The issue of education is very complex and political sound bites do nothing more than distract us from finding a real course of action. It is politically convenient to blame teachers and educational administrators and, often, the children themselves. Granted, there are teachers who should be removed from educating children and there are schools that would serve children best if they were closed. But, in my 40 years of experience as a teacher and administrator, I found that a large majority of educators care about the children they serve and want to do a good job. As in every field of work, some are more talented and capable than others. That fact is non-negotiable and unalterable no matter how many declarations are made. So, let's deal instead with what can really be changed.
All children are capable of learning. However, not all children enter school equally prepared to learn. Children from families where parents are professionals or academics have been primed before they ever formally start school. Their parents have been consistently reading to them and with them, they have likely been to museums, shows, theater, etc. Children from working class and poverty-stricken families most often lack these opportunistic experiences and are already behind before they've started their formal education. Pre-school programs have proven to be effective as an equalizer and there must be a concerted effort to fund an expansion of these programs throughout the country. Children aged 3 to 5 are very receptive to language input and development and, therefore, every effort must be made to provide all children with the opportunities that have so far been limited to the more privileged.
These differences between children of varying socio-economic classes become further exacerbated by what society provides for them. In middle class suburban communities, we see pristine schools with ball fields, gymnasiums, science labs, instrumental music programs, art programs, etc. Our less fortunate youngsters often must cope with old rundown school buildings, poorly lit and heated, no science labs or instrumental music programs, maybe a gym or school yard to play in, maybe not, out of date textbooks, and inexperienced teachers. One can clearly see from this uneven playing field that imposing arbitrary, unilateral national standards on any school district would be doomed to failure. The Bush "No Child Left Behind" educational program attempted this and it was a failure. We need more than smart cliches and scapegoating of teachers.
The truth is public education has historically had a poor track record of success educating children from poverty homes because of the variables mentioned above. There is no magical solution. If we are serious, we must be ready to make a long-term financial investment in our children's education. There are no short cuts. Our ideologically conservative brothers and sisters have long cried that better education is not about money but the data shows that school districts that spend more money per capita have higher levels of educational success. In middle class, suburban schools, the members of the community feel a pride and ownership of their schools and have a vested interest in the success of their schools. Along with their pride in their schools, is their willing investment of money to provide programs and equipment that will enhance the learning experiences of the children. To be blunt, show me a white middle class community and I will show you a good school with a wide range of programs and experienced teachers willing to stay for many years.
Schools do not function in a vacuum and, therefore, the success or failure of any particular school is not a school issue alone; it is a community issue. If it is not already evident, poverty is usually found in poor neighborhoods. Found in these financially troubled neighborhoods are high levels of criminal activity, joblessness, unstable families experiencing financial pressures, below standard, deteriorating housing, insufficient public services (sanitation, transportation, etc), and finally, unacceptable school facilities that are often unsafe, overcrowded, and poorly equipped and maintained. The environment we provide for our youngsters projects what we think of them. Schools reflect the general consensus of the society at large and that reflection includes our racism and our disdain for our underclass. It is not enough to give lip service to standards for our children and teachers. We must look upon the communities in which these failing schools reside. Let's close these dilapidated buildings and build new, well-equipped learning centers. Let's make them the social, cultural, and educational centers of their communities, open from early morning till late evening providing, not only traditional education for the children, but engaging community adults in the evenings with vocational and career training and counseling, with parenting classes, with classes on health and diet, with inter-generational choruses, with classes in drama and theater, with remedial classes in reading, writing, and math as well as traditional recreation programs.
In the 1960's, I was part of the struggle in NYC when there was an attempt to make community schools more responsive to the local communities. Part of our effort in the upper west side of Manhattan was to encourage and welcome parents to our schools. A parent room was set up in the schools and their presence clearly changed the tone in the schools. Parents volunteered their time and came into classrooms as aides to teachers. There was a cooperative spirit that affected the children as well as teachers and parents. Is this feel good experience enough? No! But it did set the stage for more effective academic intervention. Teachers stayed after school hours providing tutoring for the children and met with parents who needed help dealing with their child's homework or behavior. My wife, who taught at one of the schools, began an intergenerational chorus that consisted of school children, teachers, parents, and seniors from the social service agency down the block.
Of course, the question of how this all affected academic performance, must be addressed. How does one measure that? The favorite, most convenient method today is to examine standardized reading and math scores that, in my opinion, are the least telling data. Although mastering skills like reading and writing are important to one's educational achievement, they are, after all, the skills for academic achievement, not the achievement itself. What we should be concentrating on with equal enthusiasm and vigor are skills in critical thinking, ability to understand and implement concepts, ability to recognize cause and effect relationships, and ability to use concepts in new, creative ways. These are higher order processes that are the hallmark of real education. Not all educational impact can be measured by standardized tests, which have limited reliability. I have seen students' scores, from one test to another, vary by as many as 3 4 years. There are many factors that influence day-to-day student performance. Test scores are merely one indicator of performance and learning and should be treated as such.
Everyone feels that he or she is an expert in the field of education, most likely because everyone has at some time in their lives attended school. Would these same people claim medical expertise because they've been sick in their lives?
If Mr. Obama is serious about reforming education for our children, he's got to move away from simple political jingoism and start thinking about how to change the paradigm to long-term intense involvement in communities targeted for change. He must begin to look at success or failure as more than scores on a standardized test. The teaching and learning process must be evaluated on a long-term basis with an emphasis on what is being taught, how it is being taught, how student learning is being evaluated. Educational administrators must be in the classrooms working with teachers and part of the process of planning and helping evaluate teachers' effectiveness. If we do it right, we might find that student research, writings, oral presentations, etc. provide us with a clearer notion of student performance and learning than do these reading and math test scores.