Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Election Day

I always try to be first to vote in my town, and usually lose out to a local electrician whose job starts even earlier than mine. Part of the reason for my early arrival is that it gives me time to check in and chat with our former students who are working the polls as well as those that are showing up to vote.

Some educators claim that their decisions are “data-driven.” By this they mean that they spend hours parsing standardized test scores to see what tweak they can make to the curriculum in order to raise scores a percentile or two. At my school we do “data-driven” decisions as well—but we use data that actually has meaning to our community and school. And part of that data I was collecting on Election Day; seeing which of our graduates were voting and working at the polls.

It is a shame that our public schools, the most important weapon in the arsenal of democracy, are not seen as the incubators of democratic life that they were intended to be. Thomas Jefferson, who was one of the earliest to call for a system of free public schools, realized that democracy rested upon the wisdom of the public. And the best way to insure that citizens could exercise their own judgment was to make sure they could read, write, and reason.

Today this is still the most important mission of our public schools. Contrary to popular belief, we cannot and should not be preparing kids for specific jobs nor should we simply be a boot camp for college. Rather, public schools should be focusing on the attributes we want in citizens, in our neighbors. A short list includes the ability to read critically; to write for an audience; to understand numbers and how they work—in particular statistics, which are often used to deceive; to know how science works; and to have a background in our history and the cultures that have made this nation great. You might add to that an appreciation of the visual and performing arts; a familiarity with our environment and where our food comes from; and the knowledge of how government works (or doesn’t). Finally, a set of personal characteristics that would include the ability to work with others, including those who are different from oneself; the ability to listen; and a willingness to suspend decision-making until requisite information is available.

Now here’s the rub. As a former college professor, I would have loved to have students come to me who could do all of those things. And I cannot imagine an employer, who really wants people he or she can train to do a job knowing full well that jobs change quickly, that would not also list these characteristics as desirable in our graduates. That is, the attributes that make for a good democratically engaged citizen are the same that we might want in college students or employees. However, it does not work the other way around.

Simply prepping kids to do well on the ACT or other college admission examinations does not ensure that they will be the type of participants our democracy needs. And teaching students how to do jobs that may be phased out in the next wave of technological innovation does not prepare students to be life long learners.

At my school, as with many, we take seriously the challenge we have given ourselves to prepare our charges to be life long learners, active democratic citizens, and flexible in their career choices. Young people here have to demonstrate, through actions ranging from community service, to voting, to working at the polls, to taking on leadership within the school that they are practicing habits of democratic life. Along with demonstrations of life long learning skills and career flexibility these things are placed in a portfolio for graduation. What we know is that what we assess and value at school is what students will not only do now, but will continue to do after school.

Election Day is assessment day in my little corner of the world. It is one day in which we observe how well we prepared our students to take on the challenges of democratic life. One more piece of data as to how well we are doing as a school. One more way of testing ourselves to see if we are living up to Mr. Jefferson’s ideal.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Without good teachers, it doesn’t matter

Last week I was able to spend a lot of time at the most important part of my job—supporting teachers as they practice their craft. Monday I spent a long session with a first year teacher, reflecting on a lesson she had taught and the lessons she was learning. I was impressed about how quickly she had incorporated some of the ideas colleagues and I had shared with her into her classroom work. And doubly impressed with the insights she had developed into several students.

Later that day I spent an hour with a senior faculty member who is working on developing some extensive performance assessments for our students. Her insights into how students approach texts, and how they write from experience, were amazing. How lucky our kids are to have someone who takes them so seriously.

Wednesday included an hour with the two faculty members who run our Teacher Center. Based on their work in classrooms and conversations with staff we were developing a professional development sequence around reading and writing across the curriculum. Additionally we spent time on how we might fine tune our Advisory program in order to better meet the needs of our students.

The support and development of professional educators is the most important thing we can invest in if we want to have a public education system that challenges and engages all of our children. Ted Sizer, founder of both The Forum and the Coalition of Essential Schools put it best in his book Horace’s Compromise:

While our system of schools contains many consequential characteristics—for example, the subjects of the curriculum, the forms of governance, the uses of technologies and teaching aids, the organization of programs for special groups—none is more important that who the teachers are and how they work. Without good teachers, sensibly deployed, schooling is barely worth the effort. (p. 4)

Ted’s book came out 25 years ago—if only we had headed his words then.

We again have the chance to heed Ted’s challenge with the reauthorization of ESEA this coming year. Hopefully this time our representatives in Congress will get it right and pay attention to the preparation, placement, and support of teachers. The Forum for Education and Democracy’s recently released briefing paper, Effective Teachers: High Achievers presents eight strategies that could be undertaken immediately if the nation wants to take up the challenge to put a well-prepared and supported teacher in every classroom.

Based on my 18 years at my desk in Federal Hocking Middle and High School I know that the most important question every parent and student asks each school year is ‘Who will my teacher be?’ It is my job to make sure that parents and learners will be satisfied no matter what teacher at our school is named in response to that question. Such should be the goal nationwide.

One more note. When I shared the Forum’s plan for teachers with a group of students at the nearby university during a guest lecture, one of the students challenged whether or not America could afford the plan we are putting forward. Well, do the math. The Forum’s proposal calls for an annual investment of $3.4 billion dollars in teachers. The federal government last year put over $12 billion dollars into saving General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC), an outfit that finances car purchases. Are our kids worth ¼ of what we put into our cars?