I have been thinking a lot about educational reform since I started teaching three years ago.As a second-career teacher, I have seen many of the arguments, pro and con, for reform. I have been thinking about it because it seems like it is always in our faces. I’m not sure teachers are going to come out on the winning side of this debate/conversation. I am sure that teachers, teachers who have ideas, need to be more involved in the conversation and that those having the conversation need to stop using teachers as their piñatas.
It is important, I think, to seek input from various places and from various people, but I remain steadfast on the idea that those who are in the classroom day after day after day are the ones who have the best ideas for how and what to improve in our educational ‘system’ in America.
To put the matter bluntly, if all U.S. schools applied the rigor and attention to their academic offerings that our high schools pay to their highest-profile sports programs, our students would come far closer to matching their demographic peers in high performing countries.
This corresponds to exactly the point I made in my first post of this series: we need academic boosters as much as athletic boosters. That is, I see so much emphasis on academics in public schools that you would think kids only have one option: to play professional sports as adults. In other words, by over-emphasizing athletics we are necessarily de-emphasizing academics. Steiner could not be more correct in my judgment.
But I digress. This final part of the series is focused on a final few things that I think we should consider when it comes to educational reform. Since this series has gone on for a long time, I will keep this part of the essay short and focus on three final areas that I believe need to be addressed in order for true reform to take place in the American Education system.
First, I am of the opinion, and there seems to be quite a mountain of evidence, that we start children in formal academics far too early. When I was in graduate school, I heard a great deal about so-called early intervention—especially as it relates to students who are eligible for special education services. There may be some merit to giving new parents to children with special needs the sort of support and intervention they will inevitably need as their child progress at a non-typical rate of development. I’m not arguing against that. What I am arguing against is the incessant compulsion our politicians seem to have for continuing to fund educational programs where children leave the home and start school at 3 or 4 years old.
Here’s what is written at the White House website:
Expanding access to high quality early childhood education is among the smartest investments that we can make. Research has shown that the early years in a child’s life—when the human brain is forming—represent a critically important window of opportunity to develop a child’s full potential and shape key academic, social, and cognitive skills that determine a child’s success in school and in life.
Participation in high-quality early learning programs—like Head Start, public and private pre-K, and childcare—will provide children from all backgrounds with a strong start and a foundation for school success. These programs also generate a significant return on investment for society; numerous economic studies have documented a rate of return of $7 or more on each dollar invested through a reduced need for spending on other services, such as remedial education, grade repetition, and special education, as well as increased productivity and earnings for these children as adults.
There it is: ‘significant return on investment for society.’ It’s all about the cash. Education cannot simply be about return on investment–there are other ways to get a good return on investment. But take it back a step: if this is the time when a child’s brain and cognitive skills are full of potential and fully open and opportune window, why is the assumption that the best place for them to be is away from their family and at some public school program? Why, oh why, is that the assumption? Frankly, I cannot think of a worse place for a child of 3 or 4 or, to be sure, even 5 to be than someplace apart from their family.
I’m not sure how the evidence in America can point to the benefits of early childhood education and the evidence in England point in the opposite way, but that is exactly what seems to have happened. Some say children shouldn’t start school until age 6 or 7. In England, there is an entire campaign designed around the idea that children start school too soon and that it is harming them in numerous ways. The Too Much, Too Soon campaign website features numerous links and other evidence to support this claim. (See also David Whitebread of Cambridge University.)
I’m sure others have written more substantially on this topic than I am devoting in this one post, and that is fine. The bottom line is, however, that early childhood formal education is not, contrary to the official lines of politicians democrat and republican alike, as effective as they want us to believe. I will leave this for now, but there is more to say about it in the future.
Second, and I fully realize that this could be a nail in my professional coffin, but I believe firmly that in order for education to move forward in a positive fashion, there needs to be an elimination of national and state unions. Even now, teachers in the state of California are embroiled in a lawsuit to end mandatory union dues. It is a huge problem that teachers face—and one not likely to be solved any time soon.
