Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Today's News Shows the Bright and Dark Sides of Education; Let's Pray for the Sun

I need to be frank with you some of this post is going to sound like sour grapes, but for the most part it is a healthy mix of commendation, admonition, frustration, and grudging acceptance.
I definitely want to commend Mr. Jamison- a teacher featured in today Trenton Times- on his recent enlightenment. I have been “screaming from the rooftops” for years that we need to give our educators greater academic freedom to design their curriculum, with the expectation that this academic freedom will be passed down to the students, who will have considerably more freedom to study “what they want” within the general confines of the curriculum, as long as they also participate in assessments that assume  greater expectations and have a greater degree of accountability to match the greater empowerment that now exists in the classroom. It is certainly my hope that Mr. Jamison is designing- in concert with the students- assessments that have significant oral and visual components, maybe require both a scored discussion and a formal presentation.
I’m glad to hear that other teachers have shown an interest in this SOLE program. I was fortunate enough to have had two department supervisors who both understood that- along with my passion to teach- I had a great deal of passion and knowledge in a wide range of Social Studies subject areas, being that I was an “alternate route” teacher with “academic degrees” rather than a teaching degree. This tacit understanding led to them allowing me a great deal of freedom to design my own courses. I discovered a long time ago what Mr. Jamison is just learning now. I only wish that over the 21 years in between that more teachers would have discovered this strategy as well.
My admonition and frustration is with the State of New Jersey, specifically the DOE, politicians, and so called academic experts responsible for developing our Core Content Curriculum Standards.
Mr. Jamison has one important thing going for him in his effort to reform his curriculum and infuse greater student empowerment. As a Social Studies teacher, Mr. Jamison’s students will not be tested in Social Studies on the HSPA exam, so in a sense there really is no accountability for them or for the teacher. Sure, he has to turn in paperwork at the end of the year showing how his course aligns with the State standards, but this self-regulation is easy to manipulate and is for the most part a superfluous document.
Personally, I would prefer having all subject areas covered by the “graduation exam,” but definitely not under present circumstances, since I believe that the CCCS are a bunch of crap; they are overreaching, onerous, and bear no connection to “what students need to know” in the real world. They need to be thrown out; we need to start from scratch.
The existence of these Standards, along with Mr. Jamison’s newfound philosophy, are in complete conflict with one another. True learning of the sort that Mr. Jamison is more likely than not to achieve by his methodology and the type of assessments we can logically assume he will do, cannot be achieved if he is also required to get through the entire Standards for his grade level. This reality comes courtesy of neuroscience and the science of learning, which, in general,  makes it clear that the process of teaching and assessing is time consuming; by requiring so much content to be learned it is unrealistic to expect mastery from very many students. If the State would rethink and reduce required content, and refocus our teaching towards skills acquisition, then students might have a chance to actually learn, a skill that requires retention of information, not just recalling it. Is it any wonder students forget a lot of what they learned from one year to another. It is not the lengthy summer that is the problem, it is a curriculum that expects too much, and as a result gets less, not more.
(I have written extensively on what I believe we should be doing in terms of Content Standards and testing, simply look a few posts back to find at least one such post)
I now need to address the issues of “frustration” and “grudging acceptance,” and it is hear that my attention turns to supervisors and parents. Now I have a lot of problems with the quality of clinical supervision that most districts provide, but one thing supervisors are capable of doing is assessing a teacher’s understanding of the subject matter they teach and the quality of the assessments they create. Suffice to say, they are, for the most part, skeptical that most teachers have the existing knowledge to provide a deeply challenging and demanding curriculum to the students. Making matters worse, many parents are only exposed to the “knucklehead” actions of teachers rather than to the quality many teachers provide. In my experience at WWP South, I found that there were a great number of teachers capable of providing a great learning experience; it is a District with a great number of professional parents and bright students with high expectations about school. This “upward pressure to succeed” is unfortunately not replicated throughout the State.
Rather, parents read articles like in today’s Trentonian  about a teacher that placed dead cockroaches and trash on a student’s desk in what was apparently meant to be a “teachable moment.” There are other words we could use, but teaching or learning are definitely not among them. I was also struck by the last line of the article, where a parent expressed her attitude towards Trenton High: “That high school sucks.”
In such an environment, it may not be appropriate to increase academic freedom for the faculty, regardless of whether this is an isolated incident. Unfortunately it is schools like this in our urban areas that are screaming out for radical change and less interference from the State, interference that has produced NO statistically significant improvement in learning. My solution, as many of you know, is to no longer hire graduates with a teaching degree for the high school, and instead encourage and then nurture- through effective clinical supervision- passionate and knowledgeable graduates to teach what they want, for the most part.
By moving in that direction, by radically revising our Core Curriculum Standards, and by integrating a remuneration system that infuses performance into pay, we can start to create the kind of “entrepreneurial educators” I believe we need. I believe Mr. Jamison embodies that entrepreneurial spirit, and I applaud his effort to empower his students. Let’s hope we can introduce the SOLE program, or something similar, into our schools. I’m frustrated that this is the first time since I began teaching over 21 years ago that I have read an article on empowering students. I only pray we don’t have to wait another 21 years for the next one.




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