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Teacher Philip Kaplan left the following comment on the blog:
The plight of Our Children, our schools and our nation
The ranks of special education students are swelling, and as the breakdown of society continues to impact the ability of public schools to deliver resources and services, the crisis deepens. Teaching today’s students is difficult by any definition, and as educators are blamed for the consequences of society’s collective abandonment and subsequent surrender of their young people to technological marvels, enter the government with their ridiculous plans to hold us, and only us, accountable. Enter the right wing politicians, desperate to discredit teachers to ensure funding for their political campaigns. They have blindsided us, stabbed us in the back, and have squarely pinned the blame for America’s problems on America’s teachers
There are dozens of variables in a child’s education, and to choose one variable, the teachers, and to choose two arbitrary points during the school year to measure that variable, is statistically speaking, unsupportable by any stretch of any imagination.
As I watched my ten and eleven year old children sit before their computer screens, as springtime weather called to them from outside the windows, as dozens of tests collected into one big massive distaste in their minds, I thought how absurd this whole picture looked. For two hours of silence, a highly unnatural condition for them to endure, I watched them struggle to do their best.
Two measuring points on a 180 day continuum was going to translate into my measurement as a teacher. Two arbitrarily chosen points on a wildly fluctuating line that changed as quickly as a child’s mood and their willingness and ability to focus and discipline their minds.
Now I fully understand the need to ensure effective educators. I fully understand that bad teachers exist and that the right wing agenda is to kill all the apples in the basket because of the one or two rotten ones. I fully understand that most teachers, most of the time, work hard to create a small oasis of hope and happiness if many of our most troubled areas. But most importantly, I understand, from the moment a child is born, that single event of lottery predicts and creates (perhaps a self-perpetuating lesson) an environment that leads one way or another. To believe otherwise is pure hypocrisy or self-delusion.
I even support the idea of accountability, but only when calibrated properly against the other variables that impact a child’s future just as deeply as we do. Start with the school’s ability or willingness to enforce a behavioral code, making the students accountable for their behavior. We will call that the Coefficient of School Effectiveness (COSE) Does the school itself create a calm and safe environment in which both students and staff feel that effective learning can take place. Then widen the circle and look at the school district’s willingness and ability to provide the necessary curriculum and resources that should lead to good learning outcomes (Assuming the district has the school’s “back” when it comes to behavioral accountability). Does the district provide enough adults in each school? We will call that the Coefficient of District Effectiveness (CODE)
Looking at the next layer of accountability, the school funding formulas that the states and districts use to purchase all the resource’s necessary to lead to good learning outcomes. Look at the average per student expenditure. Is that funding stream secure, or is it open to the vagaries of a whimsical legislature, intent on securing the necessary votes to remain in office? Is there flexibility built in to ensure that the five year old who enters school reading already at a first grade level is properly challenged? Is there flexibility built in to ensure that the five year old who barely recognizes letters and colors has the necessary interventions to quickly bring him or her up to an equal footing as their peers? Let’s call that the Coefficient of Funding (COF). Let’s not forget to mention the state’s scrutiny on a district’s suspension rates or dropout rates, and whether or not those numbers impact present or future funding. Oh, and the various organizations who sue districts for suspension rates or special ed rates for minorities that are out of line with what they believe they should be.
Of course, the home environment itself, out of fashion with the fantastic number crunchers and ivory tower academicians running education, has no impact on how well the young lady or man performs on those two arbitrarily chosen measuring points. Ask anyone making policy, and there will be a collective sigh and then the inevitable answer that goes something like this, “We have no control over the home environment and we can only control the school’s environment (Keep in mind the COSE, CODE and COF), so we have to have something to measure the success of our teachers.
Let’s take a collective pause in our discussion. Perhaps we need to clear our throats to rid ourselves of the collective crap collecting in our craws. The successful education of any community’s young people is the lynchpin for that community’s future success, but as anyone with more than a sliver of common sense can attest to, we are what we choose to immerse ourselves in. We are what we eat, and our most chronic sicknesses, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, have direct links to the choices individual people make on a daily basis. While the big companies that push GMO’s and sugar laced foods are doing what they are designed to do, create and market products, they are only as successful when we choose to buy their products.
Ok. back to education. Schools market a product. It’s called education. It’s called reading and writing and math and social studies and science. It is called college and career readiness. But most importantly, it’s called hope and dreams. It is the future we market. Or at least we used to. Nowadays, we’re forced to market high test scores and low suspension rates.
But if we are true to our convictions as educators (and not pyramid scheme salesmen) our product requires more than just a passive recipient mentality, the same mentality that laps up technology and sugar laced foods with impunity. Our product requires a mutuality of expectations and a relationship based on trust, responsibility and accountability. Successful schools mirror homes in which the people in that home are more involved with each other than they are with their own individual pursuits.
Let’s take another pause from education and examine oncology. Yes, oncology. An oncologist diagnoses, treats and hopefully rids the body of cancerous cells. If the oncologist is good, the average life span and quality of life of his or her clients improves, clearly a measurable outcome. Let’s take two randomly chosen days in the nine months that the patient is undergoing treatment and then create a test that measures that person’s quality of life. Should that person be throwing up or weak that day, that’s too bad, as the test was scheduled for that particular day, and to reschedule impacts other tests. Oh, and let’s make sure we only select patients for this test who follow all the doctors’ recommendations. That would make the numbers look really good, but in education, most caregivers do not follow our basic recommendations.
