Sunday, July 11, 2010

Ramblings on education (not very well organized or even thought out)

I've been thinking about the profession of teaching lately. Not as an occupational choice, although I did consider that for awhile after grad school before I got my present Job at the state as an economist, but just the whole movement for performance pay and all that. I think its idiotic. There are progressive voices in the Minnesota Teachers Union who are getting behind the idea of performance pay. I think it will make public schools an even more undesireable and inhospitable place to send our kids. Stanley Fish wrote a series of articles on performance pay in the New York Times

I think the articles are really good. But, I am and have been a stanley fish fan for awhile. Usually he writes on philosophy and law, but these two columns are on educastion and explain why the idea of merit or performance pay for teachers is abhorrent to me.

My dad, a teacher, always said that everyone has an opinion on education, but no one listens to the teachers. All I know is that with the way public education is going, as a parent, I would only reluctantly send my son to a public school. As long as we can afford it, he will get an education similar to what I gave myself, after public education. And, my public education of yesteryear was so much better than what "progressives" (in and out of the union) are offering in public education today.

Standardization is what the word says it is. Why would anyone want to standardize their child. Pay based on performance assumes students learn from teachers. Students learn from curricullum and the curricullum of Public education is all screwed up because of assessments and testing. Perhaps, in reality, only a small number of students can ever really get a "classical" education, but I don't believe that is true. I believe that the "progressive" trend in education is driven by the same trends that created public education in the past. Corporations, industrialists, and the military don't want a population of people with the ability to think critically. What they really want are pieces, automatons, that are standardized and that don't think, but instead take the words handed down to them from experts as absolute truths that are beyond questioning.

That is what public education is all about and the relationship between student and teacher . The teacher that hands out these truths to the students most efficiently will recieve his or her reward in the form of "performance pay." So, my opinion on education and teachers is that teachers are not that important. Really, the panacea where we have an education system filled with great teachers is not ever going to happen. But that does not mean we cannot have a good education system. Students, or kids, can learn, with or without the help of good teachers. They will even learn despite a bad teacher. Learning to read and do math is not that hard. We will learn it almost automatically with just a little prodding.

Public education should spend much more time emphasizing what it means to be a good citizen in America and less time worrying about where individuals fall in relation to their peers in terms of reading writing and arithmetic. That stuff will happen anyway and some students are going to better at it than their peers. But all students could use more prodding in order to learn to ask the right questions and about thinking what it means to live a good life in the community they are in. For education, curriculum and the institution are what matters and that is why we chose a Waldorf school over Public Education for our son and why we left MN Waldorf for City of Lakes Waldorf after the first grade. We left MN Waldorf for City of Lakes Waldorf, not because of either teacher we had, Mrs Cousins or Mr. Harris. We left MN Waldorf because of how MN Waldorf treated our son's teacher Ms. Cousins - they fired her. If an institution does not respect teachers, then it cannot value community.

I think the same of Public schools. Teachers need to be respected and thought of as part of the community. They should not be blamed for everything that is wrong in the community (Parents and the community blame teachers and schools and teachers blame parents and the community -- both are wrong! We are all in this together). That, in a nutshell (in my humble opinion) is what is wrong with Public education. And performance pay or merit pay will only increase the divide we have between schools and community that has become epidemic in public schools, in addition to creating a divide among teachers.

I am all for raising teacher pay and benefits, but it should be raised for all, not the few who we attempt to objectively measure performance with subpar methodologies that reveal little about teacher performance. You cannot come up with an objective measure of teacher performance, because the benefits from a good education are not revealed until many years after graduation.

Teachers have a hard job, no doubt about it. I really do respect what they do and the challenges they face. I know there are challenging students and I am not so niave to think that some families just don't provide a safe and secure home conducive to learning. I also know that some kids don't have a chance from the get go. Finally, I really don't think I have the answers. There are no answers. What I'm saying is that teachers blame parents, families and societies for the fact that some kids drag down the test scores or don't perform is school. Of course they are right in some ways. Teachers also blame other teachers. But teachers are human... And parents, society and the community, well they blame schools and teachers for the low performance. I think we are so far from solving the problem, partly because we are so focused on individual performance. Communities need to take ownership of schools.

