Not sure what to call this
I've spent a lot of the last year or year and a half thinking about education in a more general way than I was want to think of it in years prior. Much of this change in how I approached thinking about education was spurred by the introduction of more rigid "top-down" principles of what education is supposed to be brought in by the new principal of my school (who is in many ways simply an echo of the city of New York's educational policies which, in turn, are echoes of the Department of Education's policies).
Schools in New York City are burdened by budget deficits and all their resulting problems, but in the spirit of acquiescence, those who discuss these financial problems usually discuss them in a way to dampen the extreme to which finances ARE a problem. Often they point to this study or that school district in which spending deficits don't seem to have mattered quite as much as they do generally. None of the rich school districts that surround New York City (or Chicago, or San Francisco, or Los Angeles etc.) however, seem to be in a hurry to give back the money they get. Usually these amounts dwarf, per student, money spent on urban education. At New York City's public schools in wealthier areas, parents generally raise huge amounts of cash to supplement the educational budgets of their children's schools, I have yet to hear of anybody wondering if this is a waste of their money or energy. As a nation, our educational policies have created separate and unequal schools.
In order to get around the burden of these deficits, and to pay less per teacher, lessons are often supposed to be scripted in New York City's public schools. These scripts, which demand little input from the teacher, tie topics to various learning outcomes that comply with state-tests. The tests are devised to insure that teachers are following the scripts that seek to turn the art of teaching into a science. In this way, ingredients can be poured into a classroom in attempts to create classrooms with scientifically "predictable" outcomes. So far the outcomes have failed to improve standards of education and only increase the political manipulation of the results.
Edicts are issued about the proper way to question, the proper way to assess learning outcomes and pretty much anything that can be quantifiable, down to what a bulletin board outside of a classroom should look like. The bulletin boards are not there anymore to highlight the work of students in the class, but to reassure visitors from various state agencies that they are in fact, in a school that is aware of their various protocols and standards. After awhile these edicts sound like attempts to organize so many scatters of shells at a beach. Order is imposed simply for the sake of reaffirming the order established by those in power. What is unscripted is seen as a threat, a boast, irresponsible.
The message in an urban school to its students tends to be "don't mess this up." Because of gang violence and other assorted problems, scanning is probably necessary, but it is an ugly, unpleasant affair in which students are viewed first as potential threats, and only second as students. This is probably always going to be a problem, although, without having dwelt on the issue I would argue that there are some possible ways of making this a less confrontational affair. For instance, as it is now at our school, there are no lockers and for the students to wait in line, they must wait outside. There is probably a way to make sure that students don't have to wait outside in terrible weather, and it would be nice, if students only had to carry things like notebooks they did homework in and books they used. As of now, students have no place to keep their textbooks, so the textbooks stay at home and teachers attempt to hoard classroom sets that assistant principals want in their book rooms. As well, concerning lines, we should be looking at ways at making the process less confrontational, which will be difficult, because anywhere you have a couple thousand students waiting in a line because they are not trusted, you are going to have the potential for conflict. Sadly, the line into scanning sends a strong message of what we actually expect from our students. It is hard to eradicate that message and it is made harder when the students have so little input in what their school looks like. We might give them walls here and there for a mural, we might let them put up posters for a few activities, but clearly, when students see the bureaucratic slogans and state standards and other what-nots there not so much for them as for visitors from the state, the message is only reinforced: "this school does not belong to you and is not influenced by you. You come, go through the procedures we've set up for you and then leave." While teachers, other students and some administrators try to soften and change this message, the message is what begins everyday, and often it's the last poster the students see on their way out of the school. In order to get a poster up in the hallways at our schools, various forms must be filled out and the posters must be ok'd by multiple administrators.