I want to state that I have no problem with the local union, supporting local causes, and protecting local workers rights. I have a problem when a large portion of my money is sent to the state union leaders and national union leaders who then push an educational agenda or support political candidates who support an educational agenda (an in turn control money) that is both ineffective and, ironically, underfunded and contrary to what I believe is necessary for true education to take place. (This is completely in line with my thoughts that the government meddles in education far too much.) What I have never been able to understand is why teachers’ unions continue to support political candidates who do nothing to help make education better. Seriously: whose idea what is to support political candidates who tied teacher evaluations to student test scores? Yet we will complain.
If there is work to be done on a national level, with respect to education reform, it should start from a groundswell of locals–not from a barage of dollars being hurled at one candidate or political party. Or, with minimum oversight, local schools and school boards ought to be able to forge an educational platform, agenda, and curriculum that best suits their local environment and culture and economy. I realize this is not a full-proof plan and that it needs work, but I am talking about education reform for the sake of the children we are educating. It is my belief that teachers who work hard and do their job well will not need the backing of state and national unions. Their work will be a demonstration of their usefulness and value in and of itself. For my part, I will simply never understand sending money to people who then support other people and their agenda and who only want to make life more difficult for the local teacher. And there is not a politician anywhere, republican or democrat, who has served us well in education. Not one. (I have written, in part 2 of this series, about how government meddles entirely too much in the educational process.)
I think it is about trust. I realize that many teachers foul up the waters of those who do their job well. But I will never understand why learned people, such as those who run the state and national unions, are so quick to trust a government entity which has proven itself time and time again to be untrustworthy. Strange.
Third, why is it that when education funding becomes an issue—perhaps a levy fails, tax revenues are not substantial enough—the first thing to go in schools is the arts? Why do we cut art classes, discontinue band directors’ contracts, cancel music class, eliminate FHA, defund drama club, cut woodshop or metal shop, and more? Why do we consider these elements of education of less value, and thus expendable, than say football or basketball?
In an article published January 21, 2014 by edutopia.org, Fran Smith writes about art and music are key to student development:
Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill. Arts learning can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork.
It is sad, to me, that we rush to save things like athletics, but that we neglect or sequester things like the arts. When I was in high school, I participated in drama club. I suppose I got in less trouble precisely for that reason. Drama club was a way for me to express myself and put in to practice things I learned in other places—like literature, to connect with a different set of friends, and to sharpen my memory skills among other things.
As adults who are concerned about education reform, we need to rededicate ourselves to the instilling in our students the importance of the arts. If the evidence is correct, we can improve test scores simply by having some music playing in the background—a practice I fully support and practice in my own classroom.
This post is way too long, and I have really only scratched the surface of what could be said. The fact remains that education reform is within our grasp if only we try a few, inexpensive things, in our schools (or at least start spending our money more wisely!) I’m not suggesting that my ideas are the best or the only ideas we can practice, but they are a start. I’m interested in seeing the conversation take on a more grassroots flavor and that it also be moved from the halls of politicians in Washington, D.C. At the end of the day, what we are (or should be) concerned about, is our children and the education they are receiving in our schools.
Let me say this in conclusion. It seems to me that teachers are often the ones left holding the ‘my child didn’t pass the fifth grade’ bag. Here’s something I would suggest: maybe parents ought to be held more accountable for their children’s education. Parents spend substantially more time each day, week, and month with their children that teachers do. So maybe, just maybe, education reform needs to start in the homes. Stop being so anxious to unload your kids too soon on the public education system, stop supporting athletics at a rate unequal to the rate you support academics, stop asking the government to do what you should be doing, and sign your kid up for piano lessons or drama club.
True education reform will take place when we all work together to make certain every single child is given the best, free and appropriate public education available. And that starts at home.
PS–I did not have time to delve into my ideas about teacher formation and how teachers are educated and shaped in college and graduate school. Nor did I have time to discuss the inequity of how dollar are spent in education. Suffice it to say, that my personal training and formation experience has left a sour taste in my mouth, and I think most educators know how terribly illegal funding for schools is in my state of Ohio.