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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Warning: If You Want to be an Educational Reformer, Meaningful Practical Experience is a Liability.

Chalkbeat CEO and co-founder Elizabeth Green has written a new book called "Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach It to Everyone)."
Chalkbeat CEO, Elizabeth Green
I try to follow all sides of the educational debate.  I even read Michelle Rhee's book as well as the Bee-Eater biography.  I try to read as much as I can stomach.  But no more bees for me.

This morning I read the interview with Chalkbeat CEO, Elizabeth Green.  She has written a new book entitled, Building a Better Teacher:  How Teaching Works (and How to Teach it to Everyone).  Of course, as I launched into reading the piece, I found myself instantly wondering for how many years Ms. Green has taught and whether or not she has any children subject to the Common Core.  

Or, in other words, I wondered to what extent she deals in theoretical abstractions and to what extent she grounds herself in life experiences.  I soon discovered she was asked this very question in the interview.  It turns out, although she has been writing about education for several years, she has never taught.  She, however, has visited schools in such far-flung places as Japan and Michigan.  

She admires the common standards of Japan.  In her opinion, American teachers are confused by seventeen layers of "people telling teachers what to do."  And, although it may sound caustic on my part to say so, I'm actually not confused at all.  And, I don't wish to be taken by the hand and led along by people who call themselves "reformers," but have little-to-no experience in the classroom.  They seem to be the confused ones to me.  They claim to have the one set of right answers, but in my mind they fail to understand the multifaceted nature of a child's education.  Is Ms. Green just another "layer"?
I haven't read her book, yet; so, I will reserve judgment.  It may contain certain insights.  After all, I do enjoy checking out the Chalkbeat site, not for advice in teaching, but for any educational news I may have missed, realizing as I read its inherent bias.  All the same, it seems humorous to me that someone with no practical experience in the classroom would feel confident enough to write what sounds like a manual on how to be an expert teacher.  Should I write a manual on how to train seals?  I've been to a lot of aquariums.  I have a perceptive eye.  I could go back and observe some more seals, maybe even in Japan.  Maybe, just maybe...

Ms. Green commends charter schools, whom she praises for high test scores.  In her words, charter schools succeed because they "focus a lot more on giving teachers the time to learn, mentors to help them, materials from which they can learn, and good curriculums they can use."  Actually, as a public-school teacher, I have received all of the above in my career.  

I would attribute most of the success of charter schools primarily to cherry-picking students, establishing very restrictive disciplinary procedures, exiling those who fail to meet standards and focusing excessively on test prep, to the point of holding school rallies in expectation of the Big Tests.  From what I read, teacher attrition rates are high at many charters.  Teachers burnout before they can gain significant experience.  And, students may have success Stanley-Kaplan style, but miss out on many of the things that make for a well-rounded, well-adjusted individual.  

Ms. Green speaks to the debate about whether learning must look different in different environments.  She suggests in the interview, and as the title of her book suggests, that teaching, in the best of all possible worlds, should not have to look different in different settings.  I would suggest after twenty years experience that teaching has to look different in different settings, depending upon the needs of diverse student bodies.  I see diversity as a strength, if we teach to students' strengths instead of slamming everyone with standardized-test preparation.  

Contrary to teaching to students' strengths, the Common Core almost universally demoralizes the students of New York state by pulling 70% down to failure.  With stats like these, one wonders how many current reformers might have failed similar tests in their school days.  The Core fails to meet students where they are, raise them up, and let them advance at their own speed.  Instead, it shoots over their heads like rockets.  Not many care to look up and kids are labeled, through no fault of their own, as failures.  

The situation is particularly tricky for students with disabilities.   NY State asked for accommodations for up to 2% of its students with severe disabilities.  The federal government denied these accommodations.  Instead, the federal government holds a no-excuses-sir approach.  Similar to its philosophy in NCLB, the government seeks to ensure that every student is proficient; now, at the same time, it aims to raise standards via the Common Core.  All students must be academically up to snuff.  Reality must not be allowed to interfere with idealism.  Whip students into shape, no matter the human cost!  If you kill students' natural love for learning, and their self-esteem as well, and still fail to shock them into proficiency, well, so much the worse, and, by the way, oops!  

Even students without disabilities have wide and varying sets of needs.  Students, as, indeed, all children, grow at different rates.  I can already tell you, the Common Core will turn so many students off from learning and teachers away from the profession.  Parents have had enough as well, witness the Louis CK tweets.  The ironic part of it all is that, if the Common Core persists, I can predict that some of our greatest geniuses of days to come will tell you how they spent their youth disinterested in school.  Other children will take to the streets instead of school and never find their way back.  

Ms. Green says that a teacher friend of seven years advised her to keep writing on educational issues because "somebody's job needs to be to record what's happening [inside schools], since teachers don't have time to do that, and make sense of the big picture."  This is not the problem.  I see the big picture fine.  And it isn't pretty.  Being a career teacher is a liability.  Being a parent is a liability.  We have plenty of time to "make sense of the big picture," only no one wants to listen, perhaps, because it sounds too much like common sense, not the common core.        

Warning:  If you want to be an educational "reformer," meaningful practical experience is a liability.  

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