The ideal teacher from an administrative viewpoint is not one who will challenge students to learn more than they thought they could, or one who will challenge assumptions, the ideal teacher is a link in a chain, communicating protocols and learning objectives to the students. These students will then successfully pencil in dots on a state test and write sentences in an approved fashion following various points from various grids to score a number on a test issued by the state of New York. As well, the ideal student is not one who challenges the assumptions of a teacher, who goes beyond a teacher's knowledge and brings back a new perspective for looking at a topic or subject, but rather one who will parrot the learning objectives in a way that indicates they have understood the topic so that they will score higher on these end of year tests. In the minds of those who devise the state history tests, it is more important to understand that the presidential cabinet is part of the unwritten constitution than it is to be fascinated by the vagaries, confusions, questions and assumptions of the world in which our government took form. To have become fascinated, to have delved into another world, means nothing if you have forgotten some of the canonical points of the topic several months later.
Art exists in the world, there is no blueprint that an artist would have to follow, rather the artist will choose various methods and modalities as she goes about her work to the extent that she needs them. Science on the other hand, eventually needs a laboratory where ideas, thoughts and experiments can be codified and examined with a minimum of prejudice. Looking back through the history of science, we can see how difficult it is to make a true laboratory - especially since the creation of a question often has a cultural impetus. Great scientists often have about them the air of an artist, and great artists often employ uncomfortable levels of scientific process in their work. I would argue though, that teaching intrinsically is more of an art than a science. There are goals for students, these goals can, to some degree, be assessed. Not to a percentage point, often not to a point on a chart, but simply to a skill learned and exhibited, and more importantly an assessment can be made of whether this student has gained some knowledge of what she believes by studying the topic and completing the activity. A good teacher will employ whatever tools she has at her disposal to help students reach various goals set by the teacher as they go through their curriculum, but the goals in the best classes are also set, in part, by the students. The student is not the object we hope to reach through a lesson, the student is the Reason for the lesson. And the point of the lesson, furthermore, is to help the student discover what it is that she is good at, what she excels at, and to help her figure out how it is that she wants to spend her life. Any lesson that does not have that at its base is useless and lessons that are simply attempts to meet a grid to be tested on a state test fail this and fail the students to a level that is contemptible. In short, they are defeated by their lack of flexibility, their inability to react to what happens organically in an uncontrolled environment. What an administrator sees though, in a large urban school system, is a way to save some money and to make a few politicians happy without threatening the world view of anybody with actual power.
At my own schools, growing up, I believe that this idea, that the student needed to discover her life's work and to question the world around her, was often the focus of the lessons. Often we had classes that we did not like, which we had to struggle through and learn just enough to get by, but in other classes we were discovering passions that we poured ourselves into with results that took us deeper into the subjects and deeper into questions we were asking to define ourselves. In none of the classes was there ever a focus on state tests or even SAT results; the idea being, I believe, that if we were working in our classes, these skills would become innate. When test scores to gratify parents and administrators (as well as some teachers I suppose) are the focus of our educational efforts, we deny students opportunities to ask questions about themselves and the world. Instead, we ask them to perform for us like so many circus animals.
I know that when I was in high school some students took classes to improve their SAT scores, that we obsessed over the scores, but I never felt pressure to take classes to prepare for SATs or ACTs and, along with the practice versions of those tests, these were the only standardized tests I remember being compulsory in high school. In thinking about my intelligence and my abilities, after trusting my own judgment, I would trust the judgment of my best teachers long before I trusted the abstract results of these standardized tests or made any conclusions about my abilities based on them. Getting a 90 on a Regents test would not validate or invalidate whatever it was I learned in a class, it would only suggest that on the day I took the test, I got lucky on a few guesses, I did not have a headache and that to some degree, I paid attention either to the class or to the textbook, perhaps both. As to mastery, its greatest power would be to suggest that, at least in this subject, I was probably not a complete idiot. Yet, for administrators, these results are paramount, even if they are often engineered, as newspaper stories sometimes point out, as much by various administrative powers or sociological conditions as by the students taking the tests.
