Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why Aren't the "Reformers" Pushing for the Type Education their own Kids Have?

Testing, Testing, Testing.  Is that all that there is in education anymore?  It certainly seems that way in the mainstream media.  For the past two weeks, the media and education officials have been obsessively analyzing the results of the new "common core" aligned 4th-8th grade exams, and what those results could mean for the future of New York State education.  While I do have strong opinions on these test results, I believe that many other experts and bloggers I admire have said all that needs to be said about the validity of these tests.  All I will say is that I am one of the people who believes that both these tests, and these standards, are a complete waste of time, and will make no headway towards getting our students college and career ready.

Why debate whether 30% proficiency is a good thing, or a bad thing, when really the question should be what does good education look like?  Good education does not mean students score high on some multiple choice nonsense exam that they were ill prepared for in the 5th grade.  Good education does not mean that students spend 6 out 7 hours a day taking practice tests and getting "drilled and killed" in order to raise their scores.  Good education means students enter and leave school well rounded, having been exposed to a very diverse curriculum across contents.  Good education means students make connections with both their peers and the adults in the building that they see everyday.  Good education means students feel comfortable and safe in their environment, and actually want to come to school.  Good education means students feel connected enough to the school to participate in extra curricular activities.  Finally, good education means that when students leave school they will have gained enough interest in one or two areas to know what they would like to do in the future.

This was the type of education I had.  The type of education that helped me realize when I was only sixteen that I wanted to be an English teacher when I grew up.  The type of education that turned me from a hesitant and below average student, to one who is starting my second masters degree this fall, and who believes education is the most important thing in the world.  This is the type of education that many students still receive, however this is far more likely to happen in private schools, specialized/magnet schools, and in middle/upper class suburbs than in places like The Bronx, Rochester, Brownsville, Buffalo, and anywhere else where the majority of students are poor minorities.  Apparently somewhere along the line it was decided by the people who make the big education decisions both locally and nationally, that these types of students do not deserve the same education they would want for their own kids, and likely had themselves.  It is no wonder that currently the most vocal opposition to these tests comes from parents in wealthy suburbs.  It is very hard to convince parents who have supported their child's school for years that the same school and district is suddenly failing.  However this seems to be the next step in the reform movement with these common core exams.  Now officials can claim that suburban schools are failing almost as badly as urban schools.

Let's compare the differences in the way education looks looks in NYC and the way it looks in the surrounding suburbs.  There are three major differences that I can see (at the school level) in the public education I received just twelve miles outside NYC in the suburbs of New Jersey and what students receive in the majority of schools in NYC today.  (Keep in mind that I graduated High School a decade ago, and that many of the NCLB mandates had not been fully realized yet.)

High Stakes Testing/Test Prep:  In NYC students take at least one standardized test every single year from 3rd-11th grade.  (Most still have at least one regents in 12, but theoretically could avoid this). When I went to school we had three standardized tests, one in 4th, one in 8th, and one in 11th.  As far as I can remember, we did no prep at all for these tests, and they were more or less meaningless.  I never heard of a single person not graduating or being held back because of the results.  They were just a two day break from regular instruction, with scores that eventually came in the mail, and again, were meaningless.  I actually remember doing quite well on all of these tests (we got the results by percentile across the state),  even though I was getting average marks in many subjects.  How is that possible without a ton of prep for the test?  Maybe, just maybe, our teachers were making us well rounded students, with the skills needed to succeed without forcing meaningless prep down our throats.  Actually the only standardize test I ever prepped for was the SAT.  Our district and school did not need silly standardized exams to see that we were learning.  They left it up to the teachers in middle/high school to make their own midterms/finals/class exams. They also realized that there is a lot more to an elementary school education than some silly test.

Class Size:  I have taught in two different NYC High Schools.  In both situations, the majority of the classes I teach have had 34 students on the roster, and those that don't have 31-33.   34 is the legal limit for class size in New York State (50 for Phys Ed. and music classes), so it is reasonable to assume that classes would be even larger if legally possible.  Doing some quick research I found that the average class size at my High School for the 2011-2012 school year (couldn't find last years data) was 18.4. 18.4 people!  How can anyone ever argue that a classroom with 30-34 students is just as likely to be successful as one with 17-20? Yet shockingly many famous education reformers (Michelle Rhee comes to mind) argue that class size is meaningless.  Bloomberg famously said he would double class sizes if it meant he would only have high quality teachers.  (That would mean 60-70 students per class here in NYC).  When your class is small, you get more individual attention as a student.  Teachers have more time to give quality feedback on writing, and even assign more research papers.  Yet this is an issue so often ignored by the people making our education decisions in New York State (although it is often the number one issue for parents).  Why put money into reducing class size when we can give massive contracts to famous screw ups like Pearson and create more standardized tests?

A varied curriculum:  This is the one that schools have the most control over, but that power is also being taken away.  With budgets shrinking in NYC, it is harder and harder to offer a wide array of arts/electives. This has become an even greater challenge under the small schools movement, championed by Mike Bloomberg.  With 4-6 schools in one building, and a very small budget, it is impossible for any of these schools to offer more than the narrow focus of the schools "theme".  Even worse still, is the fact that under NCLB and RTTT the only subjects that really "count" are English and Math.  (Schools are never closed because students did not learn to how to paint water colors, or recite Shakespearean soliloquies, they are closed because not enough students passed the state math exam).  So now even core subjects like science, and social studies, are getting the shaft in favor of block periods of math and English and any extra time is used for tutoring and prep.  I have even heard that in many charter schools, students who are not preforming on practice tests are pulled out of gym or whatever elective time they do have in favor of extra tutoring.  I honestly would have hated school if the curriculum was this narrow and dry.  Of course at my High School we had a vast array of electives and after school activities.  Some years I was even able to fit multiple electives into my schedule.  On top of all the core subjects, in my senior year I was able to take drama, journalism, and philosophy.  I can also say without a doubt that the best preparations for college level writing I received were in the journalism and philosophy classes I took.  If you want children to succeed they need to feel invested in their own education.  By forcing test prep, and basic skills down their throats, they will begin to hate school.  One of the biggest issues in urban schools is absenteeism.  When students hate school they are not going to make much of an effort to overcome personal struggles to get there.

So despite what John King, Andrew Cuomo,  Mike Bloomberg, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, or any of the other "reformers" tell you, there are millions of kids across the country getting excellent educations at their local neighborhood public schools.  If you really want to move towards improving education, why not start by looking at all of the great schools around NYC that have been succeeding for decades.  There are still a few large comprehensive high schools in NYC that have a model (at least structurally) similar to what many of us had in the suburbs.  These schools (such as Francis Lewis, Bayside, and Forest Hills) all have massive waiting lists of students trying to get in.  Yet all over the city schools just like this have been closed and replaced with no frills, no fun, test prep factories.  I am now completely convinced that we are moving backwards at a rapid pace.  Every new reform seems like a step in the wrong direction and it is time that we all look really closely at where our priorities lie.  We can still save education in this country, but it will not happen by breaking up/closing down schools, shrinking budgets, narrowing the curriculum, allowing class sizes to get out of control, forcing kids to travel two hours a day, or reverting education to how many bubbles you can correctly answer on a test that may not even measure whether or not you are on track to be college ready.

-DOENUTS 2.0  Has taught High School English in NYC for several years.  I sometimes post on other education blogs as "Former Turnaround Teacher".  I took over this blog from the original DOENUTS in July.