Saturday, March 5, 2011

Platitudes are not answers...oh, and what's the question?

It seems to me that there are, abroad in the culture, a great many hammers searching for nails to pound, in this case, that our schools are failing. Question: How do we fix them? And everybody seems to have the answer.

Several things come to mind here. One is, what if the question were put differently? How many schools are failing? (What is failing, by the way?) In what ways are they failing?

Or, what if it were reframed? How about, in what ways are the schools a barometer of social failings more generally? Perhaps the schools are simply one set of the generally failing institutions in society.

Or, another....In what ways are the schools succeeding? What can we reasonably expect of schools?

I am not asking rhetorically...I don't know what we collectively think of these questions. I do know that not many ask them. And in a time where a parent can accuse one school of being tight because they sent a student home for wearing something they told him the previous day that he couldn't wear, and a school across town is accused by another parent of being too lax because the teachers didn't find his son's fight club in the bathroom the schools feel beleaguered.

In any case, people like the Gates Foundation think they have the solutions. In typical technopolist fashion, they took a survey of teachers to find out 'what works.' The results from 40,000 teachers can't be wrong, can they?

They offer 5 things that contribute to better class rooms. They're all rather predictable in the generality.

Innovate to reach today's students. It doesn't take a degree in computer science to guess that they say teachers want more digital tools because "students don't learn the way they did 10 years ago." Of course, they mean that students don't use the same modalities of learning. Seems to me that reading, writing, and doing things (math problems, science experiments, film-making, singing, etc.) are still the way students learn. So they make YouTube videos now instead of films.

Establish clearer and tougher academic standards. Sure enough. Just don't let those innovative ways of reaching students slide into 'easier ways' for a student to complete their school responsibilities.

Bridge school and home to raise student achievement. The survey data says that teachers think lack of support at home contributes mightily to students' struggles. It shouldn't take a survey to "confirm" what we ought to know from life and intuition. Question really is, how do you make those connections? The parents that really need to be 'connected' are often the ones who are indifferent. (Follow the logic of the survey should be self-evident.) Is there a way to make them more interested? A way to hold them accountable? Or, can the school simply create benefits and consequences for the student him/herself, and expect the parents to just accept this?

Finally, the Gates Foundation tag line on this page, All lives have equal value. Do we as a society really believe that? In a society as individualist as ours, where students are trying to do everything they can to maximize their college potential, so they can do everything possible to maximize job prospects, can we make a claim about equal value and keep a straight face?

Schools have some problems (and some successes). Let's ask better questions about where to go from here.


Jeffrey said...

Doesn't it beg the question can institutions change or adapt? Education is definitely an institution, but what has happened is low expectations has become institutionalized.

Andrew Milton said...

I understand the impulse, but saying that low expectations have become institutionalized is a broad generalization. Anecdotally, I can easily show otherwise--the 8th grade norm (in my state, anyway) for math now is Algebra, with the highest achieving taking Geometry, whereas 30 years ago, Algebra was for the highest achieving 8th graders; school is much more intensive than it was when I went through, etc.

But anecdotes are no nearer the truth than broad generalizations. So let me take your point. The answers people are offering (Gates' points above) may not address the problem. The reasons for this are complicated, maybe requiring a book instead of a blog post. Maybe I'll write one.