Wednesday, March 30, 2011

American Education Reform: Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic?

"Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic" is an expression I learned in a leadership program I was involved in during the 1990's.  It refers to people spending all their time on trivial matters...rearranging the chairs on the deck of a ship...while ignoring the the fact that the Titanic was sailing straight into an iceberg.

I was reminded of this phrase lately when I read a blog post by Barnett Barry on the Teacher Leaders Network website.  Entitled 5 Teachers Myths That Distract Policymakers (an article reposted from one of my favorite educational resources, The Answer Sheet on The Washington Post),  his article restates many of the arguments I have covered over many months in this blog, particularly the data that shows that teacher merit pay does not improve student test scores (basically, most teachers are doing the best that they can, so the best teachers produce good scores without financial inducements, and the weaker teachers can't produce better scores, even with more money dangled in their faces).

However, he cites one figure that I hadn't heard before.  So much of the current "education reform" movement involves evaluating teachers and eliminating tenure so that they can fired, thus removing incompetent instructors who are producing low student achievement.  However, according to Barry, current teacher assessments suggest that only 15% of teachers fall below expected teaching proficiency.  He doesn't say this, but it seems to me like it is easy to chase after the boogyman of terrible teachers, rather than face the complicated factors of poverty, low expectations, lack of family education and/or support, learning disabilities, language difficulties, and other issues that I think are primarily responsible for many of our educational problems.

I recognize that those who have claimed the mantle of education reformers would reject my claim by arguing that current assessment don't evaluate the true failings of poor teachers....although I've not seen any good data they could point to in order to prove that point.  But regardless of where you stand on the teacher evaluation issue, it still seems like small potatoes (rearranging the deck chairs) compared to what is really needed in education to prepare our students for their current realities.

Barry and 12 master teachers address those larger issues in their recent book, Teaching 2030:  What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools--Now and in the Future.  Instead of merit pay and teacher pay and the other same few topics that dominate public debate about education, Barry suggests the following are what we should be discussing:

  1. How do we teach the students who have grown up with Google, smart phones, iPods/iPads, and instant information (good or bad) at their command?
  2. How do we teach when predictions say that 40% of students in 2030 will have English as a second language?
  3. What do we teach in an era of global competition? (Barry augments the 3Rs with 4Cs--communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creative problem solving)
  4. How can we enable students to monitor their own learning?
  5. How do we connect teaching to the wider needs of the community (given that academic achievement is so affected by family income, educational attainment, economic stability, and many other social factors)?
Once again, this is a book that I haven't read myself yet, so I can't recommend it personally.  But nonetheless, I think these are some of the "Titanic"- level questions that I think we should all be discussing more.  Really, who cares how well teachers are teaching the curriculum if the curriculum is sailing us into an iceberg?  Our current system teaches on a schedule from the Agricultural Age with structures and techniques from the Industrial Age.  How is that going to prepare our children to thrive in the "Flat Earth" Technological/Informational Age?  

This is one of the major reasons I homeschool.  I think most teachers, particularly in a system like Wake County (despite the recent governance issues), do a great job, particularly with the increased demands put upon public education to address greater societal issues.  But we are fighting so much over the minor issues that we have no time to look at the bigger issues.  Like I said....fighting over the arrangement of the deck chairs, while ignoring the fact we are sailing into an iceberg.  

Here is a video introducing the major points of the book:

And here is one making the same point in a shorter, more visceral way:

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