educational system. The problems within the educational system are societal more than with teachers or teacher unions. Are teachers getting more vocal? Yes. There are organizations beyond the unions, such as Badass Teachers Association, who are fighting back with words and protests to those who wish to change the system who have never really been in the system to begin with. Teachers are professionals, let them lead the reforms needed and have the support from the public and politicians and they will reform our educational system and save the future of our country.