This paramount importance of tests is true now whether they are SAT results in the wealthier school districts, or state-mandated Regents tests in the poorer districts of New York. These results can determine the endpoints of administrators' ambitions. They do not consider much the individuals who take the tests. Can an SAT result predict the success of an individual? No, but it can predict rather accurately the success of a population along a grid - useless for one student, useful only in sifting and organizing when individuals are considered so many shells on a beach by some administrator or someone wielding the powers of judgment over said administrator. A teacher's observations of her students are expected to be boiled down to numbers and preexisting statements that are filled in by number on a report issued six times a year. There is something wrong when decisions about individual school's educational policies and goals are based on tests taken on one day over several hours rather than on the observations of teachers whose jobs entail spending hundreds of hours with these same students and coming to understandings with them at individual, class and school levels.
In some school districts, and in some universities, administrators are trying to bring more administrative oversight into how grading is done. Sometimes this is by having grading conferences in which school goals are explicitly stated with resulting questions being simply about how we are going to reach those results in grade scores given. Sometimes, in other schools, administrators actually come in and look over various student work and tell the teacher what they believe the grade should be. Along with the loosening bonds of tenure, and the large number of teachers who have no tenure in public schools, this means that many grades are artificially inflated, and sometimes passing grades are given to students who barely show up. If the goal of education is to prepare a student to pursue their aspirations, we are giving them little in the ways of knowledge or skills for that pursuit of happiness.
At some level, the idea of a classroom has become too democratic for our decision makers, we are reaching some sad end in the line of management books that began appearing with great frequency in the 1980s. Our belief in Taylorism or the manipulations of the ideas of B.F. Skinner to produce outcomes that support management goals leave an alarmingly small sphere in which the student can focus on her own beliefs and goals while satisfying the goals and expectations of the grids. As well, the freedom and comfort that many in educational administration take in making judgments of students at this macro level is misguided and in its extremes, cruel. To label an 8 year old or a 16 year old with a level or a number is more than absurd, it is a crime against those children's ability to control and name their own futures. There are tests in many states for children as young as five years old. Standardized tests at this age that are not for individual issues and that are used to rate schools or push students towards certain tracks is beyond absurd.
Some programs, like special education programs or second language learner programs often lead to lower test scores on average and to spending money in the budget on things that do not help schools' ratings or "grades" as they're often called. With alarming frequency, principals facing tremendous budgetary constraints will attempt to reduce or even eliminate these programs. To attempt to eliminate programs that help students who have less a chance of reflecting glory on a school in an attempt to cut the number of those students who use those programs goes against the very foundation of a democratic society and the principles of public schooling. It is wrong in every ethical consideration that there is and it sends a clear message to those students and to the people who try to help them: you are an impediment. The impediment, in actuality, is the system that encourages ways of thinking that lead to these kinds of decisions. It is a system that robs many of the most vulnerable without consequence to those who already have built-in advantages that practically assure them of comfortable lives regardless of the decisions they make.
As teachers, we need to make our classrooms into places where students explore and expand their own abilities through activities constructed around our areas of expertise so that we may help them and sometimes serve as guide, sometimes as interpreter and explainer and sometimes as taskmaster. It is not that I'm against larger curricula that we, as teachers, measure ourselves against and that we use to keep on a larger schedule, I'm for that, especially as exposure to different topics is key for students just being introduced to the large spectra of our disciplines. I do believe, however, that we should be trusted to a greater degree to envision and plan our classes, to assess our students and to determine what it is that our classrooms should look like and what they should reflect. I believe given that freedom, schools will work more for students rather than the private ambitions of those entrusted with the responsibilities of running public schools.
Students will work with many different types of people during their lives, and their first exposure to this reality is in the classroom, where they are surrounded by a myriad of teachers and fellow students. Rather than attempting to codify and regularize those people an individual student will come into contact with, a school administrator should do her best to see that individuals will be exposed to as great a variety of people and environments as possible, especially if she really believes the students under her supervision will be competing in a global marketplace.
