Sunday, January 03, 2010

I'm So Sick of...

...people blaming the schools for every problem the educational system has.

Michigan Teaching School Tries Something New". Great article from NPR. I will not dispute that most teaching programs SUCK. Even my program at a highly-recommended teaching college (which used to be a Normal School where girls were educated to become teachers) wasn't that great. There was too much focus on writing the perfect lesson plan (in perfect arbitrary formatting) and too little focus on working out problems. We were encouraged to "reflect" on our lessons but often those reflections were unguided "I think I did this wrong, this theory might have helped" statements; they were something a third-grader could have written and we never had the opportunity to teach the same lesson more than once, to see if our reflection and problem-solving would have actually helped. The result, at least for me, was a sense that it didn't actually matter whether or not you could learn from your mistakes and grow as an educator - it mattered that you got it "mostly right" the first time around, and the reflection on your lesson's success was a very small percentage of your grade, even during student teaching (we got 3 student teaching experiences, starting with simple observation and teaching of one lesson and moving up to a full-on teaching experience under a mentor teacher).

Still, it irks me that the comments on the article shove so much blame onto the teaching schools and the teachers for the failure of our education system (which I blame for the failure of half a dozen other systems, but that's a different rant). I don't think I've ever seen a front-page mainstream media article about a school board screwup, and superintendents taking huge pay raises gets regional coverage at best. I'm pretty sure if I told you the name of the previous principal at my high school, who was removed from his job for being skeevy (the details were kept -very- quiet, but there were allegations of sexual harassment), and then applied for (and GOT) the superintendent position for the district, you'd probably never recognize it. It barely merited an announcement in the tiny local paper. But of course, we don't blame the people in charge.

Never mind that the policies set by school boards and superintendents, by state boards of education and federal laws like No Child Left Behind are what inform every teaching school in the United States and are the standard by which teachers are told they will be judged. Never mind that Race To the Top, the latest in a series of ill-fitting educational reforms put forth by our legislators, looks more like a cutthroat, backstabbing, brown-nosing contest for recognition of "great" school leadership than a measure intended to improve the education of our children. Never mind that the White House is actually taking measures to educate a few groups of schoolchildren on the wonders of gardening (and it seems pretty successful)... the media isn't covering THAT. (NPR did, and I think Mother Earth News ran a blurb. Hardly the kind of coverage that inner-city kids successfully being introduced to healthy diets deserves!).

And especially, never mind that most of America, coast to coast, will tell you that education doesn't really matter that much. Who are our heroes? Sports stars who got through college with a 2.5 GPA and scholarships paying them to entertain us. Entertainers, picked by television contests and record execs without regard to their attendance at an educational institution. (Juilliard will get you into a symphony orchestra, if you're lucky. It won't get you onto American Idol). Talk show hosts (see: Oprah) who tell us how to make perfect cookies using Pillsbury cut-outs and offer heart-rending abuse stories for us to gawk at, but rarely mention that we should spend time reading with our kids. When was the last time Oprah's Book Club read a children's book? They don't bother with telling us about the importance of education until they're washed-up and the only paying job they can get is speaking on NBC's "The More You Know" commercials.

No, of course our society doesn't have problems that contribute to the failure of education. Of course, if we simply force the schools to adapt to the needs of our kids with free breakfast for all, free lunch, lots of teaching to the test and finding that magic way of picking good teachers (I mentioned in a previous post (see "Most Likely to Succeed") that picking good teacher candidates is being done all wrong anyway), we'll magically improve test scores and all will be well. Of course if we cut extracurriculars in order to devote more time to Everyday Math (I can't tell you how much I hate that curriculum) and continue to allow school boards to build multi-million dollar football fields instead of funding new textbooks, we'll teach our children that we really value their education.

Honestly, at this rate I don't think the educational system deserves a penny, but I don't think it's entirely the system's fault. With all the other problems in the world, how exactly is our failure to teach our kids the right things (whatever you believe those to be) the fault of the schools? Parents can't figure out how involved to be (see: Refrigerator Mothers (often blamed for autism) and Helicopter Parents (which I'd almost call a backlash after the Fridge Mom reports)), teachers aren't getting paid enough to deal with the bullshit kids bring from home and the bullshit administrators dump on them, and our teacher education programs aren't exactly admitting the best and brightest (Google "Teacher candidate SAT scores"). But even with "better" teacher candidates, perfect parenting and better teacher pay, kids would still be hearing from all sides that school isn't worth it.*

What do we do in the face of this horrible opposition? Make school worth it. Don't expect the people most important in a child's life to lie about the value of their education. Getting somewhere in life, as any well-educated, highly-paid executive will tell you, is less about what you know and more about who you know. That's not to say that education is useless - it's certainly possible to become a Somebody if you study hard enough and solve a problem in a novel way which gets you the attention of other Somebodies. And education can improve quality of life in myriad ways, too - some of which have nothing to do with the supposed end result of school: getting a job and being a productive member of society. Education can improve health and diet, provide for better social interactions, contribute to global consciousness and encourage informed political activity (and not just in the "protests and sit-ins" kind of way). With a good education comes a better understanding of the world around us, and a better set of tools to tackle daily problems. We can tell our children this, and we can prove it to them despite our "failing" schools.

So yes, our curriculum needs to be changed, both in teacher prep and in primary schools. But at the same time our attitudes need to change. We need to help our children apply skills to the real world, instead of assuming they'll go on field trips to learn those things. We need to show them that learning about electricity can be useful when a light bulb burns out in their night light. That knowing how to round and multiply is useful when getting party supplies for 12 guests, or figuring out how many valentines they need for the class party. That division, fractions and percentages can make sales tax less of a surprise when they get to the register with those valentines, and can tell them how many cookies their classmates will get if they follow a recipe. That reading signs and directions can be the difference between embarrassment at calling for help and pride in doing it yourself. And that it doesn't matter whether you can shoot a basketball as well as Kobe Bryant if you can't read the contract they want you to sign. Maybe when our children realize what education can do for them, a better teacher will make a big difference. Until then, why do we expect the schools to enforce life skills lessons that the kids can't practice inside the classroom?

*Hell, I'd even tell them that. Learn all you like, but don't expect school to teach you everything you want to learn.

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