Ancient lore has it that thousands of years ago this question was posed to many a traveler, and unable to answer, they would be devoured by the creature. That is, until Oedipus. Having to discover his own fate, needed the help of the Sphinx, which he could not get without answering the riddle. So he did. Man, he said. As a baby crawls on all fours, walks upright as a man, and in old age relys on a cane-the more legs or supports the weaker the state of man. Ironically, this brilliant answer created a circumstance where Oedipus was then in turn helped by the Sphinx and the knowledge he discovered devoured him, rather than the creature. Much of this is true of education today. It is a riddle, and the answers or myths of the moment, as brilliant as they may seem, that are contributing to education’s ultimate demise. So why don’t we take a closer look at the myths policy makers continue to provide as answers; more standardized testing, charter schools, union busting, using a business model, and top down decision making practices.
Myth: Students’ standardized test scores are a good measure of teacher effectiveness and the quality of our educational system.
Test scores, while one ingredient in assessing educational performance, is just that, one ingredient. Good education and successful students are made up of a multitude of ingredients, including teacher preparation, planning, community and family support, basic needs, such as food, clothing and shelter, being met and ultimately student buy-in. The ‘whole child’ approach flies in the face of standardized test scores as a stand alone measure. A child’s educational experience can not be reduced to performance on a 2, 3, or even 4 hour examination. This is a snap shot. A piece. A piece necessary to see the whole picture but not a picture in and of itself.
Myth: The lottery selection of students for charter schools make them equivalent to public schools because they accept anyone chosen.
The lottery system established by charter schools would equate to public school IF all students names in a charter district were entered into the pool and selected. But in the current charter system parents or guardians have to apply for the selection process. Why is that a sticking point? The Visa add would say it best: school supplies-$50, school uniform-$100, textbooks-$250, motivation and parental involvement-priceless. No matter the minimal requirement of ‘filling out the application’ the reality is that that process ‘skims from the top’ those families, students, and parents that see a value to education. These people are motivated to offer a better school to their children, in hopes of a better future. At public schools there is no requirement for parental involvement or value of education hence making a comparison one of ‘apples and oranges’.
Myth: A successful business model will translate into better performing schools.
Children are not a commodity and can not be measured as such. Unlike other products, these bring a will of their own, a curiosity, a desire which must be sparked and culitivated. Raw material and environment play important factors in a child’s success, or lack there of, but can not be controlled like variables in a traditional business model. Children, and their needs, strengths, qualities, do not translate into spreadsheets and models. They are a different language. Just as a teacher knows and appreciates, one approach will not work for all children. It requires flexibility, creativity, and on your feet problem-solving to develop a program from which children learn. Not an assembly line or product driven mentality.
Myth: Unions are to blame because they protect bad teachers.
The blame game has been an ineffective distraction for decades. Whether in an individual relationship, locals blaming the state, one political group blaming another on a nationwide scale, it doesn’t get anything done about the problem at hand. So let’s focus on a solution. Blaming teachers’ unions for the poor state of education is like blaming public defenders for the crime rate. Unions have a job to do, make sure that each teacher receives ‘due process’. Does that mean that bad teachers stay in the profession? Yes, unfortunately-much to my chagrin as a public school teacher-when supervisors and administrators don’t follow due process rights, take the time to document, or follow-up on issues. Teachers don’t want bad teachers in their profession anymore than parents do, but that does not mean that personal rights can be sacrificed. Teaching requires a level of protection from the multitude of variables involved-like changing administration, parents, and students. Popularity is not a measure of effectiveness and should never become one, yet without some protection the very objective nature of the profession will be in jeopardy.
Myth: “We don’t have time for consensus building, we’re in it for the fight!”-Michelle Rhee
Really Michelle Rhee? Maybe that attitude is why in our country the divorce rate tops 50%, children and adults don’t know how to moderate their conflicts, and time for ‘sitting down at the table’ to discuss and resolve isn’t taken. Shared decision making takes time. That’s a given. Is it time well spent? Only if you believe that all of the stake holders are important. Yes that means all. Parents, teachers, administrators, secretaries, cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, custodians, community members, local businesses, clergy, school board members, …and the list could go on. We all are stake holders in our collective children’s educations whether we like it or not. We will be paying for it (quite literally) and reaping the rewards or suffering the consequences for years to come. So how do we build consensus? By listening, problem solving, planning, and acting. By moving forward with everyone riding on the train rather than being run over or dragged behind. We don’t need anymore derailments. Just like messy divorces, where consensus and open communication aren’t reached, our children suffer, caught in the crossfire. All too often they become our collateral damage. It should not be that way in education reform. Collateral damage is unacceptable.
So as we stand at the gate of public education facing the Sphinx, beware. The answers that policy makers are putting forth may yet devour us.