Thursday, February 13, 2014

Educational Reform: Who Is Driving The Bus?

Buckle up, kids. This may be a long one.

As you know, I write when something sparks my interest. It has been a while since I put fingers to keys on this blog, but recently I have had the opportunity to discuss our chosen field with some differing interest groups. I can't spit without hitting a half dozen people who want to talk about education and what we are going to do to change our system. They find me at parties, after school, on email, twitter, or in the hallway.

And I love it!

What happens in our schools matters to everyone. In the short term, our individual students get the most benefit. They are the ones gaining knowledge, skills, and experiences that will shape their lives on a daily basis. We, the teachers, are also growing on a daily basis with the real experiences we are having with students, peers, administrators, and curriculum. Ultimately businesses are supposed to see benefits from these day to day happenings in a more viable work force. From this, our state and nation is supposed to see revenues from increased production and this a growing GDP.

We are all on a this bus riding towards our short term and long term goals. Who is behind the wheel? Who drives educational reform? I started brainstorming some candidates and the list got longer and longer. Everyone seems to know the best way to do things in a classroom.

1) The US Government:
This is probably the most publicized, as it doesn't matter where you live in the great USA, you can always complain about the government. But how much is "the man" bringing us down? It surprises me how hard it is for Washington to push real educational reform. They can tie incentives to dollars, but in reality most of a school's funding comes from the states. Probably the most controversial attempt at changing education came in the form of No Child Left Behind. In my educational circles, NCLB is treated like the kid who farts in church. We all know it is there, but if we feel that if we ignore and never bring it up to each other, it will eventually go away. Here is my take on NCLB. The only problem with the law is that teachers didn't think of it first! We took it for granted that we want every kid to succeed. The problem we have it that it came from politicians who negotiated it into nothing but a nuisance. I wonder, if given the premise of the law (which is a great goal) if teachers could do it right.

2) The Market

I read an interesting article the other day on how capitalism should drive our educational initiatives. It follows that if we are going to compete in a global economy, we are going to need a workforce that is prepared to work in it. After all, what is the world but a giant system of checks and balances, policies, and goods to be bartered. Our students, and we ourselves could be seen as just cogs in this wheel of consumerism and free capitalism. The market determines what type of workers it needs, what type of skill and knowledge they must have, and thus how we should teach. This is fine except for the fact that it is too slow. The market changes every day, people's lives change every year. It is almost impossible for us to train a fifth grader for what the global economy will need in fifteen years.

So we make projections, we look at data, and try to determine the best avenue. When you look at data for the economy, you are looking at aggregate data, with millions of data points, averages of consumer feedback and voter patterns. Some may say that even with all the statisticians we have looking at this data, it is never right. If it was true, and not subject to change, most of those morning talk-radio guys would be out of a job.

And how does this aggregate data compare to data taken in a classroom? Can I compare the 25 students sitting in front of me to the average across the nation? All of those factors that are brushed over with millions of data points are now staring me in the face. Fifteen of the kids come from single-parent homes, eight have learning disabilities, four can't afford breakfast, and one of them had a parent get arrested last night. Aggregate data means nothing to me when I have individuals in front of me.

3) Billionaires

Bill Gates is a humanitarian. There are a lot of billionaires who have cared about education and sought change. We appreciate the money, we appreciate the intentions, but many times we need to look at how much influence they are buying. It seems that a lot of the money from donors like the Walmart Waltons (see below) goes to special programs, charter schools, and reform institutes. All of this money is going outside our schools, to auxiliary programs that may or may not have our students' best interest in mind.

infographic showing nearly $6 million in Walton Family Foundation donations to StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, and Education Reform Now

Donors who have money made that money by being successful in business, or a trade that paid them dividends. They make these donations as tax incentives to help in their businesses. I can't blame them, and really do thank them for being so generous as to choose education to invest their money. However they are still businessmen trying to make money. Their belief system, their values, and their expectations are still in place. They support their goals, or their beliefs. Does the Goldman Sachs Corporation have the same values as the kid in the back row of my class who spent twenty five minutes trying to secretly glue a girl to her chair?

4) Data

Getting a bit closer to home, I can tell you that if you want to see eyes roll in unison, mention data in a staff meeting. Businesses love data. Target can tell how many bottle of Listerine they sold next week in the last three years in order to extrapolate how many to order. They are very good at it. It is efficient, cheap, and technology driven. Things don't work like that in schools.

