5 Questions for . . .
Rachael Avery Barton, Middle School History Teacher in Leominster
Michael Capuano, U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’ 7th District
Kenneth Hawes, Senior Lecturer in Education, Wellesley College
Phillip James, History Department Coordinator, Lincoln-Sudbury R.H.S.
Véronique Latimer, High School Art Teacher
Arthur Unobskey, Assistant Superintendent, Gloucester Public Schools
Isa Zimmerman, Executive Director, Massachusetts ASCD (Association
for Supervision and Curriculum Development)
5. Choose any one of the following statements to respond to.
We have spent the better part of the last 12 years with a test-based accountability movement that has not led to better results or better conditions for children. What it has led to is a general malaise among our profession, one that has accepted a narrowing of the curriculum, a teaching to the test mentality, and a poorly constructed redefinition of what a good education is. Today, a good education is narrowly defined as good test scores. What it has led to is a culture of compliance in our schools.
Thomas R. Scarice, Superintendent of Madison Schools, CT
With regard to my profession, I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” This type of total immersion is what I have always referred to as teaching “heavy,” working hard, spending time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education . . .
Gerald J. Conti, former teacher Westhill School, NY
Our schools will not improve if elected officials intrude into pedagogical territory and make decisions that properly should be made by professional educators. Congress and state legislatures should not tell teachers how to teach, any more than they should tell surgeons how to perform operations. Nor should the curriculum of the schools be the subject of a political negotiation among people who are neither knowledgeable about teaching nor well educated. Pedagogy — that is, how to teach — is rightly the professional domain of individual teachers. Curriculum — that is, what to teach — should be determined by professional educators and scholars, after due public deliberation, acting with the authority vested in them by schools, districts, or states.
Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School
Rachael Avery Barton
This quote [Conti] only further emphasizes what I have mentioned at length previously. Our new robotic, cookie-cutter educational system is sucking the life out of teaching and the joy out of learning. If there is a topic in my class that sparks an interest, I would love to spend time on it, to foster that love of learning. I, however, cannot, as two weeks later there is a CFA to complete, or an administrator may enter at anytime and wonder...why is she still on Hinduism when the other 8th grade teachers have moved on to Japanese Feudalism? Then I am called on the carpet, for daring to pause and do a non-sanctioned project on something the students found fascinating.
Data is the foulest four letter word on Earth in my opinion. Each year I must give four large different tests to acquire data on students. These tests waste my teaching time, and my students’ time. I keep the data, and then you know what happens with it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It sits in a binder on my desk for two years until my teacher evaluation. Then an administrator glances at it once, and says great. Sure, the data could be helpful to me, if it was based on actual important things. Instead they simply pigeonhole me and my fellow teachers into an unrealistic and stifling timeframe and amount of content.
Was anything broken? I certainly haven’t been teaching that long, only six years, but I can remember when I was an elementary student. We were taught much less, but it was so much better! I found a love of books, and a love of social studies. I remember spending months studying the American Revolution in the 4th grade. Doing projects on it, field trips, dressing up in costumes. What happened to all that? I may have been taught less in terms of amount of content, but I find that young adults from my generation are far more “well-educated” than current students. Children these days learn too much, which means essentially that they actually LEARN very little. It is always on to the next thing. Why? Who says more is better? Or that even more is more? Neurologically speaking, the human brain can only learn and remember small amounts at one time. The brain can also not learn new content and skills at the same time. When teaching a new content, we must do it in a familiar way, using a method the brain has already mastered. Only then can the content be learned. Vise versa, the brain can only master a new skill (ie. Compare/contrast) when done with a familiar content. However, because of the mad rush to get everything in, to make the students “well-educated” in the eyes of the test givers…we must teach new content and skills at the same time!!! We are literally teaching against how the brain actually functions and learns. The current system is doomed to fail, as we are teaching using incorrect and impossible pedagogy. It is as if they are asking a trained mechanic to begin fixing car engines using a hammer and nail, rather than the wrench and bolt. We can bang at it all we want, but without an understanding of how the engine works and the proper tools to fix it you’re just going to break it further. This is our education system today. We are told by people who have no real knowledge about how to teach, or how brains actually learn, what to do, using unrealistic tools to do it with. It’s madness.
“Keep the politicians out of education.”
Again, I am laughing out loud. In modern times, politicians have ALWAYS made the broad decisions on education. Every politician who engages in this debate claims to listen to professional educators and, indeed, can usually quote dozens of studies to confirm their opinion. Leaving it to “professional educators” assumes they are the only group capable of knowing what our children should learn and how. Heck, see my answer to #4 – to which professionals should we leave it? Maybe government should be left to us professional pols! I know what is best for everyone and, after all, I was awarded the mantle of leadership by virtue of the vote.
Teachers (as a group, many individual teachers already know all this) need to embrace the fact that they are part of a system that includes parents, politicians, religious leaders and many other “non-professionals” who can add valuable opinions and experiences to this debate. Issues like this are hard and complicated and messy – that is the way it is and the way it should be. Simplicity and neatness lead directly to incompetence and defeat in everything, including education. I am guessing that this author never internalized a civics class.
What I’d like to say about all three of these is that there is truth in each one, but each one is somewhat overstated, and hence oversimplified. I’d like to acknowledge the kernel of truth in each one, while maintaining that more context is needed – needed for example if we are going to be having conversations about the content of each one with the general public or with policy makers.
Commenting on the second quotation – I believe in the John Dewey quotation cited by Gerald Conti. Currently, the popular view is that being well-educated prepares one for the work world. We are consumed by making sure that students have skills needed to thrive in the 21st century workplace. STEM courses do seem to be favored by some and “data” is the word of the moment. But as said in the answer to question number one, being well-educated may be difficult to measure. Education should enrich a student’s soul and prepare her/him to participate in our democracy. Students should be ready for the work world, but it is not clear that focusing primarily on specific job-related skills is the way to insure such readiness. Education in the liberal arts prepares one to think and to flourish as a person. If one follows such an educational path, s/he will be able to take on almost any 21st century job.
I couldn’t agree more with this [Ravitch]! It simply doesn’t make sense that people who have no background in education are making decisions for those of us in the classroom. That is what stuck out to me the most about the article about Finland that I mention in question #3 – teachers are trusted to make decisions about the curriculum and how to teach it to their students. Teaching is valued as a profession in their society – sadly this is not the case here.
Diane Ravitch describes the process that educational reform leaders followed in developing the Common Core. The Common Core document, I believe, is a clear, thoughtful statement of what our students need to know. As our accountability systems become more and more sophisticated, with a yearly high-stakes test as one piece of data in this system, teachers will know which pedagogies are effective and which ones are not. Administrators will build teachers’ professional development around the recommendations of the team that studies this data. While our pedagogy lags behind countries like China, the acceptance of the Common Core will enable us to focus on what we ask students to do to build their knowledge. We should catch up quickly.
Would that STEM did rule the day…then we would have creative and innovative learners and teachers and schools would be alive with energy and passion…
What is wrong with having agreement about what students need to know and be able to do when they leave school?
Because schools are supported by public money there will always be political influence and attempted control…that does not mean that educators cannot teach the politicians about what is important in schooling and convince them about the right degree of control they should exercise. I do not see politicians telling teachers how to teach…just what the results need to be so we have a civilized and productive society. Pedagogy is the realm of the educator and should remain so as long as educators are well prepared in their pre-service programs.