Returning to our nation’s classrooms, where education happens, relationships dictate outcomes. Good bad or indifferent, relationships build results, In a healthy environment, there are relationships with shared expectations between home and school adults within which a child benefits. It is that simple. In an unhealthy environment, the adults at home and at school have different expectations, little or no communication, and the child’s future suffers. It is that simple. If a child respects the adults in his personal environment, it is more likely they will respect the adults in the school environment. If a child is left to his or her own devices without adult supervision, it is more likely their behavior will challenge the structure within which a school must operate to be successful.
Let’s take another side trip, a corollary to this education essay, to look at the latest results from a test given every four years at the fourth, eight and tenth grade levels, a test that measures math and reading proficiency, as calibrated against the rest of the world’s industrialized nations. At all levels, across all demographics and grade levels, we are on the lower rungs, but digging more deeply, we are competitive at the elementary level, less so in middle school and by high school, are so far out in left field, that we are for all intent and purposes, not even part of the game any longer.
Again, the reason for this is simple. In elementary, children benefit from the village approach to education, where several people get to know and work with the students, where parent teacher conferences are more common, and where the home school connection is at its peak.
Suppose we all take a step into the kindergarten room, on the first day of school, where everyone is filled with excitement and where parents and guardians are the most involved. That enthusiasm and energy should be the norm as children move through the grades, so that by the time they reach middle and high school, home and school are irrevocably and positively committed to working together as a team. But something (or everything) runs amok of the goal and the goal of raising a child is bastardized until it resembles, of all things, a goddamn number. What’s the test score, what’s the numbers say, the numbers dictate everything but tell us nothing we do not already know.
But two things go wrong on the way to this ideal world. First of all, increasing numbers of our young people arrive at schools unprepared to learn in the school settings. So accustomed are they to the fleeting and momentary focus that screen time creates, their minds are literally wired contrary to what real world learning demands. So accustomed are they to a sense of behavioral entitlement that altering their behaviors to the currency of conversation and cooperation is difficult.
I recall a survey I gave students at my school several years ago, and of the 300 or so that replied, over 90% have a TV and computer in their bedroom. Over 80% have dinner with their good friend, Mr. Screen, a inanimate but strangely comforting friend who offers nothing but what the user desires.
What can we expect from a society that delivers their collective offspring to us with their minds already wired to expect instant gratification and immediate satisfaction and attention to their needs? Should there be any surprise that increasing numbers of our young people have no regard for behavioral norms.
The real surprise is that we, in public education, have managed to hold this crumbling infrastructure together for so long. As custodians for fifty million young people, we are the only institution with the ability to transform a nation and deliver it from its own nightmarish future. But there are some basic transformations that must take place, or we will become just another appendage to the unrelenting appetite of politicians, bureaucrats and business people whose credibility is dependent upon their ability to mislead, misdirect and otherwise confuse the vast majority of consumers that education’s maladies have nothing to do with them but everything to do with us.
Making a shift in education means a shift in checkbook policy. Take a look at a person’s checkbook and you understand more about that person than you can gather in conversations. It also means fundamentally altering the infrastructure that underlies most secondary scheduling. But most importantly, it means redefining and molding the home school partnership, so that as our young people move through the years, parents and caregivers are in constant communication with us, the educational experts.
At the end of the day, public schools can be the saviors of a nation. As the only institution in America that routinely sees 50 million young people a day, we have a chance to redefine our future. But instead of leading the way, we have lost our way and our mission, once clear as a bright sunny day, has become muddied and incoherent. Business and politics have so polluted our ranks that it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish among educational, political and business leaders.
Our leaders in education, at the district, state and national levels, have permitted the discussion to steer away from what is best for kids to what is best for funding, or what is best to avoid lawsuits, or what is best to hold onto jobs, or what is best to satisfy the incompetent meddlers. In other words, we have lost the voice of reason we once had, and we have lost the respect we once had and we have lost power to truly educate. Instead, we have become pawns in someone else’s game.
We give lip service to what is best for kids, but operationally, we don’t follow through. We are not allowed to. If we did what was best for kids, we would enforce behavioral codes uniformly, restructure our secondary schools to create a relationship rich culture, reform funding structures to ensure equality in opportunity, build strong home school partnerships and reestablish the teaching profession as the expert in all matters educational.
Until we regain our leadership role, public education will continue to be bullied and dragged into the mud. Teachers’ unions at all levels must reinvent themselves as leaders in best practices, and until that occurs, they will continue to loose footing with both the public and legal infrastructures of our country. Education leaders have embraced the conversation about single data point testing, instead of fighting against the flawed logic driving it. In backroom conversations, we all talk about the absurdity of it, but in public view, we refuse to take the lead, instead ignoring common sense and the legions of evidence that undermine its credibility.
Somehow, somewhere between common sense and now, yellow journalism in its most sinister form, has managed to shape our nation’s educational policy.
There over three million teachers in America, but somehow the shameful cases of a few scattered situations has been parlayed into a national image of incompetence, laziness and general indifference.
Real education requires an involved and active relationship between the teachers and students, and that active relationship in turn, requires ongoing conversations that mirror mutual respect and most importantly, a shared behavioral code. No one ever talks about the role students’ behaviors play in the education world, but that is the most important variable over which we pretend does not exist. Until behavioral codes are enforced across all demographics, in the busses that carry our students, in the cafeterias that feed our students, at the sports arenas that hold our students, in the hallways through which our students pass, and of course, in the classrooms in which learning must occur, nothing of lasting worth can occur. And until we, as public educators, take the lead in all things relating to a learning, and education, we will continue to lose those daily battles of attrition with which we are all familiar. And in the end, we will lose the war that profit hungry corporate America, aided and abetted by irresponsible members of the political establishment, is waging on all of us in public education. The children of America deserve better. They deserve our leadership, not our blind allegiance to an educational hierarchy intent on bartering with the enemy.