As a teacher too, I believe it is my responsibility to examine and name my beliefs about my areas of study and to challenge them by learning more and examining more thoughts about those things I am learning about. As well, I want the freedom to bring in new ideas and topics that might challenge students or speak more closely to their own interests, in other words, I want to be able to react to my students with greater freedom and to have the trust of my school leadership that I am imparting necessary skills and knowledge. In the spirit of that, I have always welcomed classroom visitors at any time and have always been willing to listen to ideas about my classroom if the intent is to help the students and to help me think about new issues and problems. When dealing with New York City's educational policy makers however, this conversation about my classroom has been almost exclusively a one way street and it seems that, in this, nothing will change until new ways of thinking have penetrated the Department of Education in New York. I am praised for the ways in which I am following directives and criticized sometimes for not having followed protocols; I am judged almost exclusively on passing rates and test scores. One way I was criticized this year was to have pointed out that I had not distributed a study guide issued by a private company assisting in instructing for the state Regents tests. In fact I had issued the books (though I made no lessons in conjunction with them because I found them rote and limiting in the ways I wanted my students to think about history), but the particular administrator making that criticism had not bothered to ask if I had distributed these books or not. The unopened box of guides the administrator was referring to spoke to the sad attendance rates that are a problem city-wide and not just at my particular school, the other two boxes had been opened and distributed. When that person was in my room, that box was just another box on a checklist. My classroom is more than a checklist, and in fact, when that person was in my room, there were many more important things going on that would have told the person much more about whether my students were being challenged and learning history.
Still, rather than respond to this problem in any meaningful way, and rather than ask the question, why do so many of our students believe it is not necessary to attend school, our administrators work tirelessly to thin the ranks of students on our rolls and to make the ones who don't show up someone else's problem. They do not do this out of cruelty, they do it in attempt to keep their schools open. They do it to avoid punishment, just as many teachers follow a script and just as many students follow that same script. Inspiration as a possibility in problem solving is non-existent, and piece-meal solutions which might effect some good are ignored in search of city-wide protocols or other such instruments that avoid individual scrutiny. This does not just do a disservice to teachers and students, but to the administrators themselves, who given, theoretically, greater leeway to run their schools, are actually handicapped by the fears of their political leadership.
As a society we should be asking hard questions about our educational policies, and they should start with the question of why do so many of our most at-risk students find so little to motivate them to attend school and to graduate? Why does a student at an urban school have to be so extraordinary and so awake to life's challenges so much younger than do students at suburban and wealthier schools? How can we engage students while maintaining the validity of our academic disciplines and their focuses of study? Why do we have public schools?
As a teacher I should be encouraged to find creative ways to approach my students' needs, interests and content knowledge. My own experience in this regard is not without reason for optimism, as I believe my direct supervisor has encouraged to the extent she can, experimentation, variation and topic-depth. Sadly, however, the further you go up the chain, the less support their seems to be for these important aspects of teaching, and the quicker these encouragements are trumped by the pressures of a system of oversight that considers the needs of the students considerably after it thinks about how meals will be catered at the next closed door meeting.
In a democratic society it is natural that their should be a dialogue on educational practice and what should make up acceptable classrooms and what definitely does not make an acceptable classroom, however, by mirroring a love for numerical results and for the false adherence to accountability and "the bottom line" politicians and community leaders love to pretend to pledge allegiance to even as they are finding ways to further their own ambitions without regard to these ideals, we are doing our next generation a grave disservice and I believe the parameters for debate should grow to include much more about class, denial of services and the influence of script-writing into teaching practice. As well, we should look at the motivations and methods behind budget allocations and at the difference in educational planning at schools that service middle and upper class students verse those that service students who are growing up in poverty.
Note: I have attempted to relate little of my personal experiences as a teacher while writing this because I wanted to attempt to begin understanding what bigger issues I was tying my reactions to as a teacher over the last year and a half or so. I suppose the next logical step is to look at my own practice as a teacher and to figure out what I should be learning from my own experience and how I should use these experiences to further inform my own teaching methods - which I'm doing in my planning, but maybe it would help to write out a reaction as well. I should also think about how I would imagine an administration should react to its teachers and students and think about the problems and positive steps that could be created in that paradigm. Finally, I should think about a question I brought up as a suggestion for administrators and politicians to think about - which is - why do we have public schools - or better put - why should we have public schools.
I know that this is chiefly for myself - but maybe somebody else will stumble on it. Hopefully, if that's the case, you will forgive these half-formed thoughts...