Teacher Reflects on What's Right, Wrong in Public Education

Structure at Home—Choice at School.
By Mark Storer

Published in The Camarillo Acorn, November 9, 2007
The discussion in our house right now centers on my six-year old daughter and her placement in first grade this year. She’s excited about it, of course and for the most part likes school. She did pre-school and the one we chose was just the thing for her to really get into school and she has made quantum leaps in what she can do and how she thinks. Pre-school is a model of real learning, allowing each child to move at their own pace, make choices within a given context, be creative and learn some basic skills by being imaginative. She loves school and we want that to continue.
But the reality is that by first grade, the demands on students are pretty specific and there is even a time set aside to teach them to bubble in answers on multiple choice tests—because they’ll be taking a lot of them. That should never happen. So why is it happening?
The reasons are manifold and every parent has a story about their child’s school and what is right or wrong. At the heart of the issue, however is still the ignorance and absurdity of what the No Child Left Behind Act calls “accountability.” NCLB demands that students be able to perform well on tests, never-mind whether or not the tests are accurate measures of what students can do. As we’ve moved into the 21st Century, suddenly our public education system dropped back into the 19th. It is understandable on one level that having standards and knowing “the basics” is important. But while 21st century America is no longer an agrarian society where harvest time trumps class-work, our school system not only reflects that era in its physical structure, NCLB has schools reflecting it in its demands for rote learning, standardized tests and accountability that holds only teachers accountable.
Our public school system fails on so many levels, but the most valid failure, the one that is easy to see, is the one in which we try ever harder to give students a “college preparatory” education by creating a pedagogy and a curriculum that is the antithesis of what our colleges teach. The United States is acknowledged worldwide for its post secondary education institutions. Our colleges are second to none when it comes to matriculating students. Yes, there are political biases on various campuses and some silliness accompanies all of those in the ivory towers of academia. Petty fiefdoms are no different in academia than they are in business. However, our colleges and universities have continually turned out students who are prepared for the world they are entering, trained to think, to analyze and evaluate. Students generally leave four-year institutions in America with a well-rounded education that has prepared them for either a career, or perhaps more training in a graduate school, and more than anything, they are aware of what it takes to be successful. Yet still, the majority of students in America do not go to college.
Public education has failed to strike the proper balance between standards and innovation, between accountability and individuality. If we know anything about human beings in the 21st century, it is that we all learn differently, even at different rates, and we are all motivated by different intrinsic and extrinsic factors. American colleges and universities have predicated their curriculums on these seemingly incontrovertible facts, but public schools, while once perhaps paying too much attention to this knowledge, now give it no credence at all. It is the key reason behind what most educators call “the swinging pendulum.” Most of us who have been teaching longer than 10 years notice that nothing ever really changes, things just swing back and forth between political extremes and it is the rare occasion when the moderation of the middle wins out.
The recent swing toward structure in the classroom ignores the many and varied ways in which students learn. It ignores the constancy of change in people’s lives in general, in business, in politics, warfare, diplomacy and every other facet of existence. Yes, we all agree that learning the basics and having standards are important and we should continue to teach those things in the classroom. But to make those the only matters of import and to revolve tests solely around them does not encourage innovative thinking, practical knowledge or even quality workmanship.
Taken one step further, my anecdotal experience as a high school English teacher has shown me that the students who come to my classroom with structure in their lives from home are the ones who succeed most. If parents are involved in their students’ lives, give them a loving and disciplined home, provide opportunities for them to be involved in others’ lives and play an active role in the family, those students do remarkably better in all things academic.
By the same token, students who are forced into specific structures and confines within the classroom tend to rebel against those structures, even if they are from well-structured homes. In other words, rather than providing structure at school and choices at home, it seems the other way around is far better. The curriculum of our schools has begun not so much to reflect the society in which it functions, but a unique society all its own in which the rules, structure and regulations resemble nothing in “the real world.”
It’s not all bad news, of course. There are some positives about focusing solely on tests and test scores. It is true that it provides a very basic measuring stick for all students and that at some point everyone has to rise to the same standard. The problem, however, is that as schools focus more on that standard and less on each individual, the propensity for judging a heterogeneous society by homogenous standards increases. That will lead to nothing but academic malaise and eventually, to the dumb-ing down of our entire public education system.

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