I was a teacher for 24 years, actually an instructor and then an assistant professor of Reading. Most of my students were adults who did not consider college when they were in high school; or who never completed high school. A special program funded through the State University of New York was set up in the late 60’s to help these adults go to college which often required that they have a high school diploma (in most cases a high school equivalency diploma). Our staff worked very hard to create a program that would give students the skills they needed to succeed in college. It took us a while to develop courses that were really effective, but we eventually got the correct mix and we helped many adults get into college and do well in college. Our students became “A” students at the local community college and some even continued on to four year colleges, which was difficult for them given that all of our students were financially disadvantaged. I also worked with 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th graders in another special program for students who had been suspended from school for anger issues.
So I have spent lots of time thinking about our schools and what kinds of things schools need to do to keep students involved in schooling instead of quitting early, acting out or just failing to thrive. It is not an easy fix and there is not a formula. I am watching everyone jump on the Common Core bandwagon and the ever increasing reliance on testing to measure student performance and teacher competence (accountability). There is no stopping this train, even our President is on board; but I am very skeptical that this combination will produce the results we are looking for. If children rebel against authority, placing them in restraints may bring temporary peace, but it is not an answer for turning out talented graduates or for making schooling interesting and relevant. In my city, here in Central NY, a gifted teacher quit his job and wrote an open letter to the newspaper in which he blasted an endless round of standardized testing and of teaching to the test as a learning-killer, a creativity crusher and something no great teacher could favor.
I believe this man is a hero and that we should listen to him; soon. Our classrooms have looked basically the same since the 1800’s with the desks and the rows and the students and the quiet and the order and the blackboards (which are now white, but still there). But students and the world we live in are much different than what was the norm in the 1800’s. We have children who absolutely hate to sit still and yet they must, even if drugs must be administered to make it so. Our world moves fast, but our classroom pace is still slow, slow, I think I might zone out, slow. Sitting at more desks taking test after test flies in the face of the way we actually live our lives in the 21st century. We do need to be able to check in with students to see how they are doing. We do need to know which teachers are getting good results and which are not. We do need to take more control over factors outside of school that affect student progress. But, the truth is, if schools were more task oriented, more hands-on and more exciting, all of these other factors might not be so important.
On May 1, 2013, on the CBS evening news, as I was thinking about what I wanted to say about schools, there was a story about school that was in a cycle of escalating violence; that was hiring more and more security people; a school that had had 5 different principals within a very brief window of time. However when the 6th principle decided to turn this dysfunctional school into a school that specialized in the arts (yet did not neglect academics) his school was transformed from a school no one wanted to attend to the school that everyone in that school district wanted to attend. Of course, we can assume that this principal had some really great skills; that he knew where he wanted his school to go and how to get there, but it was an inspiring story and that was because of great outcomes for both students and teachers. I hate to think that well-meaning people are pointing our schools in exactly the wrong direction, but I think, as we watch the results of this Common Core/Standardized Testing push, we will find that this is a nonproductive approach and we will have to find a much more creative model. I hope it doesn’t take us too long to switch if the results are not promising.