Education Reform Is Hard

And it always will be if the people who make the decisions regarding education policy continue to treat our schools as businesses. Schools are beginning to be rated based solely on their “productivity”, otherwise known as standardized tests scores. If a school does not perform up to standard the school can face a number of consequences. 

Probably the most public example of this is the 2010 Rhode Island “house cleaning” that took place in Central Falls School District in which the, “school board voted to fire all teachers at [the] struggling high school. Central Falls High is one of the lowest-performing schools in Rhode Island. It is in a community where  [the] median income is $22,000, [according to census figures]. Of the 800 students, 65 percent are Hispanic and for most of them, English is a second language. Half the students are failing every subject, with 55 percent skilled in reading and 7 percent proficient in math,” according to the CNN article, dated Feb 24th, 2010.  (See Bits and Pieces)

I want to be clear that I am not in anyway saying that the level of student achievement illustrated here is acceptable. But I also have to say, as an educator, that placing blame purely on the teachers is like faulting a dripping, sodden band-aid for not helping when you knew putting it on, that the cut was simply too big to cover adequately. I’m just saying that there are so many elements that affect the education a student receives, and I absolutely refuse to admit that it is teacher fault across the board.

The impetus behind this whole thought process is that President Obama was recently on the Today Show. The interview focused on education, specifically the need for teacher and school accountability, and how Obama also wants to see higher expectations driving our students’ education. One of the ways he believes this will happen is through a country-wide program the Obama administration started, known as Race To The Top, a competition in which states vie for education funding. Race To The top is to Obama as No Child Left Behind was to Bush. One of the goals of this program is to determine the bottom 5% of “failing” schools so they can either “clean house” like they did in Rhode Island, or disband the schools entirely and create charter schools. Another element that we will see as a result is to make the idea of merit pay for teachers, which already occurs in some school districts, a reality across the country.

Last May, I read an article by a teacher, Kathy Saxon from Washington State (My Turn: The Value of Accountability and Merit Pay) In it she discusses aspects of the business model of merit pay versus the classroom reality. She makes the comparison how in the business world employees are chosen and if they fall below “standard” in the expectations set forth by the company, they can ultimately be let go. Alternately, in a public school setting, students are not only scheduled into our classes with no interviews, nor choice based on ability, the students also have an undeniable right to remain no matter what their level of progress or participation. Therefore, if we could choose our students and/or seriously hold them accountable for their work output, then yes merit pay would make sense.

When I think of setting up higher expectations for our students, I automatically am reminded that we should first hold the students accountable for the expectations already in place.  States create tests that students must pass in order to graduate, but when most do not fulfill our expectations, we simply adjust the difficulty level. I think about times when I put way more time into preparing lessons and activities then the students ever did completing the projects. I think about the homework designed to maintain and increase their reading levels that they simply chose not to do. I’ve let students turn in late assignments. I’ve created homework passes to help them learn about deadlines. I’ve allowed students who participate minimally in class to spend hours at the end of a quarter or semester doing whatever assignments they can to simply pass, because it is made known that administration doesn’t want a record of failing students. And, I think of the parents who often support and defend their children’s apathy because their student is too smart, or they don’t like the subject, or they had a sport or some activity to participate in.  What ever happened to responsibility? What ever happened to wanting better for our children?

Obama did talk about parental responsibility and making sure students are getting the support they need. He talked about longer school years which research has proven provides students the opportunity to retain more information. These are great ideas, but there is one that I wholly disagree with. Obama said that education reform is not about money…that money won’t fix the problem.

Money is exactly the problem, because currently it seems that all the money that is going into schools is heading into standardized testing, and then evaluation of said tests, and then required time for teachers to analyze test scores in order to make sure the students are passing. The level of frustration that I feel towards not only the time spent around testing, but the idea that every single student is ultimately judged based on a test score is immeasurable.

So instead, I have an idea that would make teachers and students both succeed. Smaller class sizes. Instead of creating another test for our students, create a classroom that holds them all with a teacher to student ratio that is plausible. I recently spoke to a fellow educator who has 40 students in their class. How about cutting that in half and then provide enough books and supplies so the teachers don’t have to pay out of pocket. Smaller class sizes have always proven effective, but it takes money, and more often then not class sizes have a tendency to increase with each educational policy and program set forth.

Obama also spoke of the idea that previously U.S. schools were leaps and bounds ahead of other countries, but that we have now fallen behind. This is very sad. Perhaps though, this is more of a societal issue rather than purely an education issue… Maybe other countries hold to the idea that education equals opportunity. Maybe those who attend school don’t think of it as something they have to do, but something they get to do in order to make their life better. I truly wonder how many students in the U.S. value the education they are provided without struggle?

I’m going to stray slightly and ask why in a country known as the “land of opportunity” do we find people who don’t associate the importance of education with their level of success. Why do we as a country allow sports and entertainment to not only dictate our individual dreams of success, but also our reality? Why do we insist on making these people famous and therefore important to our lives? And why do we let our kids not understand the amount of work needed to succeed?

Everyone in this country should have an opinion on education. If you don’t think it is important to you because you have left your days of schooling behind and/or have no children of your own, you are making a very big mistake toward all of our futures. Education is the basis and ultimately the deciding factor that dictates whether our society succeeds or fails.  We may not see the effects fully now, but we will.

Our priorities as a country are not exactly where they need to be in order to make education reform a reality, to tackle what education really means to us. Educating our students is not a business, it is an opportunity for our children to grow and learn, and how we choose to raise our students is directly related to how much we are willing to spend on them.

I will leave you with this glance at education reform and what we are really working with... Obama opened the school year last year with a speech to students about the importance of education. My school did not show it. We didn’t because parents threatened to pull students if we did. The rumor was that he was going to talk about health care.

Bits and Pieces:

*The Rhode Island teachers were allowed, after months of deliberation, to return to their jobs AFTER they interviewed for their own positions.

*It can be argued that those we view as most memorable are often those who have contributed to the greater good of humanity. Researchers, inventors, and those that study the world around us are all elements critical to our overall survival. Jonas Salk, inventor of the Polio vaccine, is a great example of this ethic. He worked tirelessly to create the Polio vaccine, and he did it for the future of the human race, not for money, nor for the fame, but simply to help all those dying of the epidemic. Jonas Salk when asked who owns the patent on his vaccine said, "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"

*Obama Today Show Interview


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