Monday, September 1, 2014

In Education, Teachers Must Lead the Way

Aside from the December holiday season, the back-to-school late August and early September rush has the most profound effects on the United States. Shopping patterns change, traffic gets worse, and the general tenor of every community shifts to accommodate the children and adults who work in education.

Welcome to this year's edition. Some things have changed, and other have stayed the same.

In most polls, a majority of Americans say that they respect their school's teachers and consider them, aside from parents, to be the most influential voices their children will encounter every day. The problem is that the evaluation systems that most states have set up do not accurately measure how effective the teachers are. Standardized tests have not proven to be reliable and systems that use Value Added measures, such as in California, are notoriously unstable. In addition, most Americans don't like the tenure system as it is applied to teachers and we've had one court weigh in and declare the California system to be unconstitutional. In Wisconsin, Indiana and a host of other states, teachers, and other public employees, have lost significant contract negotiation rights that impact their pay, benefits and work rules. Add all of these up and you get a picture of an education system that wants to change, but is ignoring or minimizing the very people who can affect that change most specifically. Teacher morale is low nationally. That's not good.

Most Americans also value education and consider education to be the major stepping stone to a better economic, social and democratic life. But the truth is that just below that surface, a roiling debate is under way about how much money schools should spend and on what materials, and what should schools actually teach anyway. This year is no different.

Along with going back to school, September is also when the Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, is released. This year is the 46th such poll, and it's being released in two parts; now and in October.

The most pressing issue in the poll is the reaction to the Common Core Curriculum Standards which is opposed by most of the respondents. A good deal of that opposition is related to the idea that Americans are wary about a national curriculum, especially one that seems to be prescriptive about what teachers can teach, and that local communities will have little say in what their children will learn. The Common Core is also the basis for national tests, which are anathema to many parents and strike most teachers as a waste of good instructional time.

While the standards are new, they are not as dangerous as many people would make them out to be. They do focus more on having students read nonfiction and analyzing in greater depth what they read, but otherwise, they give schools and teachers the leeway to choose reading materials and to tailor instruction to address local concerns. They ask that all students be conversant in research tools and to determine the reliability of sources, an especially important skill in the electronic era.

The mathematics standards are proving to be especially vexing since they ask students to explain their answers in both numbers and words. My experience with younger students is that they have a difficult time explaining how they came to an answer. Some do the calculations in their heads and others are not as articulate with explanations. This has lead to some famous YouTube videos of parents excoriating school board members for turning their child off to school and making homework time a tear-filled exercise in screaming and running away from the table.

As with anything new in education, and there have been many new programs in the thirty years that I've been teaching, the Common Core Standards will need some alterations, but in the long run, they will provide a useful map for student progress. The other advantage is that as students move from one town to the other, the standards will remain the same. That hasn't happened in the United States, and it's a major step forward.

Another interesting finding from the poll includes the (erroneous) idea that Charter Schools perform better than traditional public schools. The data does not support this. In fact, many charters are performing worse that local public schools.

We'll have to wait until October for more polling answers on questions relating to teacher evaluation and spending.

I've said this before, but it's worth saying again: The United States succeeds because its teachers succeed in educating generations of children with the resources we have available. Where schools do not have the resources or community support or high levels of social dysfunction, the job becomes that much more difficult. If we can equalize the curriculum, we should be able to equalize the educational opportunities for every child in this country.

And so to my teaching colleagues I say, have a wonderful school year. You do one of the most important paid jobs in this country and you deserve respect and appreciation.

For more, go to www.facebook.com/WhereDemocracyLives or Twitter @rigrundfest  

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