Thursday, August 4, 2011

Education Reform and the Current Model

I recently watched this video "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Stephen Johnson

It really hit home for me.  I'm the type of person who always has numerous unfinished projects that I am working on, some of which I finish promptly, some of which I abandon before completion, and others that I revisit periodically, mull over, change, and adapt...sometimes over a period of years before they are implemented.  In the last few months since I started building my PLN on Twitter, I have literally been bombarded with a constant stream of ideas from some amazing educators -- information overload!  But themes are replayed and rewoven among other themes, and the best of these end up taking root, and ultimately blossom into a blog post (like this one) or something less philosophical and more concrete that I can apply in the classroom.

I've been saying for years that our educational system needs to be razed and rebuilt from ground zero, but until recently, only had the vaguest beginnings of ideas of what the new system should look like.  Last week I did the summary for the #edchat topic "In light of education reform, what will a teacher look like and be doing in 10 years?" (note:  if you think participating in an #edchat is informative, try writing a summary -- reading and rereading the posts really solidifies things!)  Josh Stumpenhorst (@stumpteacher) pointed out that it's more important to focus on what education will look like in 10 minutes, presumably since we will be there first, and while that's certainly a valid point, I think the question that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later, is what should teaching look like?  Don't get me wrong, imagining the future is a great exercise in creativity, but if we want to make real change happen, we need to be the directors of change rather than mere reactors to the change that happens to us.

I'm going to start with some quotes and conversations I've been involved with from administrators and colleagues throughout my career that provide me, at least, with some clear starting points for where I'd like to see change.

1.  "That's education!"

That was an administrator's response to a push by myself and several of my colleagues to change the structure of our foreign language program to allow students to repeat a course they had failed, rather than be systematically pushed to the next level of study with little hope for success.  I have come to realize the tragic truth in that administrator's statement of frustration intended to shut down our request.  That is education in a very broad sense.  The arbitrary grouping of students by age and the too common practice of social promotion ensures that many students will arrive at the next level of instruction in at least one subject area without having sufficiently mastered the material from the previous level.  What happens to a house build on a faulty foundation?  How about when a hurricane hits?  The same thing that happens to a child's education that is build on a foundation with significant learning gaps, especially when that child hits an emotional hurricane like parents divorcing, moving, change in economic situation, or simply the emotional storm we call puberty.  So why do we continue to try to reform a system that is so fundamentally flawed?  Meaningful reform cannot take place as long as we connect academic progress to a student's age.

2.  "She doesn't have the necessary work ethic to move to the next level"

An ironic contradiction to the above example, but our program while moving unprepared students along from level 1 to level 2, "weeded students out" before level 3.  This quote is from a conversation with a colleague and our department leader at that time in regard to one of my students who scored in the 90s on her final exam, but whose overall grades for the course were failing. Myron Dueck covered this issue quite well in his June blog post She met the learning outcomes, but she doesn't deserve to pass. My questions are these:  are we really assessing what we should be? or even what we want to be?  Is success based on learning or compliance?  Why do we hold back students who have mastered the material?  Where's the logic?  What in the world would motivate this student to repeat a course in which she passed the final exam, do the "work" for a course whose content she has already clearly mastered?

3.  Although I don't remember the exact quote, the gist of a conversation with an administrator and my former department leader was that I needed to stop focusing on student comprehension, and move more quickly so that I "covered the curriculum".  I know I didn't misunderstand, because I incredulously asked for clarification.  Again, where's the logic?  But this is an educational model that is enforced by standardized tests, the message to teachers being "Don't teach to the test, just make sure everybody passes".  The reform that is being pressed upon us now does nothing more than punctuate the initial message with a resounding "or else".

So here is what I propose to turn this broken system on its head and start making real change that can lead to real learning:

1.  We need to recognize the difference between having high standards and standardizing.  Standardizing makes the assumption that all students are the same.  Having taught for a year in a school whose population was 85% children from military families who had lived in Alaska, Germany, Korea, and many places in between, while the remaining 15% were children from the farming community many of whom had never been more than 10 miles from home, I can tell you firsthand that children are not all the same. Their life experiences are different, and their talents and abilities certainly are varied.  With standardization, if the bar is too high for Suzy, she shuts down in frustration and falls short.  Johnny, on the other hand, is capable of surpassing the standard, but slacks off when the standard is met because he has no motivation to achieve more.  The reality is that if our standards are tailored to each student, everyone achieves higher.  Standardization fits no one.  Individualized instruction plans need to become the norm

2.  The Space-Time Continuum

We continue to hang on to the 10 month agriculturally-based calendar that no longer has any functional purpose, and inevitably results in significant loss of learning during the summer months.  Technology (you knew it was coming) makes the classroom walls at best irrelevant, at worst confining and inhibiting to learning.  We need to mobilize and globalize our students' learning experiences.  Students need no longer be restricted to classroom connections.  Students should be texting, tweeting, skyping, blogging, communicating and collaborating with their peers around the world -- not just during class time, but "just in time" so that learning becomes a continuous passionate process that students want to continue on their "own" time.

Even locally, communities should be directly involved in student learning, so the lines become blurred between school and the "real world".  Authentic experience should be embedded into the curriculum.  Bring the "real world" into the classroom, and take the classroom out into the real world.  Hillary Clinton used the African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" in her 1996 book title.  If that is truly the case, then it takes at least that to educate our children.

These changes I suggest may seem radical, but who can deny that radical change is needed to solve the crises plaguing our educational system as it currently exists.  How do we get there?  The best each of us can do as professionals in our own learning communities is to effect change in our realm of control.  It starts in our own learning spaces, and it starts today.  If not us, then who?

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