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OP-ED | A Holistic Look At Education

by Sarah Darer Littman | Dec 2, 2011 12:47pm
(4) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has dubbed 2012 the “Year of Education Reform” and various interest groups are already lining up with ideas on the best way to go.

ConnCAN which advocates for more charter school funding, just weighed in with its annual report card. The recently formed Connecticut Council for Education Reform has a list of laudable goals, (with the Board of Ed soap opera ongoing here in Greenwich, I’m particularly fond of the requirement that BOE members undergo training) but while I’m all for rewarding good teachers, I am very wary of linking this too heavily to test scores, for several reasons, not least the temptation for unethical behavior for adults to cheat to benefit themselves rather than the kids, as exemplified by several recent large and high profile scandals.

But we need to take a more holistic view of education. I’ve argued with members of my own party here in Greenwich about the single-minded focus on test scores, because it permeates right down to our kids, who waste time when they could actually be learning either being prepared for testing or being subjected to yet another of the endless battery of tests. But worse than that is the insane pressure. My daughter came home asking for test prep for the pre-PSAT because some of her friends were getting it. Seriously, is this what we’ve come to? If you want to know why the gap between high- income and low-income students in Greenwich is so big, well, there’s a pretty good example of the kinds of advantages wealthy kids have vs. others.

I explained to my daughter that the whole point of taking the PSAT is to get an idea of your strengths and weaknesses before you take the SAT & bought her a book for self-study. I’m sure she’ll blame me if she doesn’t get into Harvard, but so be it.

But viewing the problems we have with education are even more fundamental than this kind of mishegas.  We know from multiple, peer-reviewed studies that having books in the home, access to libraries and adult role models who encourage reading are critical to the development of literacy, particularly for children in low-income families. Yet what have the policies of the “let’s not touch military spending or raise taxes but we have to cut the deficit” crowd been? To cut library funding on the federal, state and local levels, thus reducing access and programming for those who need it most, and cutting school media specialist positions, despite multiple  studies that show that having a trained school librarian improves test scores and helps students develop the media literacy skills critical to the 21st century learning environment.  Furthermore, Congress, in its infinite wisdom, cut 100% of the funding for Reading is Fundamental in the FY11 budget. RIF has provided over 380 million books for disadvantaged kids who might never otherwise experienced owning a book in their home since it was founded in 1966.

We are cutting off our noses to spite our face, and then, curiously, wondering why the test scores reflect that. Poverty matters, as so eloquently expressed by elementary school principal Peter DeWitt in Education Week.

The solutions proposed by groups like the CT Council of Education Reform are going to cost money. Implementing the Common Core Curriculum, and ensuring materials are available for use in lower income schools, for example, looks like it won’t come cheap, if Massachusetts and California are anything to go by.  It’s no use looking at education in isolation. Both a country and as a state, we have to decide if we are going to make education a priority, or if we’re going to let an obsession with ideology increase further the wealth divide and reduce our competitiveness going forward.

Sarah Darer Littman is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and an award-winning novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.

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(4) Comments

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | December 3, 2011  5:20pm

GoatBoyPHD

Speaking as a former teacher, I think you are correct about test scores but they do have merit and identify patterns and no they shouldn’t be the sole determination of goodness.

Technology holds incredible promise for providing kids with inexpensive educational tablets loaded with open source curriculum and eBooks and tutorials for use at home or school (and by parents and teachers alike).

This leads to another question? In a day when tablets can be bought for $100 and per capita student expenditures are over $15,000 let’s see if we can isolate the real problem with the costs of technology to be used at home and at school.

We could speak about paperless classrooms, books, and open source curriculum. 

Answer me this: How many teachers in CT would it take to create an open source curriculum for 5th grade history given there are several national models?

People will figure out why Milwaukee pays 40% of the cost of education to the voucher schools ($6,600 vs $16,500 for public schools) and gets the same if not better performance. And no, its not just the skimming of better student and special education facilities disparities.

It’s not that I think teachers are lazy. I think they are trained to dig politically correct union approved foxholes and fill them in again and work very hard at it at both the digging and the filling.

Right now there is some teacher taking a Masters Class in “Better Foxhole Digging” to improve their pay check and filling their Master +30 or CEU requirements instead of taking a Masters Class to better integrate technology and creating open source curriculum and texts to better employ technology for improved outcomes and lower costs of delivery.

