Archive for December, 2008

New National Standards Will Not Fix Deep Problems in American Public Education

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

The problems with Public Education in the United States are far too severe and varied to solve them by applying national standards at this time. I write as a teacher in a high poverty urban school, as product of the extremely succesful public school (City Honors School rated #1 public middle, #4 public high school nationally), and as a person who has experience teaching all levels of high school language arts including both Alternative Ed. and Advanced Placement, which I currently teach in an untracked setting. I write as a person with a Master’s degree in education from Portland State University, and a B.A. from NYU where I studied the history and literature of marginalized communities in America. I write from a place of hope, and from moments of brokeness. I from having seen the system fail, and from the miracles that can come from it. I write from the place of knowing that teaching is the work that life gave to me, and that writing is my tool of reform. I write to express the injustice, inequity, backward methodologies, failed philosophies, awful discipline strategies, poorly planned and gruesomely implemented government-produced solutions that I see everyday. At the end of the day I love teaching, and I love the rebellious souls of young people. At the end of my life, I must be able to look back and say that I tried to liberate people’s intellectual and creative power, not that I sat on my ass in at a sixty year old desk and watched the system waste energy to produce people who resented their teachers, their schools and felt that education was about social control rather than freedom. I write because I know that there are many teachers who experience isolation, but also know the solutions. I write because I can see the reforms that the system needs. I believe in everyone’s right to a free and public education, and I want to see my ideas implemented in the society so that we can produce well-educated, compassionate people who are in touch with their own creative spirits (whether they be mathematical or artistic) , who make life decisions in a conscientious way, who read and understand societal and global changes, who produce work that enhances or improves the society, and who act with compassion toward one another.

Recent administrations have attempted to solve problems in public education through the implementation of standarized national programs and standards. No Child Left Behind and the Striving Readers program are examples of such failed national policies. The basic concept is this: problems in public education (including well-studied inequities in quality of education for racial and ethnic minorities, inequities in quality of technology and general funding in high poverty schools, lack of resources for teachers and students in high poverty environments where ethnic minorities are often served (or under-served)) will be solved through the implementation of professional development programs that will educate teachers in superior pedagogical practices. Then, standarized tests will be applied to assess the progress of the school, the community, the teacher, and the student.  The problem? Unsuccessful teachers are often the people available to teach these “professional development” workshops, the content of the workshops are mundane to the extent that even Socrates couldn’t have made this challenging or interesting, and none of the problems related to poverty or true inequity are ever addressed. While some government officials seem to be pushing for national standards, I disagree with the idea of starting there. Here is why:

2) The level of cultural and linguistic diversity, and the giant population of the United States renders us incomparable to France or any other European or Asian country that has national standards. Though France has a sizable immigrant population, their school system is still a thousand times more homogenous than ours. National standards work best in highly homogenous nations that have clearly defined histories of academic literacy. We just don’t have that here. We have to build it from the ground up.

3) We do not have a unified cultural definition as Americans of what schooling should mean. This varies from state to state, and from classroom to classroom. The recent immigrant from China is often miles ahead of the child of white poverty from Coos Bay, Oregon. Likewise, there is tremendous diversity even within our Mexican immigrants. Some are coming from highly literate (in Spanish) backgrounds, while some are coming from illiterate backgrounds where no parent ever attended school. Some Mexican students are coming with knowledge of ancient tribal languages, but without the ability to write in any language. This example is meant to demonstrate the huge diversity even within one population that we see in our classrooms.

Applying the national standards now is working the problem backwards. It would be too easy for Washington to design a new set of standards, and not fund them properly, not design proper implementation, not translate it into Chinese (Mandarin/Cantonese, Spanish, Bosnian, Polish, Somalian, Ancient Latin American dialects, etc.,etc.), and not find proper translators to explain the standards.

