Friday, January 20, 2017

the state of education

Imagine sitting down to do something knowing that you are expected to fail. Not because it's something that you aren't good at, but simply because it has been designed to be too hard for you to pass. Now imagine doing that a second time...and a third...and each time the task is purposefully made harder.

How disheartening would it be to see, over and over and over again, that some nameless and faceless entity (who, by the way, holds enormous sway over your future) sees failing as the best you can do?

And then, after you've struggled through this 3 different times, you have to do it again... "only this time," they tell you, "it's for real." Well, kind of for real...the results don't really count for or against you, but they are supposed to be used to predict your future performance. Oh, and those in charge of you are going to be judged on how well you do, but no pressure or anything...

Oh yeah--and you're a kid.

I'm sure some of you know exactly what I'm talking about. There are probably others, though, who have read this in disbelief. Surely nothing would ever be designed that way for kids. Sadly, our entire educational system is revolving around just such a system: ACT Aspire.

The ACT has been around a long time, and we've spent a lot of time and energy making sure high school kids are prepared for that test. It, in many cases, determines the college someone goes to and how much scholarship money they will get. It makes sense to want kids to do well on something like the ACT. It even makes sense to let them practice.

What doesn't make sense, though, is making teaching revolve around testing.

In most professions, the professionals are given freedom to work. After all, they are doing what they were trained to do. Of course there's management--and there are people who have trained for that, too. In education, though, that doesn't happen.

Teachers are told which "curriculum" to teach and when to teach it. Right now the go-to idea is Common Core (yes, Arkansas has their own standards, but they are just the same standards with a different name). The only true math content expert who worked on the math standards refused to sign off on the finished project, and that says a lot.

As teachers we aren't supposed to veer away from the curriculum, and we are supposed to make sure we cover every standard. But that should be okay, right? After all, Common Core was designed to be "more focused and coherent in order to improve mathematics achievement in this country. To deliver on this promise, the mathematics standards are designed to address the problem of a curriculum that is 'a mile wide and an inch deep.'" (from www.corestandards.org/Math/)

That sounds good...until you look at the standards. Here is a breakdown of just one course:
Algebra I
5 "Conceptual Categories"
10 "Domains" within those
23 "Clusters" within the domains

That in itself doesn't sound too bad--after all, there are 36 weeks in a school year so that gives plenty of time to cover 23 clusters, right?

Wait, though. In those 23 clusters, there are 103 different standards...and that's not counting all the times that there are "notes" for the teacher talking about all the other things that are part of the standard.

At the end of the list of standards, you have a glossary. Yes, some of the terms are relatively basic. I agree that kids in Algebra I should know what a variable is. Others, though, are ones like "Extraneous solutions" (yes, that's in there). They aren't numbered--maybe they thought that would be intimidating--but all together there is a collection of 50 terms.

Remember, Algebra I is typically a class kids take in 8th or 9th grade.

Then we have an Appendix. It lists 25 properties that the kids are supposed to know at the end of Algebra I.

That's for a single math course. Algebra II has its own set, with 15 Domains, 31 Clusters, and a whole slew of standards (I was too disheartened to spend the time counting them).

I could keep going, but I think you probably get the picture.

As a teacher, I'm told that I have to be a professional. In fact, I have to get 60 hours of Professional Development each year. I'm not, however, trusted to make professional decisions about the education of my students. I'm supposed to tailor my instruction to fit each individual student in my class, making sure that I expect just the right amount from each student and that I keep all of them engaged throughout the lesson and that I ensure that they are all emotionally secure in my classroom.

I'm supposed to make sure to acknowledge all of my students' differences without calling attention to the fact that they are different (because, you know, the kids shouldn't actually see that they all have different abilities). I'm supposed to support their weaknesses, but not make any student feel inferior to any other. While I'm pulling all my struggling students up by their bootstraps (because, of course, we can't expect kids to have self-discipline), I'm supposed to push my gifted students to extend their thinking (without making them feel superior to any other).

And then, after teaching every student in the way that best supports each individual, I stick a standardized test in front of them. Not just once, either--we know have 3 "interim" tests that the kids have to take before they take the "real" test at the end of the year.

I have to be honest--I tell my kids to do their best to answer the questions, but not to stress. I tell them that I know the scores won't look good. I tell them that a test designed by a nameless, faceless entity that knows nothing about them can't tell them what they know and don't know. I tell them that they are so much more than a test score...

...but if education keeps going the direction it's headed, pretty soon those test scores will be the sole determinant of my value as a teacher.

Our teachers deserve to be treated like the professionals they are, people who have dedicated themselves to the kids they care for on a daily basis, the kids they lose sleep over at night, the kids who break their hearts sometimes.

More than that, though, our kids deserve more. Our kids don't need a "one size fits all" education. They should be shown their strengths, but they should also be shown their weaknesses. Without that, how can you grow? They should have something to work towards, a future that they shape with hard work and dedication. They should be shown that reward is not without risk and cost, and that your worth is not determined arbitrarily. They need to know that you don't make something of yourself just by showing up.

As much as anything else, they need to be given the chance to develop a love of learning instead of a fear of testing. Right now, the words of Einstein are very true: "It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education."

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Thoughts? I would love to hear them!
~Mandy