Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Education's Dirty Little Secret

Oh I'm gonna ruffle some feathers now...

Now that I've touted the value of higher standards, I should remark on their worth. They are valuable to every teacher. He/she will have a goal, a guide to aim for, a benchmark for evaluation and goal setting. Every student is different: some low, some mid-range, and some high and they arrive at your classroom door in September spanned in a broad degree of varying levels. It is a teacher's job to take each student from where they are when they enter your classroom and move them forward. For student A- that journey may have to begin with single-digit addition, for student B- it may be double-digit addition, for student C- it may be multiplication. The goal is to move them forward.

The standards are a guide for that journey, not an end-all-be-all, or a list to maneuver students through without their true understanding or when they already know the material. Take them from where they are and teach them more. Standards are our map of where they've been, where they "should" be and where they are all going.

Standards are different than standardized testing. And standardized testing may have its place, but as a teacher who's worked inside of distinctly different schools, I see that it's also created a huge misconception. Higher scoring schools are not better.

Vouchers, charter schools, parents switching addresses to gain access into a school's boundaries, all of these movements are caused by the idea that schools with higher scores are going to better teach your child. Wrong. They won't. The problem with this notion is that parents are shopping for schools using these scores, politicians are using them to require a school's overhaul, funding or as a basis for teacher pay. I believe in competitive pay for teachers, parents having a choice of available schools and in overhauling the way education is funded. But everyone is now looking at the wrong measuring tool. A low "school score" indicates a socio-economic inequity more than a teaching inequity.
It is not the teachers or the school that creates high or low "School Scores". A high score is more due to the socio-economic circumstances of the population and the educational background of parents than to teaching quality.

In fact, and I know this is a stretch, but when looked at from one persepective, teachers in the affluent schools don't need to teach as hard, as creatively or as thoroughly as teachers in poor schools. This in general, inherently makes the teaching done in struggling schools better than that occurring at an affluent school. Think about it; in most affluent classes, the children score high because their parents are teaching them at home, because they have the support and encouragement available to a child with an affluent background with computers and stay-at-home parents. Yet at the lower income schools, the classroom carpets are duck-taped together, there's mold on the wall, a limit to how many copies you can make, teachers have to buy their own paper, there aren't enough books to go around and homework is mostly left undone. Here, teaching has to be at its highest level. Those teachers cannot rely on family support; they don't count on a textbook, a fieldtrip or assume someone else is responsible, the teachers all know it is all up to them, only them and the student. It's amazing what depravation does for creativity and innovation. Teaching there, has to reach outside the box, into a creative well dug into by those searching how to explain a mathematical concept to a student who hadn't had breakfast, who is grade-levels behind and doesn't speak your language.

I've worked at both types of schools. The low-scoring school was where I'd seen some of the best teaching in my life, because it was a need. There are challenges for those upper-crust schools as well. They need to move the students forward, onto TAG, challenge them beyond the curriculum, and deal with zealous parents. However, if that doesn't get done, if something slips and a student doesn't "get" a lesson, it is still very likely that the school will still achieve an overall good standardized score, that is almost a given.

Just because "scores" are higher doesn't mean schools are better. Those scores are deceiving. They depict a population, not a teacher's commitment, not a schools success. Knowing this phenomenon, which school would you like - the school ranked best in the state or one that is more challenged, because the teachers there are working harder, teaching better, to ensure their students get it, while the others take it for granted that the students will, or already have? I want my child's teacher not to assume I'll be there at home helping with homework. I want them to explain it all, knowing mom won't get it at home, or mom won't be there at home. Don't get me wrong, high teaching standards should be upheld at every type of school. It's just the scores are not a reflection of that, necessarily.

Statistics can be misleading. This, standardized testing for school scores, is the biggest one yet. There are many factors that make a school good for students. "Scores" are just one small facet and may be an indicator of something altogether different. We need a more holistic view of school performance. Safety, diversity, class-size, teacher ability- these need to weigh as much, if not more, than a schools ranking.