Thursday, February 25, 2010

Education Firings and what not

Big news around the country this last week: the poorest and smallest town in RI is firing 93 staff members (in other words, all of them) from their High School under an Obama plan meant to help the schools turn around.

Apparently Obama believes it's the teacher's faults that the kids are dropping out at a high rate, and that their test scores are low.

It's an interesting approach, but it's all wrong.

Look at it this way: Suppose a pediatrician's office trains all its own nurses and front desk staff, and it's own physician's assistants. They have all the patients meet with the PAs and nurses primarily, and get instructions from the front desk staff. Then they leave it up to the patients and their parents to implement their instructions. The patients and parents don't do much, don't come to follow up appointments, and many of the things they do try don't work, so they are not terribly motivated to continue with the recommendations.  One day, the government realizes there's a problem and all the kids are sick, so they swoop in and fire all the PAs, nurses, and secretaries.

Yeah.  That'll solve the problems!

No. It won't. Really.

If we want to improve education in this country, firing the TEACHERS isn't going to help because the teachers are just doing what they're told. They have their curricula chosen for them, they don't have the time or freedom to really teach, most of them were trained wrong from the get-go, there is no money to really improve things. The teachers have been forced into a role of "relayers of information using only prescribed methods."  If the methods they are taught and forced to use by law are faulty, or the information is wrong, firing the messenger is not going to solve the problems.

The problems really are centered in the two ends of the spectrum--the ones who train the teachers and the families who have to use the programs.

I usually don't condemn families, and I really don't know what's going on in that little town, but I can't see that it's the teachers' fault when a student drops out of school. That is a family problem, or society's problem, or maybe a drug problem....not the teachers' faults. The teachers can't make kids come to school. That is the parent's responsibility and the student's responsibility.  I think it's wrong for parents and students to say, "It's YOUR job to educate me. So do it." and then sit passively and wait for the system to educate them. Becoming educated is an active process that students have to choose to take part in, and that requires a great deal of support from intact families--and students don't have the support (sometimes because the family is in such great distress financially, emotionally, etc) and they aren't taking the responsibility. Nor are they expected to.

So, blanket statement (and I realize blanket statements are not really good or helpful): Parents and students have to feel some responsibility for the child's education. And once you get to high school and everyone's not doing it--it might be too late. This has to start on day one and include more than forcing kids to do more homework.

Also, if you're gonna fire anyone for a breakdown in the system, you should be firing the education departments at the colleges. THEY are the ones teaching the teachers how to do their jobs, and they should have to be responsible for what they're teaching. If you persistently train doctors to do things that are harmful to patients, you'd lose your accreditation as a medical school. Further, medical schools are NOT allowed to just make up treatments that seem reasonable and then teach all the doctors to use those. We don't experiment on patients based on some professor's idea of something that might work, no matter how reasonable the professor's thinking is. Why do we do this with students?

Nobody is talking about the sources of the problems in education. They're talking about changing the message company, but if you use Fed Ex or USPS, if the contents of the package are faulty, it won't make a difference in the long run!

If you want to fix education in this country (and it desperately needs to be fixed), you're gonna have to go back from the teachers and fire their teachers, fire the guys who wrote the texts (editorial staffs at publishing companies, mostly), fire the guys who created the theories (like new math, and whole language), and stop experimenting with the kids!

This might sound harsh. But it's harsh to fire all the teachers, too. And it's not gonna work. You're just gonna replace them with more of the same, except perhaps ones that are more talented at forcing test scores (which all true teachers know are not valid judges of true learning).

The reality I experienced in education classes was that the professors really didn't know which way was up. They were just re-teaching what they'd been told, regardless of veracity or practicability. For example, when I had been teaching junior high English for 3 years, I signed up for a class on junior high literature at the local university. The teacher's first statement: "Junior High kids LOVE coming of age novels."

It's not true. In 8 years of teaching junior high, I had ONE student who liked coming of age novels. ONE. And she probably grew up to become an English teacher because the truth is that ENGLISH TEACHERS love coming of age novels. Most of the rest of us don't even tolerate them. And junior high kids hate them.

But all the teachers in that class were going into the system because they liked coming of age novels, just like the professor did. It's a self-perpetuating system that isn't based on reality, on what students need or like, or on anything except that everyone finds it so distasteful except a few--and those few become the next generation of teachers because they're the only ones who can stand the training system.....It's an awful cycle. But it's not the classroom teachers' faults.

If you want to fix education in this country, stop trying to do it tomorrow. It's not gonna happen. In fact, we might have just lost a whole generation of kids and changing their teachers isn't going to solve that. But we could possibly improve it for the next set.

First and foremost, there needs to be a sit-down, think-through period in which we define the purpose of education. Is it to beat the test scores of students in other countries (cuz that's what the purpose appears to be right now)?  Is it to train everyone, regardless of talent, ability, or interest, to become businessmen or professors (cuz we're doing that, too)? Is it to get everyone in a position where they can make a LOT of money and get famous (cuz that's what the students believe the purpose of education is)? This has to go beyond "The purpose of education is getting it so every child can read at grade level." You have to start asking "Why do they need to read at grade level?" and keep asking until you know--and then design your education around THAT. (I have some ideas about this, but they don't involve money or fame or changing the world. They involve training children to be thinking, analyzing adults, productive and participating citizens, good stewards, and developing and using their own talents to benefit themselves and those around them, and they involve training children to be able to get jobs using their talents that will support their families modestly and comfortably and reasonably).

Secondly, there needs to be some serious research done--not by changing the entire education in California to follow someone's pet theory, but by doing some real science on education methods, the way children learn, classroom set up, etc. REAL research, based on REAL science, that tells us how kids think, how their brains develop, how they learn best.

Finally, you need to then throw out not the teachers, but the education training system--the education departments in colleges--and replace them with people who know something--preferably something true--about teaching, learning, and kids.

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