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Is it ever about the students?
No matter where I turn I hear teachers, principals, superintendents, mayors, governors, education secretaries, regents, newspapers, radio stations and the President saying it is all about the students – every lesson, every decision every policy is about doing what is best for the students.
Let’s start with the President. You remember him, he’s the guy who promised change but doesn’t seem to have the knowledge, interest, ideas, or power to effect it.
Sure, the Race to the Top looks a little different than No Child Left Behind, mainly because there seems to be more of a willingness to leave some children behind (there’s not enough room at the top for everyone). Still, decisions remain based on misguided ideas about testing, teaching, learning and incentives. For the President it is all about political game playing and not doing anything radical that might interfere with his re-election is 2012.
Instead of a freethinking leader we have a gullible man doing pretty much what his predecessor did and calling it something else.
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Gullible? That’s my take, but a case could be made that the President is deliberately misrepresenting the success of the program he cited in his State of the Union Address for having a 97% graduation rate. It appears that the Bruce Randolph School in Denver didn’t actually prepare those graduates for academic life beyond high school. In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Diane Ravitch cites Noel Hammatt, a former teacher and instructor at Louisiana State University. He looked at data from the Web site of the Colorado Department of Education and found that while the school did, in fact, have a high graduation rate, ACT scores there were well below the state average, meaning students are not well prepared for college.
A high school diploma should mean that the student receiving it is ready for further education or skilled employment. That would be about the students. Instead, we have school cooking the books on their graduation rate to make a program look like a success when it isn’t.
Our education secretary, Mr. Duncan, was part of the cabal that cooked the books in Chicago to produce apparent gains in standardized test scores. What gains? Where did they go? Rhee in Washington? Same thing? What gains?
I’m not even going to touch whether the tests measure useful learning; that’s for some other post.
The head of my school district, who also happens to be Mayor of New York City, is also not above cooking the books. He is fast to toot his horn when testing results seem to indicate that his programs are leading to huge jumps in student learning, but he is strangely silent the next year when those apparent gains disappear.
I have to give Mayor Bloomberg some credit. He has been willing to spend money on education, but he spends that money on data systems and consultants who set up the data systems and then interpret the data for him. The mayor cannot do that himself, probably because he is busy running the rest of City government single-handed.
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Worse, he has utter contempt for students, teachers, parents and all the other stakeholders. That’s clear from his appointment of know-nothing Cathie Black as schools chancellor without, he claims, even considering anyone else, especially someone who actually knows a little bit about the system he or she will be running. That contempt is reinforced daily in the mayor’s comments about parents and the dismissive way parents are treated in setting the policies that affect their children.
Now he wants to spend even more money schools are desperate for to create additional tests to give students, tests explicitly designed – he claims – to assess teacher effectiveness. Even if they do that, which is doubtful, at best, what benefit do students get from these tests? How does taking even more time from their school day to administer these tests, not to mention lessons preparing for these tests, and whatever anxiety the tests might cause them, benefit the kids sitting in that classroom?
Does anyone doubt that if teacher jobs are dependent on student performance on these new tests teachers will spend time prepping the students to perform well on them?
In New York, a board of regents is supposed to oversee all education systems in the state. Despite all his money and power, Mayor Bloomberg could not get his know-nothing chancellor hired without a waiver from them. Of course they gave it. They’re all about the politics, not the students.
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The media? They’re not for the students. They exist to sell newspapers, magazines and airtime. Most want to spend as little as possible on gathering the news. That precludes paying reporters to take the time to actually look beyond the press releases, or even ignore the press releases, and do independent, investigative and interpretive reporting. If the media reached its highpoint during and in the wake of the Watergate scandal 40 years ago, we can only hope they are reaching their nadir now and can’t possibly get any worse. See, I’m still an optimist.
I don’t know about anywhere else, but in NYC principals are rewarded financially when the schools they run show improvements in test scores and the use of the data the tests generate to drive teaching. My principal, whom I like and respect, used to ask the tough questions like ‘what do the grades we give really mean?’ and ‘how can we change our practice to focus more on genuine learning and less on test scores?’ He doesn’t ask those questions anymore.
Perhaps this is because he, with the teacher’s agreement, has decided that an additional set of meetings between parents and teachers, that fewer than half the parents come to, is more important than regular staff meetings. The teachers would much rather spend a couple of hours one evening with some parents than a monthly 40 minutes Monday afternoon staff meeting.
Now we come to teachers.
This is a hard one for me. I am a teacher, but when I look at what we do and how we do it, I am forced to admit that we are not focused on students either. Where is the activism against standardized teaching? Where is the activism against the way parents are treated in our system? Where is the activism against the huge amounts of money spent on invalid data and consultants? Where is the activism against test prep and in favor of empowering student learning? Where is the anger? Where is the energy? One would think it is all focused on saving our jobs, but fewer than half the staff comes to union meetings.
I do see some teachers giving up a Saturday to attend an EdCamp to engage without compensation in a self-generated process of developing or honing skills, methods and ideas that can lead to better teaching. EdCamps are fantastic, energizing, reaffirming events for very dedicated teachers and the EdCamp movement is growing exponentially. Excellent, but there is a dirty little secret about EdCamps; fewer than half the teachers who enroll to attend actually show up.
Oddly, that is about the same percentage of teachers who show up at union meetings at my school and about the same percentage of parents who show up for the parent-teacher meetings at my school.
Slightly less than half is what you can believe of what is printed in the newspaper about education and it is about the amount you can believe of what our President promises about education policy.
I’m feeling a little better now.
When I started this essay I was convinced that nothing that happens in education is about the students, but I was wrong.
Slightly less than half of what happens in education is about the students.
Doesn’t that make you feel good, too?