Saturday, January 4, 2014

Talking Education with Non-educators

It is easy to remain insular during the school year as any private life is consumed by the crowded school schedule.

It is school, school, school without a let up (nights, days, weekends) until everything comes to a screeching halt at the holidays.

Often I feel that I have emerged into another world when mingling with peers who have only tangentially thought about public schooling as it affects their grandchildren, nieces, nephews and neighbors.

After being immersed in conversations about Ed policy with educators for months at a time, I am confronted with themes as they are perceived by the general public.  Angry exclamations from those outside of our realm about what is going on in our schools--or not going on, as they see it--are informative. The texture these big issues are taking in the wider world by those who don't eat, breathe, and sleep educational issues becomes clear.

Though it may be easy to rise to a defensive posture, the commentary heard from the wider public can help us frame a message to explain the broad changes educators endorse when it comes to effective instruction for our students.

What I've heard over this holiday break convinces me that real reform in public Ed needs a framework that will engage a public that only understands one kind if schooling:  the one they had. 

Here are ways I've tried to shift conversations. Also offered are tips for transitioning a righteous rant into a thoughtful consideration of what it means to be educated, something those who played the game by the old rules (and did fairly well according to that system) haven't considered.

Tip number one:  Let your conversation partner rant. But listen beneath the outrage. What does he/she seem to be fearing?

Tip number two:  Rather than going on the defense, ask questions. Whenever possible, tie an issue to their own child or grandchild by describing what a policy looks like from the child's perspective. Link new ideas in education to memories of their own school experiences.

Here are issues which are raising the eyebrows of the general public.  I've had more than one adult bring up these topics as what is seen as alarming change:

Do you know that if a kid fails a test they get to take it again?

Fear:  This is unfair. Kids should get what they "deserve," which is a low grade due to laziness. We will get a generation that does not value hard work. Consequences, like low grades, will teach them a lesson.

Response:  What do you see as the goal for a course?  Is it more important to earn the first score or learn the material?  Try to shift the speaker's focus to outcomes for a system of education.   If you can maintain their interest, ask about their own grades, and what they can recall about particular subjects. Did the grade reflect what was learned?  (I recommend asking about Algebra and Chemistry. :-)) Does a good grade mean you know it?  How do you think you would react to schooling if you always failed every test?

At some point, I reference the many students I've had who've "passed" a course with the lowest possible numerical D and seem happy enough accepting several failing grades. They have learned to play the school game well, content to coast through on seat time, learning very little. (Or, as is the real case, they have given up trying to figure out how this learning thing works.)  Reteaching and retakes ensure that kids who struggle learn they can get help. They also learn that perseverance produces results. The message in this philosophy is that understanding the material is the primary goal--not squeaking by.

This issue is actually a monumental shift in the goal of public education.  It signals a move from merely ranking our students by the skills, talents, and experiences they arrive with through "earned" grades to instructing all students to a level of competency.  When the public gets behind this paradigm shift, then we will have the kind of literate, thinking workforce the biz people are always yapping about.

The teacher had the kids doing these projects and teaching each other.  She's not doing anything.

Fear:  My taxpayer dollars are being wasted. What a cushy job!

Teachers know this sounds like project-based or constructive learning. We also know that managing the projects and keeping students moving forward takes a lot of planning and skill not obvious to onlookers when the teacher is in coach mode. When the job is done well, the learning is deep and long-lasting. But it would take hours to go through the theory.

Instead, ask:  When you learn something new at work, which do you remember better--the directions someone feeds you or the tasks you had to figure out for yourself?

Or:  Tell me a specific day or days you recall learning something in school. Why do you think you remember that? Most will concede that they remember little of daily lectures, more about what they read on their own, reports they generated, and even more when the activity was unique--like a field trip off campus or a play or musical performance which demanded their active participation.  This, you can explain, is what we have learned about learning.  The mind must be engaged.  The task has to be somewhat challenging but achievable (not too frustrating).  Most adults only have experienced this kind of learning at their workplace--very few in the classroom.  This is another paradigm shift for the adult who has not experienced this kind of hands-on learning.

I'm evaluated on my results at work.  It's only fair that teachers are evaluated as well.

Fear:  Somebody is getting away with something (like that lazy, good-for-nothing history teacher I had who hurt my feelings in eleventh grade....)

With this one, the temptation is really strong to cry "bullshit" since I've worked in the private sector alongside plenty of slackers who were never fired or even pushed to improve.  However, reality never seems to enter into discussions of schooling.  Public schools, I've gathered, are supposed to reflect some place that doesn't exist in the real world where everything is "fair," all parties are happily satisfied, and no transgression goes unjustly resolved. Ah well.

Ask:  Do you have a child/grandchild/niece/nephew in school?  How would you feel about your loved one taking a high stakes test in every grade, including kindergarten, and every subject (think art, PE, band).  Now to add to the pressure of the test, imagine that the livelihood of the adults, who have their own children, mortgages and debts, relies on the scores of those tests.  What would the day/week/month look like?  Who's best interest will be served in this scenario?

That usually does it.  If you want to explore other ways that the teachers could be held accountable, feel free.  But, without a doubt, most adults can see that basing employment on the tests taken by children, impressionable, malleable children left in a room for six to eight hours a day with a stressed adult, is a very, very bad idea.

Oh, and the last big issue?  School shootings.   There has been no debate at all on this issue with my adult friends.

We all agree that something must be done about mental illness and the easy access to weaponry.