Polarization has come to public education, big time. If it persists, at the end of the day we all are going to lose.
As the political campaign heats up, public education is caught in a direct crossfire. Here’s one example from the run up to the Republican convention:
While the fact that quite a few countries outscore our children on international tests is reason for genuine concern, I think we ought to be even more disturbed about some other numbers, such as:
- Half our kids get no early education;
- 22% of our children live in poverty, and
- 25% have a chronic health condition like asthma or obesity.
These numbers and more are from The Center for American Progress report, “The Competition that Really Matters,” about American, Chinese and Indian investments in education.
A second report, this one from Share our Strength, documents the extent of, and damage done by, childhood hunger. It found that 60% of K-8th grade teachers say that their students “regularly come to school hungry because they aren’t getting enough to eat at home.” If you’ve ever taught, you know that is impossible to get through to children whose stomachs are growling or who are energy-deprived.
How are we polarized about education? Let me count the ways, seven in all.
1. We are polarized about accountability. We have gone from an excess of trust of teachers to an obsessive concern with verification. Right now the verifiers are in the saddle, and test scores rule. One consequence of the mania over test results has been widespread cheating by adults, who are breaking the rules (and no doubt their own moral code) to try to save their jobs. How did we get to such a position, where our leaders mistrust teachers? We need balance when it comes to holding teachers accountable: “Trust but Verify.”
Lost in all this is student accountability. We ought to be concerned about assessing student learning, and not just by simple bubble tests. That’s the discussion we are not having, perhaps because we are so polarized.
2. We are polarized about achievement. The achievement gap is real. In some places a gap of three years in achievement between whites and (wait for it) Asian-American students. We must do something about this. Why don’t we eliminate recess for white kids and replace it with drill and practice and test-prep? That’s what we do for (to) black and brown kids, isn’t it?
3. We are polarized about how schools should be run. The argument is between freedom (charter schools) versus what is called “command and control,” top down management. As I have learned from spending a lot of time in New Orleans since Katrina and the flooding, even an all-charter district has to have a serious system of oversight in place to make sure that charter schools don’t play fast and loose with the system (turning away special needs children or suspending tough-to-educate kids just before the state tests are given). Washington, DC, has embraced charter schools but has also expanded its central office by adding people whose job it is to watch and evaluate teachers. Is that working? That argument is raging.
4. We are polarized about the power of school/the limits of school. Some regularly attack schools for overreaching and for failure, while others expect schools to feed, clothe and attend to health issues (such as eye exams). Is it a school’s job to solve social problems, problems that the larger society doesn’t seem willing to tackle?
And when teachers step up to the plate, why do we reward them with vicious attacks?
5. We seem to be polarized about the role of technology. In my experience, educators generally use technology to manage data and people. That is, for control. A much smaller number uses it to invite kids to create, to let kids soar (or move at a slower pace, if that’s appropriate). Some use it for control; some for learning.
Kids may be digital natives, but that does not mean they are digital citizens. Helping them become citizens is an adult function, and we ought to be able to come to agreement on that point.
6. We are polarized about the job of teaching. In “The Influence of Teachers,” I write about how some are saying we can solve education’s problems by recruiting better people into our classrooms, while others say we must make teaching a better job. On the ‘better people’ side are Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and some big foundations, and their attacks on tenure and seniority have been successful in changing policies in more than a handful of cities and states.
On the other side are Diane Ravitch, the teacher unions and many teachers.
I once thought this ongoing battle was irrelevant but now understand that it damages kids. My solution is twofold: 1) Ignore the battle insofar as it’s humanly possible but at the same time 2) elevate the profession. We must make it harder to become a teacher but easier to be one. Raise the entry standards but make the job more professional and enjoyable.
7. We are polarized about assessment. Companies like Pearson are getting rich while we blather and battle. They step into the vacuum and measure everything that’s measurable. We should be measuring what counts, instead of counting whatever we are able to measure.
Our school and political leaders ask, “Can kids read?” but they and we must also be asking, “Do kids read?”
Are are we also polarized about the purposes of public education? I am not sure whether we are polarized, indifferent or excluded from the conversation, but we have a real problem. The goal of school is to help grow American citizens. Four key words: help, grow, American, citizen. Think about those words:
Help: Schools are junior partners in education. They are to help families, the principal educators.
Grow: It’s a process, sometimes two steps forward, one back. Education is akin to a family business, not a publicly traded stock company that lives and dies by quarterly reports.
American: E Pluribus Unum. We are Americans, first and foremost.
Citizen: Let’s put some flesh on that term. What do we want our children to be as adults? Good parents and neighbors, thoughtful voters, reliable workers? What else?
Let me be clear about one thing: The solution to this epidemic of polarization does not necessarily lie in the middle between the two poles. Sometimes one position is correct, or largely correct. Sometimes people’s strongly held convictions are just plain wrong. While we must ‘reason together’ and work everything out, I do not believe that ‘Let’s compromise and meet in the middle’ is a rule to live by.
So are we hopelessly polarized, or are we suffering from fatigue? I think many of us are just tired, worn out from listening to the rants and negativity. We are tired because — at least since the publication of ‘A Nation At Risk’ in 1983 — we have been working hard to change schools, and children’s lives.
“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle told us. If we complain all the time but do nothing to change the situation, that’s who we are: whiners.
But — and this is the important point — children become what they repeatedly do. So if our kids spend an inordinate amount of time practicing to take tests, and taking tests and more tests, what will they be like as adults?
Will they be avid readers? Articulate speakers? Good writers? I don’t think so.
One part of the solution is strong, thoughtful leadership, but I don’t think we should wait around for that to emerge.
We need to get beyond polarization and figure out what we agree on. Do we agree that children should learn to write well? We know that the only way to learn that skill is by writing and rewriting, guided by someone who is knowledgeable. If we value good writing, we ought to be insisting children write and rewrite all through school.
Do we, like, want our children to, you know, be able to speak clearly, persuasively and articulately? The road requires practice, practice, practice.
The way to develop readers is by reading, not by practicing to pass reading tests.
Once again, we are what we repeatedly do. Here is the essential second half of Aristotle’s observation: “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Want change? Maybe we need to stop pointing fingers at others and look in the mirror.