“Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer.”
President Obama’s speech to students, September 9, 2009
Those lines imply support for a progressive, child-centered view of schooling: educate through the strengths a child possesses.
But the President went on, “And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.”
And when and if a child discovers those interests and abilities, what happens? Are classrooms set up to work with individual kids and nurture their talents, or do other pressures force teachers into cookie-cutter behavior?
Kids want to believe. Visit any elementary school on a morning of the first few weeks of school, and you will see joyful youngsters cavorting, laughing and shouting with glee. Their giddy anticipation is palpable and infectious, because they are actually happy to be back in school. “This year will be different,” their behavior screams. “This year I will be a great student, I will learn everything, and teachers will help me whenever I need help.”
However, this celebration, a child’s version of the triumph of hope over experience, is generally short-lived, and for most children school soon becomes humdrum, or worse.
What goes wrong, and what can be done about it?
Dr. John Trotter, the founding president of a teachers union in Georgia, thinks he has identified the problem. “(N)o one wants to blame anything on the students or on their parents. This would not be very political, but it would be the truth,” he wrote on the MACE (Metro Association of Classroom Educators) website on August 25, 2009. Two days later he added, “The children in these failing schools are essentially the problem. They are unmotivated and lazy.”
Others blame teachers, not kids, but I think the problem is largely the result of our obsession with test scores.
Just think about the testing game. The best teachers are both ‘sage on the stage’ and ‘guide on the side,’ but in schools filled with poor children many teachers are neither. Instead they are ringmasters, training the ‘animals’ with whips and rewards.
Under great pressure to close ‘the achievement gap,’ these teachers drill students in test taking. That may include instruction in filling in bubbles or writing short responses (“In your first sentence, use key words from the paragraph you have just read.”).
Sad to say, that approach works. Most children in elementary schools can be whipped and cajoled into performing. Evidence can be found in test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called the Nation’s Report Card. American 3rd and 4th graders outperform their counterparts in most industrialized countries.
However, those gains begin to disappear in 7th and 8th grades. Before long, our children lag far behind, probably because those early scores do not reflect genuine learning but are largely illusory, the results of the ringmaster’s efforts.
When students become older and wise to the ways of the ringmaster, things change. This spring a middle school principal in Washington resorted to every trick in the book to get his test scores up. Brian Betts of Shaw Middle School offered $100 to every student who, as the tests drew near, came to school every day on time and answered every test question, right or wrong. What’s more, Betts promised that, if scores went up, he would get a tattoo.
Ringmaster Betts’ approach failed dramatically. Although his office reports that it distributed $16,556 to students during that testing period, reading scores declined 9%, to 29% proficiency, and math scores fell 4% to 29%. No tattoo for the principal!
A classic cartoon from Gary Larsen’s “Far Side” shows a lion tamer snapping his whip and shooting his pistol, seemingly in complete control. However, one lion, seated docilely on a chair, is whispering to another, “Pass it on, he’s using blanks.”
Older students generally don’t turn on their ringmasters, of course. Instead more than seven thousand students become dropouts every school day. Annually, that adds up to almost 1.3 million students who will not graduate from high school with their peers as scheduled, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. The Alliance estimates this will cost the nation $3 trillion over the next decade.
Other students put in the seat time necessary to earn a diploma, but whether most emerge ready to be responsible participants in a democracy is arguable. The persistent decline in voting would suggest not.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Parents send their children to school for intellectual, social, civic, aesthetic and even ethical reasons–because they know that education is a lot more than test scores, cash rewards for coming to school, and tattoos. And they also know that something’s amiss. Evidence of that can be found in polls showing that families prefer private and charter schools over regular public schools by wide margins. The 2009 Gallup Poll show that, nationally, 67% now favor charter schools, up from 51% last year. A poll of Washington, DC, parents released in August revealed that only 23% of parents would willingly choose a regular public school for their children.
Educators need to tear down the artificial wall between schools and parents—built up over the years by educators. A child’s parents—even if they could care less about education—are his first and most important educators. So, for genuine learning, schools ought to involve families at the most basic levels in the early grades. And not with high-falutin’ pedagogical concepts or ‘parent involvement committees’–but with classroom work.
Here are a few simple examples: Have kindergarteners and first graders work with their parents to find triangles, circles and rectangles in everyday things around their home and neighborhood, such as window panes, floor patterns and street signs. 2nd grade teachers could assign the kids to report on their Mom’s favorite foods, flowers and animals. The next week’s assignment: Interview a grandparent about her favorites. Find out why. What are your own favorite colors? Why? And so on, every week.
Make it a bit more complex in 3rd grade by assigning homework that requires the child to write about his/her parents or grandparents—the first movie they remember seeing, their secret dream growing up, and so on.
Math must be part of this. Assign 4th and 5th graders to go shopping with an adult and compare the prices of several products in different stores. Do the math to figure out unit costs. For another assignment, ask a family member how much a movie cost back when she was a kid. What’s the difference between that price and the cost of a ticket today? Compare other items. Do the math, and then report to the class.
You can bet that parents and grandparents would want to see the homework before it’s turned in–and certainly afterwards to read what the teacher wrote about it.
Thus encouraged, many parents would be open for conversations about what it is we want our schools to achieve, and how that might be measured. That in turn might well lead to a re-examination of our over-reliance on machine-scored multiple-choice tests. Of course scores matter, but they aren’t the be-all and end-all of education. Glorious and exciting curriculum (such as The Writing Project; The Jason Project; and Our History, Our Selves) that are proven to engage the brains and hearts of students gets pushed aside simply because school leaders fear that these stimulating materials won’t produce higher test scores.
Neither of these changes— close connections with families and deeper, more thoughtful education that relies less on bubble tests—will be easy to pull off, but the clock is ticking for public education. The President is right to encourage children and youth to persevere, but educators need a good talking-to as well.