I am a scientist. I love data! If I believe in its validity, I can make some amazing predictions with it. However it is so easy to disregard any educational data as weak, varied, and invalid. It is very unlikely I can link how my kids did on a test to what I did in class. Sample size is probably the biggest factor. 25 kids is not enough to negate the variety of incoming levels, socio-economic class, or a multitude of other factors that could affect how they preformed on that Friday. Besides apples and oranges, I change so many aspects of my class each year it is impossible to see which change helped and which one hurt. Did they do better/worse this year because of the iPad initiative, the altering of some of the test questions, the fact that we had a speaker on Thursday, or the three snow days in the middle of the unit? Longitudinal data is impossible because I do change, and I should change things every year. I teach to kids, for kids. When the kids change, I change to accommodate.

5) Parents

I am somewhat in awe of the power parents have in a school district. If you want to talk about local control, here is the real deal. I can complain about my class size, the amount of materials needed for a science lab, or the need for a gifted program in my district until my eyes bleed, but once a parent speaks up, people listen. Get a couple of parents on board and you can damn near get a revolution in a school system. I think some would be surprised how a comment at a party to a school board member can lead to new math curriculum, or revamped band programs. Parents have a lot of power, and they should. It is their kids we are working with. They know their kids, they love their kids, and they want the best for them. However, parents are never unified. Never does a parent speak for an entire district. Parents are looking from the outside in, judging based on their past schooling experience. Does how they learned 30 years ago still apply today? If education is broken today, it was definitely broken back then. Also, not all parents had a good educational experience. Some still see teachers and administrators as "the man". So which parents do we listen too?

5) Administrators

This is my boss, so I had better play nice. I believe, and correct me if I am wrong, but teachers lose their "street cred" with other teachers once they leave the classroom. Some of the administrators I know were great teachers, worked very well with kids, and knew their stuff. They do a great job as facilitators of our school and at times can enact some good changes to our school culture. However, even being out of a classroom for a year, other teachers begin to feel that they lose the feeling of what it is like to face kids in desks. In a better world, admin would be free to visit classrooms on a daily basis to see what is going on, interact with all students, and be involved with classrooms. In a perfect world I think administrator should teach a section during the day. How would other staff view them, how would students view them if they were teacher-administrators? Sadly their job drowns them in discipline, meetings, money shuffling, and fires that they can't seem to ever get put out.

6) Colleges

Why am I doing all these projects, individualized learning outcomes, inquiry based labs, collaborative writing projects, and technological innovations in high school when in college they will be asked to sit in a 3 hour lecture hall with 650 other students listening to a woman read through a power point presentation? Too often universities hire researchers, not teachers. Nuff said.

7) Teachers
I bet you all are thinking I saved the answer for last. If you have read this far you can probably tell that I am very pro-teacher. Well I am, however if you think teachers can solve our problems you haven't ever been at a staff meeting.I have a lot of friends in the 'bizz' of education and I we rarely agree on anything! With so many initiatives thrown at us, we have had to pick and choose what we believe works and what doesn't. Most of the time the success of a class has very little to do with teaching methods, curriculum, or content. It comes down to one thing, and one thing only. The relationship the teacher has to the student! You can't quantify that, you can't teach it, you can't test it, but it is real. Teachers can't change the world alone. We don't have time, resources, or enough left in us after a day in class to do the things that need to be done. What we do is personal, it's individual, it's full of motivation, compassion, and care. We may not be able to change the world, so we just change one kid at a time.

Bonus Answer: Students!!??

There is a big push for student-led investigations. These can be very good, in small doses. I can't believe that we can run a curriculum on just what the students are interested in. If that was the case, I would have never learned to read. My kindergarten world revolved around which girl to chase at recess, not how how well Dick and Jane could jump and bike. My parents and teachers knew what I needed to be a well rounded adult and I trusted them to sculpt me. There were times when they failed, but overall I am sure that if I had more of a say in what and how I learned, I would not have interests in a tenth of what I am interested in today.

So what is the answer? EVERYONE and thus NO ONE! We all have our interests, but there is no one out in the forefront of this thing. We do our best with a system that is based on money, politics, and historical tradition. What should drive our change?

Just my ramblings. Take them as you will but feel free to comment before. Please add to my list as I know it is not comprehensive.