Thursday, December 30, 2010

America's Uneven Terrain

Ok.  I haven't finished the book, but I have read enough to reflect on America's role as "Leader of the Free World."  This rhetoric is the pablum of my formative years in the Sputnik generation. We were charged with learning so we could assume a role as the forward-looking leader of a brave new world and leverage human inventiveness to change the world for the better.  (I remember Mrs. Mize's lecture to us in sixth grade about why we needed to learn our math!)
Our future centered on education.
For a time, we did just that--inventing and transforming the world through computers and other technology the world envied, copied, and ultimately mass-produced much cheaper than we could.
We remembered Rule #1:  Educate everybody.
Today we lag farther and farther behind other nations who have not forgotten Rule #1.  These nations know that educating everybody means recognizing that the best and most consistent resource is the human one (no matter which kind of human they are.)
Linda Darling-Hammond's book The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity will Determine our Future is well-researched and supported by studies and statistical evidence that left me feeling ultimately hopeful for the future of the education profession and frustrated with the picture of our current American personality writ large:  We are a backwater nation of arrogant rubes.  Not the picture of my youth. (Saviors of the world after World War II.  Youthful, energetic nation leaning into the future with hope in our eyes.)
Most every reform I hear or read about from the popular news has the ring of a stubborn We'll-do-it-our-way-business-is-best-America-is-great-work-harder-lift-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps nonsense.
The hope comes from this statement:  The teaching profession of 2010 is roughly in the same position as the medical profession of 1910.  During that time the science of medicine was well established but the education of doctors was not.  It was time to align the training of doctors with the evidence of science.
That is where we are now.
We know what good teaching and learning looks like.  It can also be taught to those who show the disposition and inclination to teach. But the pre-service education and induction of teachers in this country is uneven at best.  Other nations have standardized that.  Sorry arrogant America.  It is time to learn from other countries on this one.
The frustration comes from seeing a path to real reform while simultaneously being steeped in news about education reforms that merely nibble at the edges of our current swiss-cheese style education.  To those who take the task of educating everyone seriously, the widely touted reforms sound like naive fairy tales:

  • All we need is a Superman.  (A kind soul who doesn't mind throwing lots of money willy-nilly at any crazy idea?  A legion of superheroes willing to sacrifice financial stability, health, and personal relationships to lift up our poor and needy children? Sounds like something out of a comic book.)
  • We can privatize opportunities.  (Thus solidifying the swiss cheese method of education: Pockets of excellence surrounded by gaping holes.  More for those who have.  Less for those who have not. A promise to warehouse more and more of our youth for the duration of their lives.)
  • Get the best and the brightest to volunteer two years of a life to do educational triage.  A Peace Corps for the nation's poor.  (Never mind all the statistics that show that throwing unprepared adults in a difficult role is a prescription for perpetuating and even accelerating an unstable learning environment.)
  • Throw out the bottom 5% of teachers after you identify them by looking at standardized test scores. (And you will replace these teachers with whom?  More untrained adults who will have to be weeded through. Throw enough at the wall and some of them might stick. And the tests?  They are already narrowing, not expanding, our students' opportunities. China has dispensed with standard tests that limit critical thinking and creativity.)
  • Good teaching is hard to identify.  It's some kind of magic. (Fairy tale:  we already know the hallmarks of good teaching.  We also know how to train teachers to be excellent and to get better over time.  Look at exemplar institutions like Bank Street Schools, Teachers College, the National Writing Project, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.  Other nations have taken the model programs and run with them and ultimately outscored us in many measures.)

Sorry.  No quick fixes for this problem.
The teaching profession needs to be just that.  A profession where the members are well-trained, well-supported, continually learning and growing, stable, and trusted.  And available to every child in the nation.
What we really need is the hope and energy of the youthful nation that triumphed in World War II coupled with the stability and maturity of an adult who knows that the work will be painful at times but that it is the right thing to do.  For the children.  For the nation.
Time to grow up.

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