Saturday, November 7, 2009

Excuse me? Give Obama a what?

A case of too many cooks in the kitchen?

Ruben Navarrette Jr ("special" to CNN, whatever that means) wrote an opinion piece praising President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and their dovetailing ideas on education reform.

Now, I don't know all the details about the Obama administration's education reform plan. I've read news articles on it, I've watched interviews about it, I've discussed it with people who are studying it. After all that, I still don't really understand much of what is going on, and I'm not sure if that speaks more about my intelligence or about the sheer incomprehensibility that I've encountered.

Navarrette (2009) claims that there are three main points that support his opinion on why Obama "'gets'" the issues of American education today:

"1) There are low expectations, not just for students but also for parents, schools and whole communities that are written off as not able to compete academically. Too many educators let themselves off the hook by telling themselves that poor kids from struggling backgrounds are somehow incapable of learning as well as kids from wealthier communities.

2) Too many educators and politicians treat public schools as if they exist for the benefit of the adults who teach there rather than the kids who are supposed to learn there. Because teachers have unions and students don't, everything -- including the length of the school year -- is geared for the convenience of the work force and not the clientele.

3) Those intent on preserving the status quo resist tooth and nail any attempt to hold them accountable by linking teachers to the performance of their students or, in an idea that Louisiana is trying and that Duncan smiles upon and would like to see spread to other states, tracing back teachers to the schools of education that produced them."

The following is my opinion, targeting these three points:

1) In a way, many people do have low academic expectations. But he is confusing "expectations" with "the bald and true facts which generate mind blowing explosions of confusion and stunned expressions." I also have never met a single teacher who believed students from low SES backgrounds are "incapable of learning." Oh they can learn alright. I know students who can absorb, evaluate, apply, and extrapolate knowledge on wider and deeper levels than some college educated adults.

They are just not learning the same things as students from higher SES backgrounds, mostly because of two reasons - access and culture. And in that way, the fact remains. It is not that they lack the ability to compete. It's that they are currently not competing at all. At least not in the way traditional American education and economics define competition.

2) Oh hell no. You did not just trample upon my rights to have a fulfilling, and decently paid job with which I can "pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The ideal of schools fully benefiting the "work force" and the "clientele" is just that, ideal. Because right now, no one is benefiting from schools very much at all.

The traditional school year is geared for the convenience of small farm agricultural practices, which was the driving force of the American economy way back when. It came about because early American students were mostly children of farmers, and they had to return home by the early afternoon to help with chores. Which meant they had to arrive at school (if they arrived at all) at the butt crack of dawn. This is why some schools start at 7 AM and release at 12:30 PM.

There are still some independent farms, and this system works well for that community. But most students live in urban or suburban areas, and their afternoons are freely used to wander the streets, watch too much trashy TV, crowd the local strip malls, or sit at home alone. These students arrive at school half asleep. Those who take part in federally funded after school programs arrive home, again half asleep. During certain parts of the year, they do not see the light of day in their own home (I know I don't). I don't need to be in the medical profession to see the potential health dangers here.

Navarrette probably hasn't experienced the circus that is afternoon release time either. Cars lined up on dinky residential streets (or clogging up major roads), picking up students (or running them over - hey, it has happened), leaving cars running as the parent goes into the school to "talk for a minute" with the teacher (it never is just a minute). Not to mention the inconvenience to the parent of having to leave work (assuming they work at that time) to pick up their kids. And some employers don't allow even that.

And really? I'm sure I don't speak for only myself when I say that arriving at school just a few minutes before students, and staying after school another two hours is "convenient." Let's be clear: IT IS NOT. It is not convenient to hit the ground running the moment my foot lands on campus. It is not convenient to have a 10 minute recess during the morning's three and a half hours - and 98% of the time, it is a recess in name only. It is not convenient to have a 40 minute lunch, 10 minutes of which is used to line up students and take them to where they need to go, 10 minutes to actually eat AND pee (not at the same time, but I'll be lying if I said I wasn't tempted to sometimes), and 20 minutes prepping/lesson planning/taking care of individual student needs because there is zero time to address them during official class time. It is not convenient to cram four more subjects in the day's remaining two hours. It is not convenient to have two 50 minute preps for the entire week. It is not convenient to use half of those preps covering for classes where the sub didn't show, or fixing the copier that has once again jammed, or helping a colleague with students who have issues that is not the fault of the school, the teacher, his peers, or even himself. It is not convenient to bring stacks of grading back to my house for me to burn the midnight oil.

Granted, not every teacher does this. I only just started bring work home this week because I've been teaching more. But teachers do. And it is not convenient, and that is the truth.

I'm not even going to attempt to TRY to find out how Navarrette sees convenience in all of that - and then some - for anybody.

3) Ok, the second half of this point doesn't sound all that bad. There are some pretty awful teacher preparation programs out there - however the pre-service teacher won't know it until they have been through the grind. So it might be nice to have some sort of "best school" ranking there, like how they do it for undergrad and grad.

But I am a huge non-proponent for judging teachers based solely on the academic performance of his/her students. Huge. Of course it should be a part of the assessment, but definitely not the whole.

The opposite of linking student academics to teacher performance isn't keeping the status quo, as Navarrette assumes. Actually, it IS the status quo. Has been for the past 7-8 years. But apparently, they've forgotten about that little bit in NCLB - that's what chucking the terminology and keeping the meaning does to your mind.

It is not fair to judge a teacher for things that are outside of their control. Academic performance is only partly within the realm of a teacher's reach - some of it is not. Background knowledge, home culture, community culture, SES (it comes back to that too, doesn't it?), disabilities, and emotional issues that the student deals. Teachers definitely make a dent in these things for the better. It does not happen all at once, over the course of a single year. Besides, by the time the positive effects the teacher has accomplished over students finally take hold, the teacher has had at least one other group of students with a completely different set of unique needs of their own. Thus, the cycle continues.

What is the status quo right now? It is a bureaucracy. There is a chairperson for this, a director for that, a committee that does something else, and a superintendent who over sees God only knows what. "Bureaucracy feeds upon itself," that's what it is now. If each of those people on the staff hierarchy takes 30 minutes each week to tutor a student, there would be much more learning going on. I welcome anyone to use my classroom after school for tutoring. Because I'll be across the room, doing the same thing. The only difference is that I'll probably be doing it every day of the week.

More accountability means more bureaucracy. And I have never seen a single piece of scientific research that says bureaucracy improves student academic performance.

Whoa, I just realized how to fill the remaining 4 pages of my next paper. Nice.

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