5) American culture itself needs to transform and develop a culture of intellectual and academic success for young people. Barack Obama is in a unique position to be able to plant seeds of this kind of culture. It will take some time to develop. A set of national standards is the final step in such a transformation, not the first step. First we must deeply examine where the resistance is coming from, specifically in our low-performing Latin and African-American students. I can tell you where it is often coming from: the often racist and culturally deaf practices in Public Schools. The deep-seeded resentments that many parents of color (not all of course) feel toward the system comes from a history of education that has unabashedly attempted to erase home culture in the name of education. Schools are often deeply racist places overwhelmingly run by whites who have little understanding of the diverse populations they serve. Why are rates of failure and discipline referrals and dropout so high in particular communities? Because the schools themselves are failing to adjust to the real needs and values of the communities they serve. The teachers are often too overwhelmed to understand that children are coming to school stressed by poverty, parenting of younger siblings, etc. Many African-American children are taught (thank god) to question authority. This questioning is not tolerated by the white power structure in schools, and leads to drop out, discipline referrals, etc rather than to true listening and deep productive conversations between humble teachers and strong students from historically oppressed communities. Paolo Friere’s article The Banking Concept of Education is an excellent one to read on this topic. Schools need greater tolerance in order to solve those problems. National Standards will only exacerbate the problem, and could backfire for Obama by re-empowering an educational power structure that oppresses minority voices. It seems to me that a set of national standards would be the last thing that many African-American parents and students want to hear about. I am hearing a desire for teacher accountability and greater respect for the diverse needs of students. More funding for Early Childhood Education would be the first place to start if we want to reach out to our African American and Latino populations in inner cities. We know that works and has lasting effects.

6) Poverty creates inequity in school resources. Until American schools have equitable environments, technologies, access to higher-level classes like AP and IB, counseling staff and equitable numbers of teachers per student, there will be no change. National standards will not put equipment in the hands of athletes who want to play on teams but can’t afford to participate, nor will they enable high-poverty schools to open well-staffed late-night and weekend computer labs so that students living in poverty can finish their homework. If we want equity, we have to address our poverty issues before spending more money to pay for programs that will not have the desired effect of social equality in the form of equitable access to educational program in U.S. public schools. 

One potential answer could be to use the AP system nationally. That is a system that is already functioning in many schools. A great education leader named Joan Cone is teaching untracked AP down in LA. There are many of us who are following her lead. This would allow students to chose the area or areas that they wanted to excel in, and teachers get to design and submit our own class designs to the College Board. We should use this existing program and allow it to go forward and multiply. We must, at the same time, get rid of uninspired teachers and mandate greater cultural competancy. We must define, nationally, what we mean when we say hard work, be on time, ask questions, behave, and stand up for yourself.
We can ask that all teachers involve reading, writing, and speaking everyday in every class. This simple philosophy will reinvigorate learning and make it more student centered. Teachers also do not necessarily need more pay, just 30 students or less and four classes per day so that they can really focus on other aspects of their jobs like program design, parent communication, and checking in with students. The four class day with another period for home communication would work wonders for Public Eduaction. This would be a great place to enact the much-desired teacher accountability initiatives. Teachers could be required to provide weekly or daily evidence of home communication. In exchange, we would get the actual time we need to do the social work part of the job. To those who believe that teachers should not have to make any extra effort to get students to participate, I have two words for you: good luck. Today’s students need us to play a tremendous role in their lives, and yes, we must sometimes reach out and ask them to engage and believe in the power of education. God knows they have seen it fail. We, the teachers, must have faith where the student, the parent, the society does not. That’s what we signed up for. The society needs to give us the time to do it through the implementation of a four class day with one prep period, and one long block for student/teacher/parent communication. This plan will make our schools thrive. This plan will also require the hiring of more new teachers, and so more money must be directed by the federal and state governments toward education for the exact purpose of hiring teachers to meet the demand of 30 students per classroom or less, and a four class day with the prep and the aforementioned required communication block.
Teachers must be accountable for reaching out toward students. Education also will not work if teachers are allowed to sit back and wait for student work without helping to define the terms of their specific class and their expectations for every single student. Teachers must work harder to reach out to students from diverse backgrounds who may encounter fear, feelings of rejection, or resentment against a system that seems like it is attempting to change them and rub their cultural fur the wrong way. Teachers must be accountable for this, so they need just one more hour per day for the Social Work aspect of the job. 
Until these issues are addressed, the system of Public Education in the United States will remain in a state of inequity. We need change now. Please comment and come back next week for my next articles: The Need for Fearless Administrators: This is What a Good Principle Looks Like and Bartley’s Utopia: Portrait of a Well-functioning U.S. School in a Diverse and High Poverty Community.