Robert R. Livingston

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Tom Whitby and Ira Socol have been asking teachers to put their thoughts on Educational Reform up on the web…so here goes my thoughts.

Perhaps some of the underpinnings of our Nation need to be looked at more closely in the face of Educational Reform.  Below is the most famous quote from America’s Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….”

I agree with everything in that sentence except “that all men are created equal”.  I believe that these six words from the Declaration of Independence, which is a static document from another time and place has caused more than its share of problems in education.  Those six words have been mis-interpreted and used to promote far too many myths and fallacies throughout the short history of America, especially when it comes to education.

Quite simply I do not believe that all men (or women) are created equal.

All men or women are not created equally either by nature or nurture.  We all have strengths and weaknesses, we have different interests and abilities, and we are born to different social economic status and groups – in other words we are not created equally and should not be considered equal when it comes to individual abilities.

The Great American myth is that “anyone” can climb the ladder to success and that “all men are created equal”.  That unfortunately, is not the truth, many start out way behind the starting line due to:

  • socio-economic status
  • disabilities
  • color
  • gender
  • religion
  • sexual orientation
  • or whatever individual strength or weakness that that person may have

It takes tremendous work, perseverance and more than a little luck to even catch up, much less go by, those who can just step up to starting line or even had a head-start.

We need to be treated as the individuals we are.

There have always been two educational systems in America one for the “elites” and one for the rest of its citizens.  Perhaps one of the problems with the educational system from the 1960’s to the 1980’s was that it was allowing too much social mobility?

Look at the changes in our social structure and what the results that educational system achieved. In other words it might have been a little to good at what it did.  So good, that it was beginning to challenge the schooling that many elite schools were providing to their “elite” students.

Too many of us from these generations, we were able to get those little check boxes checked like no other generation before had…you know the one that asks “does this person have a Bachelors, Masters or Doctoral Degree in (fill in the blank)?  The availability of free or relatively inexpensive (subsidized-GI Bill, Stafford Loan Program, Grants, etc.) higher education, opened the door to educating much more of the population than ever before, which in turn allowed social mobility in America for many more and started to crowd against those from the “other” educational system.

However, that same education system is now, on the basis of artificial test scores, not considered good enough.  Does it need improvement – absolutely (but we have to stop looking at schools as the place where we attempt to solve all of America’s social problems).

Instead of needed corrections to the course we are currently in, far too many call for reforms based on the market economy system, which has had limited success on its own and in my opinion would not be advantageous to our students.  A system that focuses on test scores and accountability as if our students were widgets instead of individuals.

The view for many in education is that the tremendous increase in Standardized Testing of Public Schools has and is leading to a narrowing of the curriculum and significant loss of instructional time in our public schools.  Which in turn (by law/regulation) does not allow those schools to follow the same curriculum or freedoms that the private “elite” schools have access to.  Whether that is real or imagined, it is the perspective that many have, so therefore it is a reality for many.

In my opinion requiring students to meet artificial standards, on arbitrary time-lines to gain knowledge are not meeting the individual needs of students, but meeting the needs of the adults who want to or need to micromanage public schools to meet their personal, political or corporate needs and agendas.

In order to provide quality education for all of our students, if I was “king for a day” I would:

  • Focus on the needs of the students – not the needs that adults have.  Right now it is reversed.
  • Have a moratorium on standardized testing, until we figure its impact on students in classroom and find other ways to hold teachers and students accountable.
  • Allow parents, teachers and local school administrators to be the focus in conversations regarding reforming our profession – teaching.  Not just be given lip-service or ignored – we are part of the solution to the so-called educational crisis.
  • A paradigm shift that teachers are professionals – not the “those who teach – can’t” attitude so prevalent today.  That we have the knowledge, expertise and desire to ensure that we are educating our students to the best of our ability.
  • Hold teachers accountable for their teaching and if they are not performing satisfactorily – remove them.  This means changing/overhauling the teacher evaluation system, but connecting it to current standardized testing is not the answer the variable are too inconsistent for accurate consideration.
  • Improve teacher preparation and professional development to focus on what works in the classroom and possible new pedagogical methods that benefit students learning, not continuing to espouse what was taught in the past and isn’t relevant in today’s classroom.
  • Keep tenure for those who have earned it.  However, tenure should not make it difficult or impossible to remove a poor teacher or one that has retired in the classroom – it just gives the teacher the protection, to not be discharged for reasons other than being poor teachers.
  • Need to provide more individualized instruction that meets the student’s needs – the factory model is obsolete and the business model of education is not the panacea that its proponents believe.
  • Get rid of age/grade promotion, when a student is ready, they are ready.
  • Integrate technology effectively into their pedagogy and the classroom and if teachers refuse to use it, do what other industries have done – allow them to find employment elsewhere or retire.
  • Focus our pedagogy more on Challenge Based Learning or Project Based Learning than old stale rote memorization and then test for understanding.  Use reality in our teaching whenever possible – yes this too would be a paradigm shift for teachers and will be difficult for many to do.
  • Are grades necessary – or are they doing more harm than good?
  • Make vocational education available to students starting at the age of 14 whatever grade level they are supposedly in.  Unfortunately, college is not the answer for all students there has to be more options for those students in public education, who do not fit the academic rigor required to attend college.

Do I believe that many of these recommendation or ideas will be incorporated – no in reality most will be ignored.

Why do I want these things?  I want my grandsons to be interested in learning, not having a narrow curriculum that focuses on how to answer a question on a standardized test.  I want my grandsons to learn through Challenge Based Learning or project based learning which is going benefit them much more in the future.  How will my grandsons make a difference in their community, school and home is much more important to me than a score or a grade.
No I didn’t have any innovative or great new ideas on educational reform.  We have discussed these issues ad naseum on Twitter, #Edchat, the other #chats, Facebook and in teacher’s lounges across the Country.  However, teachers don’t have the cash, influence or notoriety of a Gates, Winfry or the others who want to reform education based on what we are seeing in the media, news or movies.  Most of these people who are espousing these reforms may mean well, but do they have the background in education, and how these reforms actually affects the classroom and how they will effect the public school students they are subjecting them to?  The more you make school boring and narrow, the more students are going to vote with their feet and the dropout rate is already an embarrassment.  But, they sure are listening to “educational experts” who have a different vision of what education is and should be than I do.
I am not optimistic regarding the direction education reform will go and feel as though we are simply beating our heads against a brick wall and that no matter what our efforts are, the powerful special interests will have their way.  At the same time if we remain quiet, who will speak for those students who have no voice and who’s education is being narrowed to a focus on Standards and Testing, instead of the joy of learning.  Remember it is our children and grand children who are being affected by these reforms – are these reforms focusing on Standards, Testing and Accountability what you want for them?
Finally, how many of these so-called educational reformers send their children to the public schools that they want to reform…and do their private schools teach this way?  It is a question that needs to be answered. If they are not using that same curriculum because it is not good enough for their students, why should we think it is good enough for ours.
“Do the right thing for the right reason”

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