Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Many Prophets of Education

"An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't." -Anatole France

It's a tough time to be a teacher. Everywhere I turn someone else has appointed themselves the messiah of public education. There is no shortage of would-be saviors: politicians, talk show hosts, news reporters, those throwing their hat in the proverbial ring come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Many of these contenders has a seemingly-simple solution: abolish tenure, begin using vouchers, bring prayer back into school, establish more charter schools, make the school day and/or year longer. The list of 'simple' solutions seems endless. The only thing contending with its length is its lack of a clear understanding of just how complex an issue this really is.
There is a concept in literature called deus ex machina or 'god from the machine'. The term refers to the practice in ancient Greek and Roman drama of lowering a god onto the stage who would then decide the final outcome. The term has evolved and now is understood to be a person or thing that is brought in suddenly and unexpectedly to provide an overly-simplified solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem. In modern writing it is generally considered a failure of a writer's imagination. The easy solution is, in many ways, bad art. Nevertheless many people like these kinds of endings. Have a dying girl and a sister who sues to avoid being used as a source of spare parts? Bring on the car accident. Invest an entire season of your television show traveling a fruitless route? Oops, it was all a dream.
While these sorts of ending offer a solution, it is seldom satisfying and always lacks the verisimilitude (or realism) that most modern readers and viewers desire.
These types of endings make us happy. The feel-good solution is appealing particularly because it is so rarely found in real life. We like the underdog winning the championship, the long suffering worker winning the lottery, the love-conquers-all ending simply because it is so elusive in our daily lives. How else would we make it through our favorite team's defeats if it weren't for the hope, no matter how remote, that some ethereal inspiration might result in a sudden victory? Just today, my dear friend who is a personal finance adviser expressed dismay because one of her clients shells out one hundred and fifty dollars a week on lottery tickets and stubbornly refuses to see the wisdom in taking that money and investing it. We don't want the long-term, logical solution, we want the magic numbers, the winning ticket, the instant fix.
The problem is, the odds are against us. The truth is hitting the lottery does solve many winner's personal finance issues in the short term but without counseling on how to manage money many of these same winners end up in worse situations than they started in. It's the same with many of the proposals being offered for education reform. While many of them may provide short-term results, they are doomed to failure or, at best, limited success because they do not address the tangle of causes that lead to the problems in the first place.
This desire to overlook the complexity of the issue is hitting close to home for me.I live in a state with a governor who has compared teachers to drug dealers. He seems to have come into office with guns blazing ready to go to war with the teacher's union. He has, at every turn, sought to vilify teachers via their union. He has castigated both individual teacher at town hall meetings and the union that represents their interests. However,under his guidance, New Jersey's Education Commissioner botched an application that cost the state millions in federal educational funding. Imagine my surprise when he shows up on The Oprah Winfrey show firmly cast in the role of educational messiah. Chris Christie, the governor I have heard call teachers selfish, arrogant, and greedy gets to tout himself as a trailblazer because of a gift given to the Newark public schools by a wealthy entrepreneur but never once is he asked about his administration's botched Race to the Top application. No mention is made of his vitriolic rhetoric about the very people on the front lines of this battle to educate America's youth. I cannot help but feel this kind of blind praise is fundamentally misleading.
It would be equally disingenuous of me to blindly praise teachers. Every teacher knows that there are those in our ranks who ought not to be there. We, like every other profession, have our share of incompetence, but I can honestly say that in my experience they are the vast minority. The teachers I know and respect struggle every day to find ways to connect themselves to their students, their students to the material, and the material to the 'real' world lives of these students. The job is challenging but those with a passion for teaching meet those challenges daily.
I think one thing many of these would-be saviors fail to factor in is that education is nothing like most businesses. The people who decide to teach rarely do so for the money, most of them are, at least initially,idealist. Teaching is the type of job that draws those who feel they can make a difference not those seeking to make a fortune. I was drawn to teaching because it felt like something that mattered and I received advice from my father (himself a former teacher) that I have never forgotten. He told me to always remember that I do not teach the subject, I teach the child. What this means has become clearer to me with each passing year. This is a job that changes daily. There is no preparing for things like a student's anger spilling over on you because they have issues at home, a child who didn't do their homework because their mother has cancer and they had to take care of her all night. What of the child whose home was raided by police at two in the morning and then falls asleep in your classroom as a result? The variables in education are often incalculable and that makes finding a solution far more difficult than it may appear.
