Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Education needs Bravehearts

"Sometimes I feel like a man in the wilderness
I'm a lonely soldier off to war
Sent away to die - never quite knowing why
Sometimes it makes no sense at all"
                                      ("Man in the Wilderness," Styx)

The Internet is buzzing with articles accusing, rightly so, President Barack Obama of being somewhat two-faced in his education policymaking.

In 2011, Obama said the following at a Town Hall meeting: 
Too often what we’ve been doing is using [standardized] tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well.
But Race to the Top is exactly that – a program where schools literally bend over backwards, often breaking themselves in the process, to reinvent themselves in the federal government’s image, to win a small piece of the federal money allotted to the program.  The amounts, in many cases, really aren’t that much, and could be achieved with increases in efficiency, or simply better capital management.  In Syracuse, for example, the amount was something like $1.8 million, or a fraction of one percent of the annual budget.  For that, the district’s high schools have been transformed into gulags of never-ending bureaucratic hell (rigid and forced adherence to Common Core, regularly submitted lesson plans of excruciating detail that must demonstrate alignment to Common Core, hours upon hours of mind-numbing and soul-crushing “professional development,” submission to a teacher-evaluation process that is as inane as it is useless, and worst of all, the knowledge that all of the changes simply serve to create extra work for the teachers while actually doing nothing to enhance the educational experiences of the children).

In fact, while still an employee of the Syracuse City Schools, I drafted a proposal that would  restore the vocational education component to high school education and create a hybrid externship/work-study program for students electing a vocational pathway that would have netted the schools almost exactly the same amount of money that they were killing themselves to win from the Race to the Top program (through a very creative revenue stream I worked into the proposal).  The proposal was received approvingly in general principle by the city mayor, although she expressed concerns about logistics and liability issues (having students working on an externship basis at actual work sites around the city).  I saw this as a very promising non-endorsement endorsement (sort of like a non-answer answer), and interpreted it as encouragement to keep working on it.

But at the district, the proposal fell with a thud, despite a very high level of support from the rank-and-file (teachers).  Why?

Because the gold standard of NCLB and Race to the Top is a 100% standardized test passing rate, and all students completing a full battery of college-preparatory coursework, by hook or by crook. If students are receiving vocational training and job skills training, they are likely not participating in the college-prep academic track, and that would hurt the schools’ “numbers.” And standardized tests are the barometer of all this.

Recently, Tom Pauken wrote the following:
When the No Child Left Behind Legislation was signed by President George W. Bush 11 years ago, it required that by the end of 2013-2014 school year, “all students… will meet or exceed the State’s proficient level of academic achievement on the State assessments.”
If you find it absurd that we can make all our students above average with the stroke of the presidential pen, you’re not alone. The 100 percent proficiency goal of NCLB is now widely acknowledged to be a pipe dream. Recent trends indicate that schools are not even headed in the right direction; and, in much of the press, the 100 percent proficiency goal has become something of the punch line of a joke. Meanwhile, in a move that tacitly acknowledges the unworkability of the current law, the Department of Education is granting NCLB waivers to states which will make it easier for them to skirt the requirements.
A policy isn’t much of a policy if, as soon as passing it, you start to issue waivers on-demand to opt out from it.  What’s the point?  Besides which, the very notion of 100% college-readiness is insulting to the very real (and LARGE) segment of the student population who are simply not college bound.  What’s worse, teachers stand to be punished for failing to raise their students’ performance (on the often meaningless test batteries) to the desired level.

Valerie Strauss, in an article in today’s online Washington Post, wrote the following:
In his [2012] State of the Union address …, [Obama] said that he wanted teachers to “stop teaching to the test.” He also said that teachers should teach with “creativity and passion.” And he said that schools should reward the best teachers and replace those who weren’t doing a good job. To “reward the best” and “fire the worst,” states and districts are relying on test scores. The Race to the Top says they must.
Deconstruct this. Teachers would love to “stop teaching to the test,” but Race to the Top makes test scores the measure of every teacher. If teachers take the President’s advice (and they would love to!), their students might not get higher test scores every year, and teachers might be fired, and their schools might be closed.

