Monday, December 6, 2010

Our Education Dilemma

December, for me, is a time for reflecting and analyzing where we are now and where we should aim to be.  Diane Ravitch's OpEd in The Wall Street Journal Monday, November 29, 2010 "The GOP's Education Dilemma" begins the dialogue and hopefully by expanding it below, we can motivate each other to set and reach new goals as educators, consumers of education, and as concerned adults:

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):
  1. "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.  
  2. 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."
Regarding her second point: Recruiting, retaining, reinforcing and supporting good teachers is essential. Continuous, ongoing training, evaluations by education experts in a constructive, collegial manner helps maintain professionalism and enthusiasm.

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.

What makes a good teacher:
  • 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.
Regarding Ravitch's first point: our schools need to offer broad curricula and not teach for tests:

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'.
    Paul Lockhart, a mathematics teacher at Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn addresses these issues from a math teacher's perspective in his article, A Mathematician''s Lament.  Written in 2002, it has been circulating through parts of the mathematics and math ed communities. Below is an excerpt followed by a link to read the entire piece - well worth the time and effort.  
    "If I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child's natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn't possibly do as good a job as is currently being contemporary mathematics education.
    ...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 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.
      As a teacher in private school in Connecticut and working for Johns
      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.


      1. Great post! I hope you continue this discussion...
        I would add that a "good teacher" needs to have the skills to manage a room full of children, keeping them constructively occupied, while allowing them to express themselves without trampling all over each other. It sounds like a little thing; however, my (gifted) daughter had a teacher with little experience for first grade. Her year was spent getting off the bus in tears at the end of the day, partly because this "new" teacher couldn't manage the chaos that was her classroom. The principal had to lend her extra resources (including himself and the school phychologist) to help keep order in the room. It was a very distracting -- and completely anti-learning -- environment.

        Discussions like this should be all over the place, so parents, teachers, and all community members can see that there are different ways to send kids to school... and that different priorities can succeed in the classroom. Thanks for bringing this out for discussion.

      2. Thank you for bringing up such an important point - and thank you for appreciating and wanting to continue the discussion! I also think it is important and appreciate your support.

      3. I am with you on all the testing, which seems to produce nothing more than weeks and weeks of teaching to the test. We need to challenge children to think and to enjoy learning, not answer multiple choice questions on a test.

      4. Hi Meryl -- Nice to 'meet' you! Thanks for dropping by my blog -- What I found inspiring about the 2 classes I spoke of was the courage the students displayed in their projects -- one of the groups created a video (I don't have that one yet but will post when I get it) and during the video they wove a poem one of the students wrote. Each of them read a stanza and it was powerful.

        Janet Hammet, the professor and I have worked together for three years on various projects of this nature and always, she brings her class to the shelter first -- she believes it is an essential element of her teaching -- it is stronger learning when they can understand and empathy helps them to create from the heart connected to the mind -- as opposed to making it just a mind-game of having to create to pass.

        At the shelter we regularly have school groups from grade 5 and up (we're a big shelter -- we sleep 1200 a night) -- so the students can 'help' on many levels -- sandwich making, sorting clothes, etc. ( )

        Learning becomes secondary to the experience -- because in the experience more than just facts are taught.

        I look forward to visiting here often!

        Regards -- and thanks again for dropping into my space -- I appreciate your presence and comments.

      5. Great post. As a professor of Women's Studies for a community college I have my students look beyond the textbook readings to do further research on our weekly topics. They then engage in guided discussions with one another (I post a couple of questions to get them started). It helps them develop critical thinking skills and to open their minds to perspectives beyond their own frame of reference.

        The main problem that I, and other community college professors, have encountered over the past few years is getting students to recognize that they are in an actual college classroom. Because the courses are online there is a lot of IM (chat room, texting, and email type of language and spelling). Most of them do understand the requirements from my first week course instructions, and some "get it" after having points deducted over a couple of weeks. There are always a few, though, who continue with the mistakes as if they do not even understand academic quality work.

        Congratulations on your award!

      6. Our high school district is in a huge debate about how to address its shortfalls in meeting NCLB requirements. The current proposal, which looks like it will pass, is to eliminate straight honors classes in favor of mixed honors. Ten years ago, I probably would have thought this was a good idea. Having seen two children through high school (one highly motivated, one special needs) and with two more on the cusp, I now think this will be a big mistake and will not, in fact, achieve the goal of raising the lowest performing students up to the point of meeting minimum standards.

        My biggest problem with NCLB is that it approaches education as if it were a manufacturing endeavor. The trouble with standards-based education is that I have yet to meet a standard child. Doesn't exist. Each child is different, each classroom is different. The class mix can make a significant impact on the learning environment, and my experience with mixed-honors classes is that it ignores the motivated and high achieving students to focus on the lowest achieving or most trouble-making students.

        Have you seen Erica Goldson's valedictory speech from June 2010? This gifted student used her podium to pummel the education system that got her to where she is. While she made some valid points, I found much of her speech ironic. Here's my take on the state of public education today: Dear Erica, or Is Public Education Dead.

      7. I agree with you, Susan. It is frightening because neglecting the education of our future generations is neglecting an essential national asset. Why does it seem that no one recognizes this?