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You Want School Reform? I Hope You’re Still Holding On….

April 29, 2012

Because I’m not even warmed up yet.

There are countless problems with our education system. Read any blog or article, watch the news, talk to a child, teacher or parent.  Each of us has different expectations and visions of what schools should be teaching and doing for our children. It goes back to that conflict of democracy and diversity.  How do we simultaneously respect the differences of every human being and then expect that we could ever find any educational philosophy or system to adequately serve us all equally?  I have read many great ideas and suggestions. (And countless terrible ones as well.)  While many would be giant leaps forward none will be a perfect solution in the long run.  I have my own vision, but I don’t think many of you are going to like it.

Step #1:  Say goodbye to grades.  No more As, Bs, Cs, Ds, or Fs.  No more GPAs, no more class ranks, and no more standardized testing.

Every politician, parent and teacher brags about how great our kids are – so let’s shut the hell up and demonstrate that faith with our actions.  Let’s stop comparing our kids with each other and every other nation.  And stop forcing kids to prove how great they are – it is counterproductive to say the least.  Either you believe in them or you don’t.  Faith and respect can’t be measured with a percentile.

Do you think teachers in Sweden waste their time worrying about math scores in Hong Kong?  Our children are so much smarter than we give them credit for.  I don’t care how many times you tell a student he is smart, has unlimited potential or could be President of the United States when he grows up – when you slap on a “sped” label and force him to take test after test you are just reinforcing his perception that you don’t trust him, don’t think he is smart and you don’t believe in him or his teachers.  The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that grades are the most important thing, not education.

Imagine you are driving, obeying the speed limit and all traffic laws with a police cruiser trailing you the whole time.  Say this became standard practice for highway patrol.  Eventually you are going to get so nervous, uncomfortable and angry that you swerve or run a stop sign – and on go the lights.  Traffic violations skyrocket and everyone uses that data to validate and support the police and their new tactic – look how many traffic violations that never would have been caught if we weren’t doing this!  We are saving lives!

When you have a cop half a car length behind you for any significant period – following your every turn – are you really focused on driving anymore?  No, you are focused on not getting a ticket.  Do you see the difference?  It is subtle at first but profound in its long-term implications. We start to fear the very people who are there to protect us.  We don’t trust anybody.  We don’t feel safe or that or that our rights are being respected.  And every time we see a cop, we instinctively step on the breaks or jerk the wheel.  Our love of cars and driving becomes resentment and hate.          (Are you starting to see where I’m going with this?)

Whose fault was the accident?  The driver?  The cop?  The police chief?  Perhaps the blame lies with the driving instructor or the community itself.

Except for very rare situations, no one person is ever to blame. The cop was doing his job, the police chief was acting on the data he was given, and the driver had a previously flawless record.  The driving instructor is certified.

The accident was caused by the atmosphere of fear, mistrust and a lack of faith and respect created by well-intentioned people who never learned to truly work together and constantly forget that they are on the same team.  And this is exactly what has happened in our schools.

When one ‘D’ in freshman physical science can be the difference in getting accepted to a top university and we teach our children that an Ivy League school is the ticket to wealth and success, do you really believe for one second that student cares about physical science anymore?  Of course not – they are working to get into Harvard, not to actually learn physical science.  And they don’t really care about Harvard either; that’s just some school everyone tells us we should want to attend under the promise of wealth and prestige.

Ok, ok, I hear you, “Where is the accountability?  How do students get into college or distinguish* themselves without grades?” That’s an easy one and schools all over the country are already starting to do it – portfolios.  What does a number between 0 and 4 really tell us?  It tells us nothing.  What affected that number?  Attendance?  Effort?  Actual knowledge and proficiency?  Missing a couple of homework assignments?  I would learn a lot more by seeing the student’s actual body of work.  Hell, maybe even meeting him/her and talking about it.  And with current technology, this is becoming unbelievably easy to accommodate.

I was several years below grade level in reading comprehension and writing throughout most of my education.  If I were to apply for a job using only my high school transcript, I doubt I would even be considered.  My grades weren’t terrible but they certainly don’t reflect where I am now.  Why don’t you read some samples of my writing instead?  I’m not claiming to be a literary giant, but I think I can hold my own.

After starting my career in an inner-city public school, I moved on to teach at a private school that did not use traditional grades – only narrative assessments. I was skeptical at first, but the students were so focused and aware of what their strengths and weaknesses were that the system worked extremely well.  The stress and misguided objectives were eliminated – the focus wasn’t on getting an ‘A’ at any cost, it was on gaining proficiency and mastery of the content. It wasn’t perfect, but there was a profound difference in the motivation and self-awareness of the students.

Again, I know what you are probably thinking; “That was a private school with a very different subset of students. We can’t expect kids in inner-city systems or with severe learning disabilities to have the same level of motivation or work ethic”.

First of all, and I say this with love and respect, my private school students could be just as lazy as my public school students (if not more so at times) – if we let them.  That’s just a part of being human.  I mean, you’re probably at work right now. (Quick, minimize! Your boss is behind you!)  Life is full of distractions.

Making this work would take time and effort but I have taught inner-city students for many years and I can tell you that you that they would absolutely thrive in that kind of environment – if everyone could stay on the same page.

Every child wants to be successful in life.  Whether a child comes from a wealthy family in Beverly Hills or grows up homeless or in foster care, they are all human beings with dreams and ambitions.  And if we start actually treating them the way we talk about them when they aren’t around or during a presidential campaign, we might just be shocked to find out we were right all along.

Thoughts so far?

(to be continued….  I’m not even close to finished)

*By ‘distinguish’ I mean nothing more than the precise definition; to demonstrate what makes each individual unique and special – not as in ranking

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