Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rage, Rage against the dying of the light

These words by Dylan Thomas have always resonated for me particularly in time of adversity.  The current educational environment definitely qualifies as such a time for educators.  I have had the privilege during my career in education to serve in either an administrative or teaching capacity at all levels of the public education system (Prek-12). When children enter our system they are full of the light of curiosity and wonder. Each day brings new discoveries and teachers have the opportunity to guide that journey. Slowly, as the years progress, our educational system as currently configured seems to drive out that sense of curiosity and wonder in favor of conformity, accountability and rigor.  Teachers along the way struggle to keep students engaged and yet the volume of what they have to cover in a given year works against them.

Creativity and innovation take time. Time to conduct activities necessary to nurture those qualities. Time for teachers to plan those activities required for stimulating and engaging students’ imaginations. Unfortunately, time is something of a premium in today’s schools. Educators struggle to implement and respond to all the initiatives promulgated by the State and Federal government. Professional development days are often dedicated to attempting to insure compliance with mandates rather than being responsive to what teachers feel are the areas important for them to hone their craft and improve instruction in their classroom. Furthermore, when it seems that there just might be some breathing room, and that happens very infrequently these days, we are hit with another mandate to “improve” our schools. Educators are fatigued. There is no other way to describe it. Teachers entered this profession to inspire students to explore the world around them to discover and follow their passions. Watching students shut down at an earlier and earlier age tears at the core of their professionalism.

Now that we are bringing supposed "rigor" down to lower grade levels and many children are beginning to struggle with the material, those same teachers are being attacked for questioning whether it is developmentally appropriate. The guiding force behind this movement accuses them or at the very least implies that they are lazy or soft and don't support a rigorous curriculum. That is far from the truth and I ask you: Who has the professional expertise to make the determination of what constitutes appropriate rigor? Why have teachers largely been left out of this discussion?

The light of creativity and student engagement are the greatest casualties of the education reform movement. Teachers recognize this and express frustration, but their concerns are disregarded or minimized. We will not achieve greatness in our educational system until we break free of the bonds that are driving us towards mediocrity. We have had over a decade of minimal growth under our current reform efforts and yet the response is that we have to increase those same types of mandates. At what point do we realize our error and open the discussion to find an alternative? Some productive middle ground where we hold educators accountable while recognizing their professionalism and work with them to develop a system that functions without being oppressive. 

No one ever achieved greatness merely by having someone constantly look over their shoulder. Greatness occurs when remarkable people are inspired to push beyond the ordinary. It occurs when we have time to reflect on our current practices to create curriculum, units and lessons that engage students and ignite their passions. The “stick” approach to education is not getting us the gains we need so it is time to find the carrot. It is time to shift our thinking from focusing on the delivery of content to a focus on the questions that our content is designed to answer. We must develop an educational system where students are inspired to explore, question and push themselves to discover their world. Finally, educators we need to make our voices heard; do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Enough is Enough!

We are at a pivotal juncture in this country with respect to education. Over the past decade, we have seen a dramatic escalation in the involvement of the Federal Government in education. There seems to be the belief in Washington that the alleged problems in public education in the U.S. can be corrected through national standards, increased regulations, standardized testing, and mandates regarding what and how our children should be taught. It seems that government at both the State and Federal levels want to take control of education away from locally elected officials and place that control in the hands of bureaucrats in the various state capitals and Washington.  Nowhere is that practice more evident than here in Massachusetts

We are drowning in initiatives. Even if they were all good ideas, there is no way we could effectively implement them all. They are getting in the way of each other and working to inhibit necessary change and progress. The number and pace of regulations to which we must respond and comply is increasing at an alarming rate. The following information is taken from the testimony of Tom Scott, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, presented to the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Education Committee on June 27, 2013.  An examination of the regulations and documents requiring action by local districts on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website demonstrates that from the years 1996 -2008 (13 years) there were 4,055  (average of 312 each year) documents requiring action of local districts in response to regulations. The same examination conducted on the four year period of 2009-2013 reveals that there were 5,382 (an average of 1077 each year) multiple page documents requiring action by local school districts. How are we effectively supposed to implement local initiatives and meet the needs of our students when we are mired in this bureaucratic nightmare of a system?

Education is an inherently local pursuit. To view it otherwise is misguided and detrimental to the mission of educating our children. In order for schools to be effective they must be responsive to the culture of the community in which they reside. The culture of those individual communities differ greatly and mandates which dictate uniformity for schools across the state, and now even the nation, are in direct contravention to that reality.  Educational historian, David Tyack, stated that "The search for the one best system has ill served the pluralistic character of American Society. Bureaucracy has often perpetuated positions and outworn practices rather than serving the clients, the children to be taught."

Current education reform is not designed to truly change education it merely adds additional levels of bureaucracy to an already overburdened system. The extreme emphasis on standardized testing is an unproductive exercise in bureaucratic compliance. As educators, however, if we speak out against the standardized testing movement and the amount of time it takes away from instruction then we are not for accountability. If we point out that many of the standardized test questions are not developmentally appropriate for the age of the students to whom they are being given, then we are not for rigor.  

Assessments are an essential part of education. They serve as diagnostic tools that afford teachers the opportunity to determine areas where students need extra assistance or demonstrate when a topic needs to be re-taught. However, standardized tests whose scores take months to arrive, often after the student has moved on to another teacher, have a limited utility for shaping the educational environment. I am concerned that we are creating students who will excel in taking multiple choice tests. Unfortunately, life is not a multiple choice test. Enough is enough!

It is time for educators to push back against the standardized, centralized, top-down mandate driven school reform environment.  I agree with the need for standards, but those standards need to be broadly written. Local communities, school boards, administrators and teachers should then be afforded the flexibility to demonstrate how they have worked to creatively to implement local initiatives in order to meet those broadly construed standards.  The problem is that it is difficult to boil down creativity to a data point and that makes bureaucrats uncomfortable to say the least.

Well, where does that leave us? Education in the United States is constantly being compared to the systems in countries around the world. One important characteristic of education in those countries, which is consistently linked to the success of their students, is the esteem with which they hold their educators. It is time to treat our teachers with respect. It is time that we involve teachers in the discussion to set the direction for education in this country.  They are the ones with the training and expertise. They are on the front lines in this battle.  It is time that as educators we let our representatives at the state and federal levels know that we are headed in the wrong direction. It is time that, rather than be influenced by special interests, we focus on the students and the skills they need to be successful in our modern society. I will do my part. Will You?