Thursday, August 13, 2009

Weighing The Pig Doesn’t Fatten It

I’ve become an political geek these last few years, so those of you who know me probably won’t find it surprising that I was re-reading the transcript from a town hall meeting on healthcare that President Obama held in Green Bay back in June.

I’m not sure what I was looking for, but I was suddenly struck by the presence of a non-healthcare question. It was from a teacher:

Q: One of the things that I've learned in education in the last 20 years is that the system is not broken. And it bothers me when I hear politicians, and even my President, say that our educational system is broken . . . This system works . . . There are great things happening in Green Bay and Appleton and all over the UP. And there are things that can be reproduced. My question is: When will the focus be on reproducing those things -- smaller classrooms, creating communities in your classrooms -- and moving the focus away from single-day testing and test-driven outcomes? (Applause.)

Excellent question. In fact, it was the advent of the misguided and unfunded “No Child Left Behind” alongside the charter school initiatives more than anything else that caused me to become politically active in the first place. It particularly got under my skin that teachers and their unions were being unfairly blamed for all the failings of public education, and that many of the very people who assert that government can never do anything right were now telling professional educators how to do our jobs. These MBAs, CPAs and lawyers were going to somehow work their privatizing, standardizing magic and show us how to manufacture super-duper blueberry ice cream.

This is how the president answered:

I completely agree with you that there is a lot of good stuff going on in American education. The problem is . . . that it's uneven. (Applause.) Well, let me put it this way. There are actually two problems. In some places it is completely broken. In some urban communities where you've got 50 percent of the kids dropping out, you only have one out of every 10 children who are graduating at grade level -- this system is broken for them . . .

I lived in the Detroit area for several years, and have joked ever since that it’s a good place to be from. Public education is still a mess there, and it has much more to do with mismanagement and lack of funds than it does teachers. The sound is choppy in parts of this video, but the opening tells the story even without words:

The president goes on:

Now, in other places . . . the average public school is actually doing a reasonably good job -- but I can still say that even if you factor out the urban schools, we are falling behind when it comes to math; our kids are falling behind when it comes to science. We have kind of settled into mediocrity when we compare ourselves to other advanced countries and wealthy countries. That's a problem because the reason that America over the last hundred years has consistently been the wealthiest nation is because we've also been the most educated nation.

It used to be by a pretty sizable factor we had the highest high school graduation rates, we had the highest college graduation rates, we had the highest number of Ph.D.s, the highest number of engineers and scientists. We used to be head and shoulders above other countries when it came to education. We aren't anymore. We're sort of in the middle of the pack now among wealthy, advanced, industrialized countries.

So even with the good schools, we've got to pick up the pace, because the world has gotten competitive. The Chinese, the Indians, they're coming at us and they're coming at us hard, and they're hungry, and they're really buckling down.

On the one hand, I do feel patriotically challenged when I learn that we’re “sort of in the middle of the pack.” On the other, I’m not wild about the notion that our schools should be judged based on their ability to create wealth – education should be its own reward. But okay, I got it, I'm a utopian. If this is what motivates us to do a better job of educating kids, I’ll take it.

And they (the Chinese, Indians, etc.) watch -- their kids watch a lot less TV than our kids do, play a lot fewer video games, they're in the classroom a lot longer. (Applause.)

Yay! I’m all for less time in front of screens, but longer time in the classroom? Boo! Kids need time to be kids. This is the danger of the education-as-vocational-training approach: it tends to rob children of their childhood.

And now for the part where he starts to propose solutions:

So here's the bottom line. We've got to improve, we've got to step up our game -- which brings me to the next point in your question, which is, how do we do that? I agree with you that if all we're doing is spreading around a lot of standardized tests and teaching to the test, that's not improving our education system. (Applause.)

There's a saying in Illinois I learned when I was down in a lot of rural communities. They said, "Just weighing a pig doesn't fatten it." (Applause.) You can weigh it all the time, but it's not making the hog fatter. So the point being, if we're all we're doing is testing and then teaching to the test, that doesn't assure that we're actually improving educational outcomes.

We do need to have accountability, however. We do need to measure progress with our kids. Maybe it's just one standardized test, plus portfolios of work that kids are doing, plus observing the classroom. There can be a whole range of assessments, but we do have to have some kind of accountability, number one.