Unions are not perfect, but they provide solidarity. Teachers need to stick together and they also have to back each other up. Sometimes that means sticking up for a crappy teacher. The problem we have in schools and society is that we are training kids to compete. We think if only we can get kids reading by age three, or meeting all these assessment goals, then these kids will be able to compete with some kid in India or China. We educate kids to send them off to NYC or Los Angelas, Moscow, Berlin or Shanghai. What we need is for communities to want the kids to grow up and stay right where they are. To become members of the community. We want schools to learn as much about the kid as the kid learns about the community and the world in school. Then, for that kid tha can't read in the fourth grade, who fits the special Education class, or the ten kids, twenty kids, whatever... The community takes ownership of them. They know them. They aren't just kids failing in school, because they are learning about how to be good citizens and community members. The community takes care of their own. A school needs to be judged as a whole not as a collection of individual parts.

The purpose of a public school (we should really call them community schools, public is or state is the wrong word) should be to raise people to live in the community the schooll resides in. A community finds a place for the good and the bad. Everyone fits in, misfits and all. All kids can learn. I really believe that. All kids don't have the same aptitudes, experience, or interests. All right, some kids have serious disabilities. The community has to figure out how to take care of those as well. But, special ed, or most kids in special ed, is not a disability. These kids are a challenge and public schools fail them everyday. Communities fail their families and then schools compound the problem with the kids. We drug them and put them in environments that are not conducive to learning and put some label upon them.

Again, I don't know anything. I'm just a guy with an opinion that sometimes talks like I know a lot. Gut feelings, you know: reading is not that hard; math is not that hard and all kids have a genius inside them somewhere waiting to get out. Some of it gets out in really devious ways because so many institutions and mentors in their lives have failed them -- including schools.

My opinion is that public schools succeed in what they are intended to do. What they are not intended to do is to bring out the diversity and random genius that all of us have for different gifts tot give back to the community. Schools actually are designed to destroy those gifts and make each of us the same -- automatons that don't know how to think about something like the BP oil spill or how facebook affects all of our lives in positive and negative ways, or where our food comes from and what it means to eat, or what is happening to habitat around the world or how to take care of those we live next to, etc. But, schools do produce standardized automatons that know how to take information from an expert and consider it as a truth. Standardized automatons that know answers, but not how to ask questions. Those that fail in schools or can't get the answers are the rejects and there is a place in prisons waiting for them.

I'm speaking about larger trends in education, schools and our society and not necessarily individual schools. Although, I think we are all impacted by these larger trends. Most public school teachers are the product of public school education. Teachers training at state and private colleges are geared toward the production of teachers that meet the criterea that we set for our schools. Not many (now, i'm going to sound a bit pompous and elitist although its not my intention) teachers have the capability of realizing how their own education shapes their view as educators and how that undermines, not only my view of what we need community, but how it supports the continuing production of automatons that are unable to think critically and ask questions. In other words, teachers, just like the rest of us, are automatons as well.

Its rare that a teacher comes a long that actually can teach how to formulate questions, instead of providing answers to problems in a book and on a test. But, don't get me wrong. This is not about teachers. THere are great teachers and these teachers are of immense value. I think there are probably more than I am giving credit for. But these teachers are mavericks and are usually in a lot of trouble with administrators and members of the community. They are not supported by the school in most cases. Like anyplace else in society, its the misfits that we can learn most from. At least that's what I think.

And, believe me, I don't say this as someone that is a misfit in my occupation. I am a cog in the machine like the majority of us, an automaton. Filling a role to keep the maching running, even with the knowledge that eventually it all collapses around us as we are constantly reminded by the small tragedies that keep popping up. God, I sound depressing, don't I.

All right. I will stop, because its still a great world. I hope my son can figure it out, what I could not. How to be a part of a community and keep that community strong and sustainable while living in peace with neighboring communities and the environment. Some sort of utopia, I guess... The articles by Fish were about college, but high school education is not that far behind.

I imagine, in the future, we will eventually get to some sort of internet public school education and people will purchase education for their children on broadband services in a home school environment with state testing to make sure parents, families and communities are meeting set standards. Teachers will paid by large corporations to provide lectures on UTUBE or some broadband service. These teachers will be highly paid actors. Union teachers will be a thing of the past although there will probably be a job market for tutors working at testing centers and preparations for testing. It will all happen seamlessly, I am afraid to say, but can't help but predict. Scary future, but that's where the information age is leading. Along side this movement will be something else building that rejects what is being presented to us on television, movies, media, the internet and in our schools. That something is still being defined. I'm not sure what that something will eventually look like or if it will be devoured by the maching. But, I think that something will probably be based around community and a downplaying of individual accomplishments. I think. But, what do I know?