So, where is California public education really headed?
Bob Henderson wrote, "Factors keeping teachers "in the box" of traditional education are the physical and psychological environment, the moral setting, and staying true to the discipline. 'Out of the box' teaching is experiential, student-centered, interdisciplinary, and cooperative."
Ahhh, Mr. Henderson, you make it sound so easy, and as hard as I may try, I still find it harrowing to bring student-centered, cooperative education to kids who don't want to learn, much less show how they are progressing. I have had to train my brain to constantly plan lessons and activities that cross Bloom's Revised Taxonomy with multiple intelligences, even when my students say, "Just tell me what to do 'cause I don't want to figure it out myself."
As I try to teach out of the box of state-adopted, NCLB- approved material I've been handed, I remind myself it hasn't always been like this, and it's not like this everywhere in California. I remember a time when I taught in a Central Coast public middle school that allowed me to build student-centered activities with differentiated approaches, such as Socratic Seminars, PowerPoint games, interactive Web 2.0 cloze activities, monthly challenge-based learning projects, and hands-on collaborative class work.
This is not a magical make-believe place, as some educators might think, but a school where teachers are considered professionals, where administrators believe these professionals are highly qualified to guide students towards common standards and higher thinking skills, and where Program Improvement is never given a thought. Maybe one day it will be every school in the U. S.
This week, as part of a class I'm taking for my Reading Specialist credential (sounds much more formal than what it really is, doesn't it?) my professor asked the class to read and respond to this article published by Learning Point Associates. If you know anything about LPA, they "help" Program Improvement schools get out of the standardized test-score gutter. I'm not biased against or for such programs, but I always wonder how much magic they can actually work on all the problems that plague American public education? Since I work in an 80% poverty-level school, I'm skeptical-- what can I say?
Several key points stood out for me when reading this article. First and foremost, the following quote completely hit home with me because of the reality that it illustrates:
"Why are we evaluating? What are we evaluating? How are we evaluating? How well have we evaluated? Instead of being used as a process for judging and improving program quality, evaluation becomes something teachers or administrators are required to do in order to satisfy externally determined needs. When this situation occurs, teachers have no ownership of the evaluation plan or the generated data. The result is that often no one seems to know why the assessment information was gathered or how it can be used to improve instruction."
Teachers don't feel comfortable with walk-throughs, coaching, or observations because of the lack of investment they have in the whole process.
Another quote that I agreed with, but was disappointed to see marginalized was the point made about socioeconomic status:
"Children from families of low socioeconomic status often attend schools facing other problems attributed to at-risk students. These schools typically have many students with high mobility rates, severe behavioral and emotional problems, and limited English proficiency. In addition, children of low socioeconomic status may come from culturally diverse backgrounds (Knapp & Shields, 1990)."
Teaching in one of the most disadvantaged school districts in the state has made me realize that no matter how much effort a teacher puts into her teaching, students and parents will always decide if that effort will be of use or go to waste. It is quite unfortunate that such a decision can make or break a student's future, an educator's career, and a school's budget.
It is unfortunate that admin doesn't understand how to create a school climate that encourages higher level thinking, character, and parental involvement. One of the most important parts of student achievement is high standards, yet when parents complain that students are being held to standards that are higher than what they were held to, or what they are comfortable with, then admin backs down from those high standards, appeasing parents. This is one of the big mistakes I see in low-performing public schools. This is not the case in schools which may have low socioeconomic students, yet require students to perform at a certain level if they wish to stay at those campuses. I've seen several charter schools (Yes Houston, KIPP, Achieve, Inc., etc.) in high-poverty areas that require contracts from parents and students, and I feel this is one of the best ways to maintain high standards. If we are to hold teachers to specific performance levels, then all parties, including parents and students, must be held accountable for their learning and education, as well. Otherwise, the three-legged stool that holds up public education in America will be left to stand on one leg, and teachers are exhausted already.
A couple of weeks ago, my fifth and sixth grade English Language Development (ELD) students read an article in the Merced Sun-Star that made them realize, sometimes, news stories don't always tell the whole truth. So, what's a group of 30 students to do when they realize they have been marginalized? Write letters to the editor, of course! Here are some of their responses to the Dec. 1 article.
Don't forget the real problems behind this lesson-- childhood obesity and a lifetime of health problems. In the end, there is no contest between brain v. body; both must be used vigorously to maintain their abilities and skill-sets, while each reacts to the other's activity level.