A Long Gaze In the Mirror

In my previous post (A Quick Glimpse In the Mirror), I proffered some thoughts and suggestions relative to the current teacher shortage in Oklahoma and across our country.

I have no intent to absolve our current Governor and legislators for their abject failure to adequately address the funding of public education in our state.  The fact that our state is still implementing an income tax cut in January–despite having a $611 million dollar budget shortfall for the current fiscal year–illustrates well that our lawmakers are more concerned with politics than funding essential state services.

At the same time, I think we have to honestly recognize that there is more that school leaders can do to improve the culture and climate for teachers. We have some long-standing practices and policies that clearly have a deleterious effect on teacher retention.

It is sometimes a hard pill to swallow to admit that many of the issues we frequently grumble about in education are self-inflicted wounds.

As you know, I have been an outspoken, unapologetic critic of most of the education reforms currently in vogue across our nation.

In general, I believe these reforms are based on the false premise that American public schools are failing and that our teachers and administrators are not sufficiently motivated to do anything about it.

My biggest concern with the reform movement is that it inhibits the type of innovative school change that needs to take place by making it nearly impossible to escape the box in which we are trapped.

If student performance on standardized tests is the only measure that matters because it is how schools, teachers, and students are ranked, sorted, and punished, we are forced into serving as one-size-fits-all, test-prep factories better suited for the 19th century industrial age.

But again, we must face some difficult truths when it comes to the ideas generated from the corporate reform movement.

Where did they come up with all of their CRAZY ideas about education?

Possibly from watching what we were already doing in schools.

They simply fertilized these concepts with billions of dollars of corporate manure, along with assistance from sometimes well-intentioned, yet complicit law makers, and grew them to grotesque size and influence.

Why? Power and money. Money and power.

Instead of a quick glance in the mirror, perhaps what we really need is a long scrutinizing gaze into the glass.

Let’s reflect together.

Which of the following practices have you seen in public schools?  (and which have little to do with the last twenty years of reforms)

  • Using tests and other subjective criteria to rank and sort children.
  • Making unfair and inaccurate assumptions about children based on academic performance (lazy, dumb, etc.)
  • Labeling kids as “average” because they earn C’s in their classes. Don’t we say that students are more than just test scores?
  • Trying to force every student through a narrow pipeline of standards with no accounting for individual strengths, learning disabilities, language deficits and non-school related factors. Some teacher are experts at differentiating their content to meet the needs of all learners in their classrooms. Others are not!
  • Telling kids they are failures without taking time to research the factors that may be causing the child to struggle.
  • Creating unhealthy levels of competition between schools, especially in sports.
  • Punishing students for lack of academic achievement by taking away those things for which they are passionate. Can you remember the last time we asked a student to sit out an algebra class for a poor performance in a band concert?
  • Spending an inordinate amount of time preparing kids for in-class tests and quizzes. Why do we have reviews for unit tests and semester finals? If students have forgotten the material after only a few weeks, what makes us think they will remember it any longer if we cram it in a second time. Moreover, if the knowledge and skills being taught in that classroom are so perishable and irrelevant in the first place, why are we bothering to teach it?
  • Using students’ high test scores on ACT/SAT and other nationally normed tests as an opportunity to pat ourselves on the back and tout how great our schools are, while attributing lower scores solely to poor student effort.
  • Adhering to the mindset of, “I taught it well, they just didn’t learn it,” instead of “They didn’t learn it, so I didn’t teach it well.”
  • Allowing parents to make choices about placement (gifted/talented pods, magnet schools, selective programs) to keep their child away from “those kids.”
  • Using subjective, highly biased and unreliable evaluation systems and processes to effectively manage and grow our teaching force. TLE is not a great improvement, but many of our previous evaluation systems were poorly executed or virtually non-existent.
  • Using carrots and sticks in an attempt to modify human behavior. Grades, zeroes for late assignments, honor roll, behavior incentives, disciplinary consequences, are all examples of strategies built on an incomplete understanding of human psychology and motivation.
  • Sucking the joy out of learning by making kids sit silently in uncomfortable desks for hours at a time. The vast majority of time in schools is spent reading silently, taking notes, listening to lectures, watching boring videos, studying for tests, and completing countless worksheets and other mundane assignments. Take this challenge. Pick a student in your school at random and shadow them for one day, especially as the secondary level. You’ll see what I mean. And don’t even get me started about the #1 joy sucker in schools today–homework!

Please don’t misunderstand me. I can also find reasons to support some of the points I’ve provided above. I applaud the incredible things that are happening in our schools every period of every day. We have many outstanding educators in our state. Teaching is a hard job and the vast majority of educators takes their jobs very seriously.

At the same time, we are clearly not perfect and there is much we can do ourselves to improve our schools. Every item I have listed above can be addressed without ever leaving our campuses.

And, yes, we must keep fighting the good fight against those who seek to disparage and dismantle public education. Simultaneously, we must honestly reflect on our own practices to ensure we are doing everything in our power to make learning a joyous and meaningful endeavor for our kids.

We can all make a change.

A Quick Glance in the MirrorAre You a Committed Sardine?
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