Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Our Schools Are Succeeding

Ah, summer! Picnics by the water, barbecues in the back yard, and the inevitable question: "What do you do?" I know when I answer "I'm a teacher" these days I brace myself, hoping for a, "Good for you," but fearing that I'm going to be called on to defend my profession. It's a real lazy summer day mood crusher.

Now I, myself, have often used these pages to criticize the direction I feel our educational system is heading. This is not because I feel our public schools or teachers are failing, but rather because I'm among those who fear that our current march toward increased standardization, high-stakes testing, larger class size, longer school days and years, and a focus on vocational skills rather than a well-rounded, inquiry-based education, is not the best way to serve children or our democracy.

I can't recall having ever met a teacher who disagrees with me. I'm sure they're out there, but the vast majority of teachers know the current push to "reform" education coming from the political and business leaders in Washington DC, are doomed to fail. And when we speak out, we're essentially attacked as being lazy, hidebound, or worse. It's a tough time to be a public school teacher, what with the "common knowledge" that our schools are failing and that the unions are protecting horrible teachers. Both research and our own personal experiences tells us that "solutions" like merit pay, high-stakes testing, and charter schools don't work, yet well-connected education gadflies, people who've never worked a day in an actual classroom, are pushing us aside, essentially saying, "What do teachers know about education?" (This was actually said to me recently at a dinner party.)

Well, here's the objective truth: our schools are not failing:

The percentage of Americans earning a high school diploma has been rising for 30 years. According to the Department of Education, the percentage of 16-to-24-year-olds who were not enrolled in school and hadn't earned a diploma or its equivalent fell to 8 percent in 2008 . . . Average SAT and ACT scores are also up, even with many more -- and more diverse -- test-takers. On international exams such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, U.S. elementary and middle school students have improved since 1995 and rank near the top among developed countries.

Now I'm the first to question the validity of using standardized test scores to measure education, it's the tool we're using these days -- and it's the tool of choice of the so-call reformers -- and by these measures we are succeeding. Can we do better? Of course. And yes, there are some schools, notably those that serve poor students, that are failing, but when we step back and look at the big picture we see success. To claim that our public schools are in wholesale free fall is simply propaganda.

The Washington Post op-ed piece from which I've quoted goes on to expose 4 other myths currently being propagated about our educational system, pointing out that unions are working in good faith to get rid of "bad apples," that the pet projects of billionaires like merit pay and charter schools are not supported by the actual research data, and that teachers indeed do know something about education, but are not miracle workers.

So with summer upon us, we're all going to finding ourselves enjoying picnics and barbecues, and when we say we are teachers people who are not educators are going to be voicing these common misunderstandings that pass these days as "common knowledge." I urge you to take a few minutes to commit the salient points of this piece to memory so that you can, as teachers do, gently and calmly guide your friends and neighbors toward actual knowledge. It may be the first time they've spoken to an actual teacher about anything other than junior's grades since they themselves were in school.

We don't have the deep pockets of Bill Gates, but we do have millions of voices with which to spread the wonderful truth that our schools and teachers are, in fact, succeeding.

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Anonymous said...

Hear! Hear!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this! So good and so encouraging. And i need to be reminded to "gently and calmly guide" instead of getting upset.