Saturday, October 11, 2014

A (Quasi) Rant on the State of Education

Is it still considered a rant if you are ASKED your opinion on an issue about which you have PLENTY to say?

For the past two years, I’ve served on a state educational advisory board. In that capacity, I was recently asked:
If we dismantled public education as we know it today, what would your rebuild look like?
Some general areas to consider:  the teaching profession, the school day, the use of technology, professional development, 21st century learning.
And here was my rant (or rather, my reply):
On Teaching Profession:
  • Until we raise teacher wages and cut the red tape involved in becoming and remaining a teacher, we will fail to recruit top candidates into the profession. (How can a new college graduate entering public education ever expect to pay off his/her student loans, live independently, buy a home and raise a family?) I fear the quality of people going into education is plummeting and will continue to plummet until these conditions change.
  • Respect and reverence for the institution of education has plummeted as well. This, along with questionable mandates and lower pay, prevents me in good conscience from recommending this profession to those who ask. 
  • We need a true mentor / apprentice program with master educators (who must be practicing classroom teachers) guiding new teachers. Our current system of student teaching simply doesn't work. Few cooperating teachers are master teachers, or even average teachers. I fear that many cooperating teachers are interested in lightning their loads rather than helping develop the next generation of teachers.
  • We need the time and resources for a true apprenticeship system. Ideally, this would be a multi-year process beginning with a full year of methods and observation (small group under the guidance of a master lead teacher), followed by a year of teaching a single class while meeting with a cadre of student teachers for group planning, observing, and evaluating. Year three would entail a half day of teaching using the same process and transitioning to a full schedule as a bonifide fulltime classroom teacher in year four. Currently, we “throw them into the fire” upon receiving their diplomas, and then are somehow surprised that most novice teachers don’t last 5 years in the profession.
  • We can’t let data points and crossing t’s and dotting i’s on federal, state and local initiatives diminish the personal nature and artistry of teaching. This is a grave concern of mine. In many districts, creative collaborative time is being turned into data analysis time at the expense of classroom creativity and effectiveness. Many of the best, most creative teachers leaving the profession because they are not being given the time or support to do their best in the classroom. As a result, paperwork and data points are trumping quality instruction.
  • Students are dynamic individuals, not widgets that can be weighed, packaged, and labeled for consumption (data analysis often feels like this).
On Teacher Pay:
  • Simply put, teachers should be paid more than administrators. Administrators, in essence, are support staff while teachers are on the front line. Research unequivocally shows that the single most important factor in student achievement is the quality of the classroom teacher. The most accomplished teachers (master teachers working with novice teachers in the apprentice system described above) should be at the top of the scale while superintendents should be treated as public relations specialists and district-community liaisons rather than instructional leaders and top bread winners.
On The School Day:
  • Matters like length of day, number of days, semesters/trimesters, summer school, etc. are small fare items that should remain local decisions. There are much bigger fish to fry in the state of education today.
On Technology in Education:
  • The key to effective use of technology is meaningful professional development. This means real time to explore best practices for each teacher’s own classes and practices before students have devices in-hand. Too many districts are going 1:1 without adequate professional development or support. This overwhelms teachers and causes classroom disruptions. Technology can be a powerful equalizer and means to personalizing learning. But the “getting there” is a process that requires much time and support.  We must acknowledge and respect this.
On Professional Development:
  • We are told to differentiate instruction for our students but rarely are our professional development opportunities differentiated for us. Much PD time and money are spent on initiatives that are extremely top-down, lacking relevance to individual teachers and their students.  This is a colossal waste of time which could otherwise be spent in rich, collaborative ways. Two requests: 1) Make all professional development directly applicable to immediate classroom practice 2) If a specific initiative must be covered, make the training DIFFERENTIATED. For example, tech novices work on basic skills while tech savvy teachers are given time to incorporate new tools in ways that make sense to their specific classes.  EdCamp conferences (often called “unconferences “ would be a great model for authentic professional development.
On 21st Century Learning:
  • “Standardized tests are useless until we have standardized children”  -  Mike Felske (my husband)
  • The primary evaluation of a child should come from the primary educator of that child, not from a standardized test.
  • Curriculum ideally (by leveraging technology) should meet students individual needs and interests. This takes a great deal of time and requires a different kind of student and structure. Students are not currently equipped, ready, or capable of independently designing their education. We need a new structure from  Kindergarten up. How can this be done?  The Montessori model seems to be one from which we could learn.
On Individualizing Education:
  • While not tracking students, we need to design a diagnostic system which both can identify students where they are and create a path for growth (while not treating them as numbers/data points). This is tricky business, but achievable, I believe, with a smaller teacher-student ratio and the prudent use of a highbred model of education (infusing successful traditional classroom practices with the prudent use of technology).
On Politics and Education:
  • Politics have no productive place in public education. Currently, we are at the mercy of politicians--- national, state, local politicians and increasingly powerful school boards---all of whom have varying motives and levels of educational expertise, but collectively have a grossly disproportionate impact on education. Classroom teachers are the experts on student learning, not politicians, not local elected officials. Though I’m an optimist by nature, it’s difficult not to read today’s political agendas by some as anything less than the desire to dismantle public education.
On Funding:
  • Funding simply cannot be tied to property tax. This results in an UNEQUAL free and public education and a majority of citizens who are resentful of teachers and unsupportive of their local schools.

A free quality public education is the key to social mobility for all citizens and essential for a healthy democracy. There’s nothing more important. It’s why I’m still here, and it’s why I’m taking the risk of ranting publicly.

Besides, it’s not a rant...I was asked.