Why does President Obama think that teachers can “stop teaching to the test” when their livelihood, their reputation, and the survival of their school depends on the outcome of those all-important standardized tests?
How incredibly insulting.

As I wrote in my 2010 proposal to the Syracuse City School District:
It is very important that we come to realize that: a.) a university is not for everyone; b.) an “education” means different things to different people; c.) there is a long tradition of blue-collar pride in this area that academic elitism inadvertently snubs, to our detriment, we believe; and d.) a GED is not a bar to college.
Look, full disclosure here:  Personally, I’m a bit of an academic elitist snob from way back.  My dad is a Princeton man, I went to Cornell, and all four of my parents/step-parents are or were teachers or professors.  If I could afford to just be a graduate student for the rest of my life, I’d seriously consider it, flitting from one Masters or Doctoral program to another like an insatiable butterfly supping on the nectar of academia. 

But the reality is that as Americans, we value diversity, and “diversity” necessarily implies a variety, not just of races, colors and creeds, but of interests, skills, avocations, professions and life paths.  How dare we as educators tell a student who enjoys working with automobiles that her career path isn’t good enough? Or a 17-year old student who does home construction work in the family business, and has since he was 14 or 15, and has real skill?  Or the girl who just wants to do hair?  Or the budding artist?

True story: I once had an 18-year-old student in a 9th grade English class. (Think about that for a second.) The student, an English-language learner, was taking the course for the third time.  He was not only in my English 9 class, but also in my after-school Algebra support class; he was, as I recall, also in 9th grade Algebra for the second or third time.  He hated school. This boy also happened to be a recent father.  (Judge not, lest ye veer off-topic.)  He had problems with truancy, and, if rumor had it right, a fondness for the sweet leaf.  On the surface, he appeared the very prototype of an administrator’s nightmare student – truant, using drugs, impossibly behind on his graduation requirements.  But here’s the thing:  He had been, for at least two or three years, helping out in a family member’s roofing business. I had a conversation about this with him once; he really liked the work, and was (if he was to be believed, and I had no reason to doubt him) really good at it.  But the perspective of the school, district, state and federal government was that his blue-collar desires were anathema to the mission of all schools, and so he was forced to sit in 7-10 hours a day of classes he did not want or need to pursue the career path he had already begun, a path where his marketable skills could earn him a substantial living so he could take care of his infant child and get his life moving forward.

Now what the hell is wrong with that?

Hell, we’re ready enough to send 18-year-olds to other countries to die trying to build their countries up from the rubble; why the ever-loving f*ck don’t we love our children enough to keep them here, alive, and let them train them in the areas of their interest to do the very same thing in our own country?

So we sacrifice our students’ futures, we sacrifice our teachers’ well-being (and sanity, and good will – remember Gerald Conti and Kathleen Knauth?).  Why?  For a few dollars more from the educational crack dealers we call by any of their various names – NCLB, Race to the Top, Common Core – like Satan, they go by many monikers, and bear a pleasing countenance to those primed and ready to receive them.

Wow, that got dark all of a sudden.  Dial it back a notch.

Schools’ behavior in this regard reminds me of a quote from the movie Braveheart.  (Don’t dis, it’s a great flick, haters be gone!)  Try reading it, but replace “England” and “English” with “public education” and “administrators,” and replace “[King Edward the] Longshanks” with “Race to the Top,” and replace “Craig” with “Obama.”  Humor me, just try it:
William Wallace: I will invade England and defeat the English on their own ground.
Craig: [laughs] Invade? That's impossible.
William Wallace: Why? Why is that impossible? You're so concerned with squabbling for the scraps from Longshanks’ table that you've missed your God-given right to something better. There is a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom. And I go to make sure that they have it.
I am William Wallace, and my weapon is a blog, not a broadsword.  You think I’m over-dramatizing my point?  Maybe I am, but that doesn’t make me wrong! 

I dunno, I’m just A.S.K.ing…

1 comment:

  1. I found this very interesting as I was actually looking for this quote as a way to describe teachers and teacher associations.
    Teaching in Texas