Number two, we do have to upgrade the professional development for our teachers. (Applause.) I mean, we still have a lot of teachers who are -- we've got a lot of teachers who are well-meaning, but they're teaching science and they didn't major in science and they don't necessarily know science that well. And they certainly don't know how to make science interesting. So we've got to give them the chance to train and become better teachers. We've got to recruit more teachers, train them better, retain them better, match them up with master teachers who are doing excellent work so that they are upgrading their skills . . .

. . . Now, the key point I want to make is this: We should focus on what works, based on good data. And Arne Duncan, my Secretary of Education, this guy is just obsessed with improving our education system. He is focused a hundred percent on it, and he is completely committed to teachers. We think that teachers are the most important ingredient in good schools. We're going to do whatever works to help teachers do a better job -- (Applause) -- we're going to eliminate those thing that don't help teachers do a good job. Some of it is going to require more money, so in our Recovery Act, we have more money for improving curriculums, teacher training, recruitment, a lot of these things. But you can't just put more money without reform, and so some of it is demanding more accountability and more reform.

It’s a bit doughy, but it’s good to see phrases like “based on good data,” “going to require more money,” and “teacher training.” It’s refreshing after 8 years of the under-funded, knee-jerk, punitive, blame-teachers-first approach we’ve seen from our federal government. I have heard the president speak highly of charter schools in the past (an approach that tends to suck middle class kids and tax dollars out of public schools, with very little educational advantage to show for it), but I can wait until things are fleshed out to complain.

And this is where the president wrapped up his answer:

There's one other ingredient, though, and that is parents. (Applause.) We've got to have parents putting more emphasis on education with our kids. That's how we're all going to be able to pick up our game. (Applause.)

He saved the most important for last, I think, but I wonder what, if anything, the federal government can do about it. Time and again, studies show that the most strongly correlated factor in determining a child’s academic success is his parent’s commitment to education. This is where Barack Obama is doing what he always does: remind us that in our country, the hard work is always left up to “We the people.”

Anyone reading this is likely already the kind of parent he's talking about. So what can we do to pay it forward?

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Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

OMG! This is so funny
Of course I completely agree with you and Obama, and the lady asking the question in the first place on this, but what's really funny is that Jason and I have this joke about making the sheep fatter about this very subject, so I giggled a little as I read.

First, I want to say, again, how nice it is to listen to a president who makes sense when he speaks. I understood everything he said. Great starting point!

I do agree whole heartedly that teachers and unions get unfair blame for the most part. The only things we hear about education are the bad things, like the recent story about all the teachers who were being paid even though they had been removed from the classroom because they were not good at their job, but couldn't be fired because of tenure. I hate to hear that becasuse I know how hard my teacher friends and I work to do our very best job. Most of us are like that I think - it's too hard of job to do if you don't truly want to be there. Of course there are always some, but I don't believe it's the majority.

The last point he made is so important. A lot of our kids are so apathetic to their education. For a lot of those kids a teacher could stand on their head and still not reach them because THEY DON'T CARE (and their parents don't always either).

The government needs to stop talking about how bad education is in the country and then turning around and cutting spending for it. Arnold just cut our ed budget in CA about 11 billion dollars over the next two years. How is that making education better?

Oh, jeeze, I obviously needed to vent...sorry I did it in your comment section. :)

Teacher Tom said...

I'm glad you did PD!

SabrinaT said...

In my opinion anything Obama says regarding education is lips service. Bush robbed the education system, Clinton did nothing to improve it. I will not hold out hope for Obama...

The very day Bush went on national TV to declare war in Iraq he did it in full view of the cameras, and made it very public.

He then walked into a room, with no camera, and cut impact aid in half!

We will not fix the national debt, healthcare, or any of the other 500 things wrong with our country until we put education FIRST!

Teacher Tom said...

I hope you're wrong Sabrina, but I'll have to admit that everything I've heard so far is very vague and lip-service-like.

I feel like we've spent the last 30 years intentionally dumbing down our public schools. From the moment Reagan decided to cut school funding because he considered unionized teachers his "enemies", it's been a long slide down hill. I think many politicians see an uneducated public as easier to "govern" (e.g., lead around by their emotions). The healthcare "debate" (e.g., fight) is a classic example of playing to emotion and avoiding any kind of discussion of facts or policy.

I agree with you, Sabrina, education needs to be moved the top of the priority list. To function properly, a democracy assumes an educated public.

Thanks for dropping by!