Friday, June 7, 2013

School reform, school "reform," poverty, and teacher responsibility

First off, the inciting article: New data shows school reformers are full of it.  Its main thesis is that the school "reform" movement ignores student poverty in order to sell the myth that really good teachers can overcome any negative force in students' lives and bring them academic success. 

Next, my prior knowledge, beliefs, and bias about the subject:  There are two parts to the school reform movement, the good part and the bad part.  The good part focuses on effective teacher practice and student learning and does everything it can to promote them.  It recognizes that we can learn what works and what doesn't by watching it happen, but it recognizes that there are limits to this practice.  I call this school reform.

The bad part of school reform, I call school "reform."  The bad part believes that since teachers have an outsized impact on the academic success of students, when students don't achieve academic success, it is ipso facto the teachers' fault.  Or the schools'.  Or possibly the unions', or maybe the administrators' or the school boards' fault.  (Although, come to think of it, the volunteer, twice-a-month, no-expertise-necessary model of school boards receives relatively little attention in the "reform" movement.  It's taken for granted that school boards are best ignored and replaced by shareholders.)  The bad part argues that the problem with learning is institutes of learning, and they should be done away with at once. 

I am in favor of good reform.  We should do our best in the areas where we have control.  I want to be the best teacher I can be to get as many stuents to learn as much about Spanish and as many other subjects as I can in the time I have with them.  I want higher-order thinking and critical analysis to be the rule, rather than something some students can accidentally do through no fault of the schools.  I want systems that support genuine student learning, and I want teachers to be active participants in their onw improvement.  I am against bad reform.  I oppose charter schools; they are for-profit institutions that take already-limited resources and divide them into two camps, which fight each other.  If charter schools are successful, the best-case scenario leaves community public schools as educators of alst resort, teaching students with learning disabilities or students in such bone-crushing poverty that they can't afford to do things like get themselves to school or bring their own lunch.  The worst case scenario involves a million students being taught by a hundred teachers with the aid of computers and macros and algorithms which don't actually do very much, while a thousand investors take $5000 per student to the bank.  I approve of teacher evaluations; it's how you know what skills a teacher needs to improve.  I do not approve of firing teachers who don't hack it--sorry, holding teachers accountable.  I approve of frequent formative assessments to measure learning progress.  I do not approve of massive standardized tests 3-5 times a year.  (Do you know how much the MEAP COSTS?) 

Next, what changes because of this article: for me, kind of nothing.  I'll still teach students in poverty.  I might be teaching more of them now.  I'll still to continue to do my best, and advocate for school systems that support teachers as the primary vehicle for student learning.  For the rest of the education world, I hope that a discussion of child poverty reduction methods becomes a serious plank in the education reform movement, although I'm not holding my breath. 

A random observation that doesn't really fit into the structure of the paper, and would probably have to be cut from later drafts:  The author's tone is aggressively opposed to school "reform," which is fine.  I think the author might be willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Interestingly, which part is the baby and whch part is the bathwater is less easy to distinguish than you might think. 

Now, some kind of conclusion:  The myth of school "reform," good teaching can overcome all problems, is based on a fact, even if it is a self-aggrandizing fact: teachers work miracles every day.  (Maybe not today.  Today is mostly just paperwork.)  From this premise, school "reformers" conclude that since it happens all the time, it must be something we can do EVERY time.  In a way, I'm flattered.  But I feel like the Goblin King in The Labyrinth .  (From the heckler: "You mean your leather pants are chafing and you're afraid your hair's going to get caught in a ceiling fan?  A-HAHAHAHA!")  I am exhausted from living up to your expectations.