Sunday, October 23, 2011

Quashing the new status quo

In the song "Trouble at the Bottom" Pete Seeger sings:  “Some say the trouble's with the principal; some say the trouble's with the kids; some say the trouble's the curriculum; where’s the trouble at the bottom?”  Well, here it is:  The current system of education was developed in the 18th century, during slavery, by Thomas Jefferson who declared its purpose as “Raking a few geniuses from the rubbish”. Does this sound like a school plan to serve everyone?  Under NCLB this failed system has not only been accepted but strengthened.  It's failure at every level is clear yet we use every excuse imaginable to maintain the new status quo.

There are many real obstacles that impede student success that must be addressed.  The effects of poverty, poor student health and nutrition, dysfunctional homes, low expectations and many others affect a student’s ability to succeed in school.  We must put a full frontal attack on all of these issues.  The reality is no matter how hard we attack these problems; until they go away many students, under the current system, will fail! We must, however, deal with the realities of today.  We must understand that once the student enters school, it is necessary to block from our minds any obstacles to assure they don’t turn into excuses. We must adapt our approach to students to allow them to move forward at their own best rate.

Significant to the success or failure of students is the fact that they blossom at different times.  Even if all obstacles are resolved, students will still learn in different ways with different needs while travelling a different pathway to their future. That’s just the way it is!  In the current system those who move faster are held back, pacified with A’s while learning remains at a standstill.  Those who move slower are treated as “rubbish”, failed into oblivion. School becomes a track meet where the first ones win and the last ones lose.  Of significance is that when the last ones lose, they lose big.  One failure builds upon another until students have lost all hope and eventually leave school. The current system of education does not take the concepts of human growth and development and student differences into consideration when it demands that every student be proficient at the same time, learning in the same way, and demonstrating that learning on an artificial test.  Like the Stepford Kids we demand that students are “educationally pure”.  When we push kids out of school in this manner, they are relegated to the poverty class for the rest of their lives.  The class system in this country is determined when students are 15 and 16 years old and younger.  After all, how far can they go without a high school diploma?  This is not only unethical, it is immoral!

Why do we maintain a system where students are ranked for failure?  There are many reasons:

Ø  Those in power might very well be comfortable with the students who are succeeding as well as those who drop into the subclass. Why rock the boat when “my kids” are doing well and “someone else’s kids” are failing?  This was certainly true when the current system was developed. 

Ø  Others see the current process as a simple way to rank students, just give them a test no matter how artificial and we can have quick simple answers. 

Ø  Then there are those who are supporting those students who are not doing well and just want to prove to the world that they can succeed.  Not realizing the intensity of the artificial set up, these educators are driving kids like lemmings to the sea, only to fall off the cliff as blind pride leads the way.  These educators must develop more faith in the students they are supporting that once the system truly serves them, a new group of achievers will rise to the greatest levels of success.

Ø  There are others who are perpetuating the racist belief that all poverty kids are poor learners and “my school has all poverty kids and is succeeding, replicate us”.  The reality is there is diversity among those considered in poverty.  Most are devastated by it's effects but some rise to the occassion bolstered by strong support systems.  The best way to get a good school in today’s system is to take the best scoring students and push out the worst.  To get a fantastic school, take the best scoring poverty kids and push out the worst.  This leaves the false perception that the system is fine.  Just hold my school as an example and all should follow.

Ø  There are yet others who say that competition makes students work harder.  Of course some work harder at getting better grades but do they work harder at learning?  These are two completely different goals.  In order to get better grades a different set of skills are used than those needed for true learning.  For example, students often prepare for a test to be given 4th period by studying in their 3rd period class utilizing short term memory to accomplish their goal.  Others use their skill as test takers to find success.  Have you ever heard someone say they were just better at taking tests, or they aren’t very good at taking tests?  Here’s a reality check.  Short term memory is not long term learning and those who are not good at test taking are not stupid.  In fact they may be smarter than the “book learned” geniuses who do well on the test.  Many other test taking skills allow students to progress without gaining knowledge needed for their future.

Ø  Yet others declare that the problem is poverty and throw up their hands saying there is nothing we can do about it.  They also maintain the new status quo.  They are certainly correct that poverty is a roadblock to many but the reality is this problem hasn’t been resolved in the last 40 years and it will be difficult to resolve in the next 20.  What do we do today?  Again we tackle all the social problems including poverty with early interventions, health care and a multitude of other supports. Diane Ravitch speaks of these in detail and her words must be followed by actions by our educational leaders. One intervention that isn’t considered and should be is to change the system of education taking students "from where they are".  If they are slowed by the effects of poverty, we wait for them allowing them to advance at their own best rate, in the way they learn the best and the way they best demonstrate learning.  We must stop the cycle of poverty caused by an antiquated school system and allow students a pathway to success.  A single plan won't override the devastating effcts of the many social problems, but an even playing field combined with an approach to students that respects their intelligence and abilities will make success possible.  And this can be done today.

There are many reasons and agendas that keep students down through an antiquated system of education. We should all stop for a moment and think about it.  If our goal is to educate all children, what is the purpose of demanding that they are all at the same place, learning in the same way?  Developing a system that takes “every child from where they are” is the only solution to the problem.  This concept will allow students to move through the system as fast as they are capable by demonstrating proficiencies.  How will this help those who are moving slower? They will be in school (a novel concept) because hope will always be just around the corner and learning will be real. If they pass proficiency they move on and if they don’t they will be able to take that assessment again as soon as they are ready.  The next proficiency will always be right in front of them as a success rather than light years away as a failure. This allows students to learn from their failure rather than move on with a D- or fail miserably.  And, as important, they will be able to demonstrate what they know in the way they do it best.  Rather than struggling through an antiquated test, students will actually be able to show they can DO something.  Learning becomes real and standards, developed locally, become guidelines for success rather than deadlines for failure.

The systems are now available to put an abrupt halt to this NCLB travesty.  However, those who choose to make these changes must be prepared for the most difficult times of their professional lives.  Most people do not want all students to learn.  Protecting their turf, those who are focused on their own greed will attack these changes with every fiber of their being.  To make the changes necessary to serve all children will take a phenomenal effort on the part of all concerned.  But together we can move mountains!

Cap Lee