Lowered costs of delivery? Now why isn’t that a metric in education? Can we improve the student experience and outcomes at a lower cost? If so how else can we enrichen?

posted by: NOW What? | December 4, 2011  6:56pm

GoatBoyPHD - It’s been my observation over the years that most public school teachers are only *minimly* involved in their unions’ affairs. Unfortunsately, MANY teachers - both in the public and private sectors - ARE lazy, plain and simple… and often *resent* parents’ truly active involvement in their childrens’ education - I’ve seen it with my own eyes (unfortunately). Not all teachers by any means, but far too many. I DO agree with you that standardized testing - and The No Child Left Behind program - are ABSOLUTELY necessary.

posted by: saramerica | December 5, 2011  2:29pm

saramerica

Now what? MANY Teachers are lazy? Are you kidding me? I interact with teachers on a daily basis, and they are anything BUT lazy. I see them spending their OWN TIME exchanging ideas for best practices, trying figure out how to integrate new technology most effectively into their classrooms. They are forward thinking, passionate, thoughtful and hard working. Lazy is the last adjective I would use. As for the NLCB and test scores - perhaps you should read this from today’s Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/when-an-adult-took-standardized-tests-forced-on-kids/2011/12/05/gIQApTDuUO_blog.html?tid=sm_twitter_washingtonpost

posted by: NOW What? | December 5, 2011  10:49pm

Yes, Sarah, LAZY teachers. Again not all, but many.

I’ve had occasion to sit in on a multitude of classrooms over the decades at virtually all K-12 grade levels, in a wide variety of schools in multiple states and public school districts, and what I’ve been seeing truly horrifies me:

Teachers deliberately not sending their students home with REAL homework to do, vaguely claiming that “studies” have “proven” that homework doesn’t improve students’ education. I mean it, I’m not kidding! I’ve seen and heard it all - “I don’t give ANY of my students homework!” “Johnny’s doing just fine with his in-class assignments so he doesn’t NEED any homework.” “Oh, we let the kids do their homework IN SCHOOL!” (- so what exactly is their DEFINITION of HOMEwork?!). Then they *literally* CRAM in-school studying TO THE STANDARDIZED TESTS *during the week before the test series*, just to make sure the kids remember the content long enough so they won’t forget it when they actually take the tests.

To me, this IS laziness. Such teachers deliberately don’t send their kids HOME with work to do because they don’t want to have to take the “extra” time that’s necessary to read and correct the homework, only whatever they can assign and correct during their in-school hours.

Where it exists, the problem seems to start at around the 7th grade and seems worst within classrooms that are comprised mostly of children who are not classified as “gifted” - because with GIFTED students a teacher can assign all the homework he or she wants, can generally expect such students to (relatively) breeze through those homework assignments, and teachers often find that reading through and correcting or commenting on the work turned in to take up a LOT less time than it does to have to go through the work turned in by students who find the homework much harder. And the problem is HANDS-DOWN *worst* among public school teachers who are assigned ESE (“special ed.”) students - THOSE poor kids almost NEVER receive ANY homework to take home and do, even when parents BEG the teachers to do so and offer to help their kids AT HOME with assignments… because most school systems have found ways to EXCLUDE ESE kids’ standardized test scores from the rest of their students’ so as to not allow them to adversely affect their school’s overall “score” etc.

I’ve seen these patterns over, and over, and OVER so I KNOW they’re real. My *guess* is that throughout elementary school teachers too often hear from parents that their kids’ homework assignments requirer more time spent on them BY the PARENTS than the kids themselves, so come grades 7-12 if there’s a way for a teacher to slide by without assigning homework for kids to do at HOME they’ll not assign it to them.

And while through grades K-6 parent-teacher meetings are still automatically and regularly scheduled, I’m seeing more and more frequently in grades 7-12 more and more teachers NOT taking the initiative to schedule such meetings - ESPECIALLY in 9-12 - and instead are waiting for PARENTS to take the initiative to call the school and “request” a parent-teacher meeting. The PROBLEM with this is that by the time the parent notices that their kid is getting a D or F, it’s almost too late to expect that a meeting is going to help much. And when such parents DO demand a meeting with a teacher, the response from the teacher is often totally USELESS… and I mean truly *pathetic*.

Mind you I’m NOT talking about just “inner-city” schools serving “impoverished” kids who have parents that couldn’t give a hoot about their kids’ success in school!

I won’t get into the “debate” about current standardized state-wide testing in this post, because it’s an altogether different matter (mostly) so will try to post on that later.

Suffice it to say that I’m ABSOLUTELY in favor of continuing with standardized testing. And I’m ALSO in favor of the idea of giving truly concerned parents who ARE and WANT to CONTINUE to be actively involved in their childrens’ education, to be given the ability and opportunity - in an organized, “collective” way - to RATE their kids’ assigned teachers on a variety of scales at LEAST 3 times per year, with each teacher’s average scores being reported DIRECTLY to their principle AND district school board. I see the problem being THAT bad - and getting WORSE. It’s getting SO bad that *now* schools and districts throughout the nation are taking their LAZINESS to an all-time HIGH by actually making DELIBERATE decisions to not even bother teaching kids PENMANSHIP anymore, using the EXCUSE that “they don’t NEED to learn how to write cursive - all they need to know is how to write in BLOCK PRINTING and type on keyboards”!!! - This is for real, I’m NOT making any of this up or pulling it out of thin air.