Ravitch opens with a brief history of US educational policy:
"The federal government has ballooned into...[an] all-powerful education behemoth... the trouble started [with] President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation...[saddling] the nation's public schools with a regime of testing and sanctions that is burdensome, harmful and ineffective....President Obama's Race to the Top fund extends federal control well beyond NCLB...states and districts [are] expected to evaluate their teachers by using student test scores, even though research consistently warns of the flaws of this method..."The Dilemma (According to Ravitch):
- "The present course is virtually the opposite of what high-performing nations do... Finland, Japan and South Korea have improved their schools by offering a rich and broad curriculum in the arts and sciences, not by focusing only on testing basic skills, as we do.
- These nations have succeeded by recruiting, training and supporting good teachers, and giving continuing help to those that need it. The Obama administration, by contrast, has disregarded the importance of retention and improvement of teachers, while encouraging an influx of non-professionals into the field."
The difficulty arises in defining what makes a "good teacher." What exactly are we training, reinforcing and evaluating? It is not simply reaching and maintaining somewhat arbitrary test scores. As a parent, for me a good teacher was one who gently stimulated and encouraged my kids to expand their thinking, their knowledge, their experience base. A good teacher was one who would open up new worlds, give homework that was exciting, meaningful and encouraged my kids to want to learn more.
- A basic command of the material they are teaching;
- (At least a rudimentary) understanding of learning theory and child development;
- Respect for students' diverse opinions;
- An ability to listen, hear and incorporate these diverse opinions;
- Flexibility in helping shape each child's skills while addressing individual needs;
- An inherent curiosity and enthusiasm for learning and critical thinking;
- An ability to constructively reinforce and shape emerging skills;
- Understanding and incorporating individual profiles and backgrounds into lessons and discussions to keep kids interested.
Teachers and administrators are so saddled with raising their students' test scores that a rediculous amount of time and energy is spent memorizing test material (vocabulary, mathematical and scientific formulas, rules) and test-taking strategies. School cannot be just about learning math, science, language arts. It must integrate art, music, literature, history, diverse cultural perspectives while modeling and facilititating critical analysis and problem solving, how to think creatively and critically, and how to integrate various resources and information to create a more meaningful 'whole'.
...Mathematicians sit around making patterns of ideas...we get to play and imagine whatever we want and make patterns and ask questions about them...By concentrating on what and leaving out why mathematics is reduced to an empty shell. Mathematics is the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage...to pose their own problems, make their own conjectures and discoveries, to be wrong, to be creatively frustrated, to have an inspiration and to cobble together their own explanations and proofs - you deny them mathematics itself.
...Do prime numbers keep going on forever? Is infinity a number? How many ways can I systematically tile a surface? The history of mathematics is the history of mankind's engagement with questions like these, not the mindless regurgitation of formulas and algorithms (together with contrived exercises designed to make use of them.)
...So how do we teach our students to do mathematics? By choosing engaging and natural problems suitable to their tastes, personalities, and levels of experience. By giving them time to make discoveries and formulate conjectures...
In a nut shell: Learning, must be meaningful, interactive (physically and mentally - involving multiple senses), and it must be thought-provoking. Kids must realize there is something in it for them - and not just passing tests to move on.
Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, I have been given considerable freedom to develop or tweak my lessons to meet my students' needs while keeping my interest (and my students' interest) level high as well. I have, for the most part been a very successful teacher. And this success comes not only from training and understanding learning, but from rolling up my sleeves and diving knee-deep into the curriculum: encouraging, navigating, and facilitating learning on multiple levels within each classroom. I look forward to the days when all teachers can say this and are rewarded for teaching kids to think and learn, not to regurgitate formulas or memorized meanings.
What do you think? I'd love to know.