Friday, December 12, 2014

OPINION: What really makes a great school system GREAT?

By John Deering (in collaboration with Mark Twain and Jonathon Swift) 

Well, after some deep thought and having been a disciple of Principal/Superintendent Harold Miller – the most pragmatic educator I have ever known -- I have this great idea for making schools of our country greater.

I think I am qualified since I have been a teacher/adjunct professor and a principal of two schools for almost fifty years. (I’ve seen it all!) Now, for years and  years, some of us have thought the quality of the supporting homes from which our students have come is the primary reason for the success of our schools -- or the failure there of.

HOWEVER, is this the really basic reason for the success or the failure of schools?  Then there is this business that teachers make the difference. School boards and administrators have been reaching hand over hand to hire the very best teachers they can. Gosh, how many teachers do we need?  We’ll get back to this!

How important are principals? Well, you are saying they are very important – well maybe.  However again, are they?  Principals not only “rule the roost,” but they are in charge of the maintenance of the buildings. Of course, a good custodian can do that at less cost.

Then we hear how important the buildings and grounds are.  Instead of expensive new brick—and- mortar buildings, there are large trailers available.  I remember them in the front yard of Highlands several years ago when there was some construction going on.  Hey, they worked, didn’t they?

Not only are buildings expensive, but great teachers are expensive too. Why do we need so many college-educated teachers with all those graduate degrees when there are computers at a fraction of the price? We can use computers for the teaching. Universities have “all courses online.” Hey!  Why not all cases?  Think of it!  Why, even parking lots have done away with attendants in favor of ticket machines [computers]. We’ll just supply the kids with laptops or ipads or whatever else is in vogue through the years. They keep texting each other anyway.

Then too, sports are just sports!  Who needs ‘em anyway?  Kids will go home and play in their backyards. We can put up some more basketball courts and four bases on some empty lots around our American towns for less money than stadia.  Gosh! I’ll bet you agree with me already. Hey, there are sports computer games where   students can exercise!

Well, since we really don’t need the expensive sports programs and expensive teachers, we can buy more computers and eliminate these other expensive items.  Well, what do we really need? I thought you’d never ask. We need  a TEST – the guides of education.  We’ll just have this perfect test to teach from the computers and a few teachers in all the schools to “teach to the test” and we’re all set! TEACH TO THE TEST! Gosh, why has it taken so long for us to think of this?  That’s what some are already doing anyway.

We can let the politicians, the bureaucrats, and the other non-teachers -- educationists -- contact the test makers and tell them what is important to know and turn them loose.   Then the few teachers  in  schools of the nation can check to see if the kids have memorized all the educationists say they need  to know and we’re “home free!” Think of the money we can save. (Maybe reduce the national debt!)  With this method, the kids will be informed and the teachers can find a satisfaction they used to know when they created the courses of study – as we used to do regularly. When it was we teachers who determined what the kids needed to know when they went to the colleges and to the work places, we taught to that! How boring! Now we will just teach to the memorized ultimate facts.  Just think of it! Locally we followed the lives of our students; and from that and some other considerations, we created curricula. The computers will know all the kids need to know.

Gosh, since Congress, state legislatures, and other never-have-taught “experts” have said we need a test, what are we waiting for?  The avaricious test makers are eager and ready!  Hey, as I have said, I taught for almost fifty years; I could just have gotten some – all -- test questions, shown them to my students, let them see the answers, memorize them, and -- PRESTO!  --SUCCESS!  We’ll have educated populations ready for whatever the nation or  even the world needs.  Why, I’ll bet Congressmen will become even better informed than they are with these memorized answers to everything.

Okay, Mr. Twain and Mr. Swift, let’s see if our satire has worked – maybe. Thanks for your help.

Solutions to educational problems are in orbit. They come around every twenty years or so with a new name.  Now let’s get to the facts of life:  What we don’t need is another bloomin’ test! That does not mean we’re not going get more, but we can hope not. For the main part, it is the test makers who profit the most by these tests, not the teachers and the students.  Tests can serve students and once did.

Once upon a time,  tests  were the “gas gauge” of schools; now they have become  the engines.  Once in a while, my former younger colleagues who were starting their careers when I was ending mine ask me if I miss classroom teaching.  I answer, “You betcha’ I do!” Their replies go something like this: “Well, you’d not enjoy it so much now as when you were teaching.  With all the state and national regulations that prevail, the profession is not nearly so satisfying as it once was.” As I have said before,   individual on-the-site teachers used to make the curricula they saw the students  in their communities needed and they taught  those.

As I have told you before, Miss Avice White was my chief mentor in my early career. She taught me also to follow up on how well my students were doing after their graduations. I tried to keep up with them particularly when some might have to “sweat out” a freshman English course. All-in-all, they did well. They told me what and how they were doing; one of the suggestions that came out of this is in-class writing under the pressure of limited time. So I changed to that and it worked!

For those of you who want to know more about the current nonsense of over-testing, I  recommend The Death and Life of the Great American School System – How Testing and  Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch, a professer at New York University. It is thorough and well written. Here are some words from her outstanding book:  “One problem with the test-based accountability, as currently defined and used, is that it removes all responsibility from students and their families. …  Nowhere in the federal accountability scheme are there measures or indicators of students’ diligence, effort, and motivation.”  (p. 162) Well, when I was still in the classroom and/or the principal at Highlands  and Grandview, this was not a problem. Almost without exception, our parents were totally cooperative.  Yes, occasionally there were a few who were not cooperative. In some schools, it can be the problem of indifference which might be even worse than interference.

Consider this other example that has been educational talk for many years: The Lesson:  Jesus gathered his disciples around Him and taught them saying:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, blessed are they who mourn, blessed are the merciful, blessed are they who thirst for justice, blessed are you when persecuted, blessed  are you when you suffer, be glad and rejoice for your  reward is great in heaven. ”Then one of the Pharisees [educationists] who were present sayeth: “Let me see your lesson plan. Where are your anticipatory   set and your objectives in the cognitive domain? “Then Jesus wept! (Nuff said?)

Now there is Common Core. Do I hope it will work? Of course, I do; but it sounds to me as if it is just one more panacea in a long line of panaceas.  (Remember every  twenty-five years?)  Some systems who have had to accept it already have “thrown it out.”  The schools I have been a part of don’t need some educationists anywhere telling them what to do.  We did it and they still are doing it!

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