One of the many panaceas being touted is charter schools. While these schools may
be,ostensibly, more successful than open enrollment public schools, they have the luxury of turning some students away. These schools start on a completely different playing field than normal public schools because they have motivated parents who are required to participate and students who benefit from smaller student/teacher ratios. Smaller classes give teachers more time to interact individually with students which gives them a leg up from the outset. If public schools had similar ratios and a student body that was made up exclusively of motivated students and parents I have no doubt they could deliver similar results. Public schools, however, do not have the luxury of turning away students and therefore cannot stack the deck in their favor. Even if they could, when, exactly, did education become a competitive sport in which we would all benefit from cutting under-performing players?
The concept of merit-pay seems to hope to foster a competition among teachers. Those whose students perform the best will be rewarded monetarily. Despite proof that merit pay doesn't actually lead to improved scores the idea continues to gain steam. But what happens to schools if we turn education into a competition between educators? We risk creating the type of environment that pits one teacher against another and in its pursuit to 'reward' the few undermines the school community as a whole. How does this play out for teachers who are assigned under-performing or special needs students? Do they stand a chance of receiving merit pay? What about physical education teachers? How will we determine their merit? Are we going to start weighing students as a means of determining if the importance of physical fitness is being appropriately emphasized? Do people who teach honors students make more because they are given students with greater ability? Will this lead to competition for these classes and an abandonment of those with special needs because it is as good as dooming yourself to lower pay to take them on? The questions are many and those touting this method provide trite, idiomatic answers that evade the fundamental difficulties. If you pit teacher against teacher in a race to get the students who will offer you the best chance of cashing in then morale will suffer and you will have created an environment that is actually counter-productive.
What so many of those running for the position of educational messiah seem to miss is that education is as much about the overall environment of the school as it is about the individual teacher. Offering bonuses to teachers whose students perform well on standardized tests will only encourage the teaching of test-taking skills. There will be less time to develop a students' critical thinking skills, the skills they will actually need in order to become contributing citizens of these United States. If the goal of education is to produce students who are excellent test takers then the vision is dangerously narrow. Not every student is going to be a great test-taker and boiling down a lifetime of education to a single test or a short series of tests is just plain foolish.
Standardized tests are a snapshot of intelligence at best. They tell you what that child knew that day, they do not factor in the intangibles like the affects of distractions like breaking up with a boyfriend, having a fight with your mom, illness, fatigue, you name it countless factors can alter test scores. How many of us would be willing to have our intellectual life boiled down to one or two days of standardized testing? We do need to assess student achievement but standardized tests should only be one tool of many.
One of the things that seems to be getting only minor play in the battle to save education is the role of the home and the community. We forget that teachers see students for only a few hours a day and that the main influence in their lives is their parents. As a parent, I would be insulted if a teacher took sole credit for my child's accomplishments. I take pride in their victories but I also feel the weight of their failures. We, as parents, have to be active participants in our child's education and refuse to enable them to shirk responsibility. In the most troubled schools family life is often a huge factor in limiting a child's success. Any educational reform that fails to develop a plan to address these factors is doomed to fail no matter how many bonuses you offer teachers.
My message to all the would-be messiahs of education? As much as we'd all like one, there is no easy answer. Any educational reform must address the tangled web of causes or it simply will not work long term. I love my job. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to help shape the lives of my students and though I refuse to pretend that I have all the answers that does not mean that I won't keep looking for them. I wish our governor, Chris Christie, would stop seeking a deus ex machina, tone down his rhetoric and amp up his efforts to work with those of us on the front lines. There is no silver bullet here and until we are willing to see all the complexities contributing to the problem, we stand little chance of actually solving it.

1 comment:

  1. So well put, Bridget. I also wish that people would stop listening to the "huff and puff" of the Big Bad Governor and just start listening to reason. Common sense is one of those gifts that I think I take for granted-- I just assume that most people possess the ability to think rationally and logically on such issues, and that they do recognize that few issues in life are as black and white as some would have you believe. Silly me...Of course, I must share this... hope you don't mind. :-)


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