Wednesday, October 27, 2010

thoughts on education reform (a response post)

If you've been reading, Mistaken For a Rebel you may have picked up on some of my thoughts regarding education and the challenge of finding the balance between what we believe, what we can afford and what we can change.

This morning I read a post at
Boundless Voice that echoed many of my sentiments. I realized that aside from wanting to thank her for sharing her thoughts, I wanted to give a reply that would best be shared here.

One of my favorite quotes is by Charles Bukowski, "An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way." I'm going to take the artist's approach here because it seems that sometimes the most complex issues are best tackled by breaking them down to very simplest terms and then adding one truth at a time. I am no expert on the subject, but I am an advocate for my children's education and I am concerned with the effect schooling has on our communities.

I am in agreement with the post I just read - what we need is a revolution. It has been noted by many that we are in a creativity crisis, our minds are not rising up to meet the challenges of our times. In an article in
Newsweek (it's a good one) Nurture Shock authors, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman put it this way,

"The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 'leadership competency' of the future. Yet it's not just about sustaining our nation's economic growth. All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions, from saving the Gulf of Mexico to bringing peace to Afghanistan to delivering health care. Such solutions emerge from a healthy marketplace of ideas, sustained by a populace constantly contributing original ideas and receptive to the ideas of others."

We are finding ourselves at a dead end creatively and at the same time young people's respect for each other as human beings seems to be deteriorating. Time and energy are wasted on arguments about religion's place in school while the idea that students explore ethics goes ignored. Something is not working and better test scores aren't going to solve the problem.

For me the goal is that my children grow up to be healthy, loving, compassionate and fearless - exactly what they do is not much of a concern. I hope that they have the freedom financial prosperity can bring, but never at the expense of a balanced and peaceful life. My hope is that their school helps us develop their love of learning and provide the tools of discovery, not define what success must be - I've seen far too many adults discover they had it wrong to believe any of them can label who the winners are.

I'm going to focus on the public school system because it's where most of the country is and where we are now. I've experienced struggling urban schools, which led me to explore a variety of private options, charters, home schooling and finally throwing in the towel and moving to one of the country's best school districts...all the time struggling with my politics, ethics, and budget. I must say I feel fortunate that my children are enjoying a school that is running (as far as the system is concerned) as it should, it's excellent resources attract some of the best teachers and the facilities provide a healthy stimulating environment. The problem is, with all that has been accomplished here, it is still part of a system that is broken and the there's a frighteningly steep drop-off from these schools at the top and the next in line.

Standardized testing

Even among the three children in our family I see extremely different strengths, talents, weaknesses, and learning styles. Please stop using the word "standardized" I am aware that the standardized test is supposed to provide accountability and that the education system has become increasingly tied to standardized testing to make decisions about public funding, but the sad truth is, the tests usually just provide the paper work for the decisions that were going to be made anyway. In the process of preparing for these tests schools institute a "teaching to the test" approach to learning, narrowing the curriculum and embracing a multiple choice format.

Do these test help the individual student achieve their goals? How could they! Their purpose is to point out vague deficits, not uncover talent and intelligence. The results of these tests can lead to children being put in remedial programs and being held back. Holding a child back a grade is an easy way to have that individual child's test results appear relatively higher contributing to higher percentages for the school (just one of the ways schools game the system) but that child will be permanently, academically and emotionally injured. What about the child who is advanced in some area and has difficulties in others? The atmosphere these tests create does not support the flexibility needed to address the individual. How often is brilliance ignored? How often is the self esteem of a child diminished as they embark on the path of learning?

Without delving into the details of testing any further, I will simply say that we need to do the work of evaluating our schools, staff and students with compassionate, open eyes. The test will not make up for our short comings. This is McEducation, and if we want our system to advance we need to look at examples in other countries where the multiple choice standardized test is not considered an effective tool - these countries look at the overall performance and behaviour of the student and include essay questions that test the next level of thought. And please don't think that if your child's specific make up allows them to be proficient at these tests that their potential is not being effected - they are missing out on a more dynamic education by learning in an environment that structures itself around them.

Charter Schools

The new movie, Waiting for Superman has received a lot of press, I've watched the trailer and listened to the review on NPR, I haven't seen the film yet, but here's what sticks out to me - the emphasis on charter schools, including the dramatic final scene where the children wait to hear if their number is called. Charter schools receive public money, but are not subject to all of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools. Charter schools are often the only alternative for people who are dissatisfied with their public school. They are part of the public education system and are not allowed to charge tuition, but that doesn't mean everyone has access to them, they fill up fast (usually with the returning students) and then families that want to get in go on a list to be included in a lottery. That's how it's supposed to work, but in practice, hidden factors often get in the way of any true choice and there's no way around the fact that they take money from the neighborhood schools that in most cases are desperately in need of the funds.

The BC Teachers' Federation put it this way, "Charter schools don't encourage system reform and improved quality. The theory put forward by many charter school advocates is that the competition of charter schools will lead to reform and improvement to the mainstream of the public schools. In the U.S. and Alberta, most of the charter proposals have been for 'niche schools' that serve a particular special population. Charter schools end up serving special interests, rather than creating programs that develop alternatives that would be offered to most students. They divert money and attention from improving all schools to enhancing a few."

There's another movie that I have watched and highly recommend that touches on charter schools, Spike Lee's, If God is Willing And Da Creek Don't Rise If you believe charters are a brilliant option, watch this film to gain a new perspective. Right now 10% of the newly formed charters schools are run by what Wall Street calls,"Educational Maintenance Organizations" That kinda sends chills down my spine.

That being said, I know many families that are having great experiences at charter schools and I know that their ability to find schooling for their children allowed them to contribute to transitioning urban communities. I have even filled out the applications hoping I would have an option if all else failed - if they actually called my number I would have had to wrestle with the final ethical debate. My point here is not about what a family feels they need to do in the best interest of their children with the resources at hand, but to discuss some of the reasons our public education system is failing so many.

Housing Policy Is School Policy

Economic integration. Well, now at the end of my ramblings we're getting down to the nitty gritty. If you have the time, please read this Century Foundation's Report regarding Montgomery County Maryland's achievements within the public school system. Providing truly diverse learning environments by working on the problem of affordable housing has paid off. Aside from documented academic success, there are many other things that start to happen when a family doesn't have to struggle to keep a roof over their head - they can breath - they can take the time to observe their children and ask questions that nobody dares to ask when the goal is survival.

If housing policy is school policy, than the issues of minimum wage, distribution of wealth and health care certainly are as well. There's a whole web of factors effecting whether families can have an effect on the education system, but simply put, they need the dignity to claim their role as advocates. It's not going to happen when you're working like a slave. When your head rises above the water - that's when the evolution of the spirit takes place. This is why poverty is such a crime; it robs us of reflection and we fear to ask what could be.

"Freedom is nothing else but a chance to be better."
- Albert Camus

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