Monday, August 17, 2009

Back to School and the Health Care Debate

This week for the 18th time I’ll be out front of Federal Hocking High School welcoming students back to a new school year. If I ever needed a motivator for starting a school year the recent noisy, uncivil, and often unruly public debates about health care have me anxious to get back to school.

I don’t have a television, so I have missed much of the squawk-box invective around health care reform. But it has been hard to avoid the pictures of red-faced citizens screaming at elected officials or one another and congresspersons hung in effigy. Even more outrageous have been the signs claiming that health care reform proponents are Nazis or the oft-repeated lie that reform legislation includes some sort of ‘death panel’.

The most fundamental purpose of public education is to prepare our children to take their place as citizens in our democracy. We cannot determine whether or not they will go to college or what job they will hold. But we do know that every one of them will leave our school as fully enfranchised citizens of our democracy. Clearly our inability to hold civil debate about an issue as important as the health of our nation illustrates the need for public schools to make sure they act upon this most important of all missions.

Unfortunately, much of the public policy debate about public education leaves out any consideration of the higher order skills democratic life requires. Focusing solely on holding schools accountable for improving standardized test scores, state and federal policies have even worked to push out practices that focus on critical thinking, research, debate, and public speaking skills. I have to wonder if the screaming town hall participants, the name-calling radio and television personalities, and those that deliberately spread falsehoods in the name of democratic debate on health care did well on those tests but missed something else in school.

While we at FH do not always get it right, we try to make sure that inculcating the habits of mind and heart that make democratic life possible is at the center of our school. Our students have a voice in decisions from the hiring of teachers to what we serve in the cafeteria; coursework focuses on higher order thinking skills; our literacy initiative is not about test scores but about the reading and writing skills needed to make your voice heard; and in dozens of ways, big and small, our students share with the staff the management and welfare of our school. These are practices we share with other schools through networks like the Coalition of Essential Schools, The Five Freedoms Project, and the League of Democratic Schools.

While none of us in any of these schools doubts the effectiveness and importance of what we do around education for a democratic citizenry, we also know that when it comes to school accountability measures we will not be given any credit for this effort. All that matters in this hyper-testing environment are the standardized test scores…scores that may yield interesting comparisons, but are apparently not yielding thoughtful citizens.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Who Knew?

Thanks to Libby Quaid of the Associated Press for taking the time to sort out the facts behind the myth-making that goes on around our public schools. While she points out that our schools could do better—no kidding, that’s why my staff and I put in so many hours on behalf of our kids and community—she makes it clear that the facts do not support many of the claims about our schools.

I’ll leave it to you to read her analysis, but a few highlights—

•On international comparisons, which, as Gerry Bracey often points out can be suspect, American school kids do as well as the Brits and Germans.
•Our kids may not go to school as many days as do kids in South Korea, but because of a longer school day they spend more time in school than do students in that and other nations.
•Our college graduation rates, while no where near good enough, hold up well internationally when you factor in things like that the US includes non-citizens in such rates and that many European countries have switched to three year degrees, easier to complete than four or six year degrees which are the norm here.
Who knew?

But on closer inspection, there are some other questions to be raised.

School days: The reason kids in some of the so-called high achieving nations have shorter school days is because those systems, which value teacher development, use part of the day for teams of teachers to work together on lessons and student achievement. The Forum has argued that time in the teacher day for staff development, cooperative lesson planning, and reviewing student achievement is necessary if our schools are to improve. Just adding time to the school year is not the answer, it is how that time is utilized.

More on school days: The nations we are so often compared to do not provide all the other things our schools provide—sports, bands, theater, etc. Rather, this is left to the larger community and the schools just focus on academics. Not a choice we have made, but something to remember when looking at time comparisons.

Tests: American kids do not do well on one of the international tests of math, Program for International Assessment (PISA), but do better on the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). This should not be any surprise—PISA measures how well kids apply math to real-world problems. Given the single-minded focus on standardized test scores driven by NCLB it is no surprise kids do not do well on a test that looks at real world applications. Again, who knew?

Look, we all know that we can do better in our system of public education. But maybe we can find the solutions not in sloganeering from politicians but in the hard work of teachers in this nation right now.

The Forum, through our Democracy at Risk recommendations last spring set forth an ambitious plan for investing in teaching, high quality learning opportunities, performance assessment and community involvement. It was, as Representative George Miller, chair of the House Education Committee said, “Spot on….a good place to start (when discussing NCLB reauthorization).”

We agree.

I wish I had more time to work on this agenda in Washington. But today my staff and I are too busy as all of our seniors present their Graduation Portfolios which demonstrate how they are ready to leave our school as life-long learners, engaged citizens, and on the path to career or college. How I wish those folks inside the beltway could see what is going on inside our school.