The Grinch In The Classroom

Yea, I thought about naming it something more seasonally appropriate but this piece has nothing to do with Christmas but everything to do with the classroom.

It seems as if the Federal Government wants to give local school districts a very large amount of money to improve education but it is tying it to teacher evaluations and teacher performance. Now, I am all for monies being poured into the local schools. Lord knows, they need it (in my state of New York, the governor announced today that school funding and many other agencies would be cut by 10% to stave off the impending financial doom facing the state). But, tying the money to teacher evaluations and teacher performance is not going to do it.

It isn’t that teachers shouldn’t be evaluated but the present evaluation models favor teachers who “soften” the material. In many school systems, you are considered a great teacher if the parents don’t complain and all the students are getting good grades. Knowledge of the subject and teaching students how to think have absolutely nothing to do with how well one is evaluated.

I know that there are teachers out there who are excellent and who get good reviews but they are the exception to the rule. In 1986, the National Science Teachers Association made an effort to identify such teachers but I don’t know if there have been any follow-up studies in this regard.

What I do know is this – with the present “No Child Left Behind” legislation, we spend most of our time testing our students and we test them at the wrong time. If we decide to use teacher performance as the criteria for funding, then those tests are going to increase in number and value for the evaluation process.

When I wrote about the crisis in science and mathematics education in 1990 (see “The Crisis in Science and Mathematics (1990)”) I identified two articles in the Wall Street Journal that pointed out the fallacy of that approach. One of the articles mentioned at that time discussed the abuse that occurred. The abuse in that instance was that one instructor not only taught her students the test, she gave them the test to study and practice on. The pressure was on the teacher to have her students succeed and her solution was to give the students the test before hand.

The present approach will do nothing more than make that more common place. We are already wasting valuable parts of the school year with the tests mandated by the NCLB legislation and more time as the teachers teach their students how to take those tests.

We know where success in the classroom lies; we have seen it in the past. It is the involvement of the student in the learning process. This means more than simply memorizing fact after fact but applying the facts to situations and using situations to obtain the facts. It means teaching students how to think critically in relation to the subject being taught. This is not something done only or solely at the higher grade levels either; there is ample research data to support the statement that students in the early elementary grades (and even kindergarten) can take an active role in learning.

First, let’s differentiate between teaching and learning. Teaching is a directed experience, from the teacher to the student. Learning is two-dimensional and interactive. We do a lot of teaching these days but there isn’t much learning taking place. Our students are able to do well on all the exams they take because they have been taught how to take the exam. But have they learned anything? I doubt it.

There is nothing more curious than a two-year old; yet, many high school seniors have no curiosity. What happened to it? The learning process took it away. And I am reminded of the song by Supertramp, “The Logical Song”.

Please don’t tell me that our students are some of the most technologically literate people on the planet. Oh yes, they know how to “tweet” and set up a Facebook account; but does that help them write literate sentences and think creatively? I can guarantee that it doesn’t.

Do the majority of the American people really understand the issue behind climate change and intelligent design? Not really. And why should they? Schools haven’t dealt with critical thinking issues (and may be afraid to) so we are not equipped to determine the validity or credibility of any claims; which would go a long way in explaining why people buy footpads to clean the toxic chemicals out of their bodies.

The evidence is there to say that our schools aren’t working (see the reference to “Clueless in America” in my piece “The Bottom Line”). Our schools are broken (Bill Gates said that they were obsolete) and desperately need to be fixed. BUT NOT IN THE MANNER THAT IS BEING PROPOSED!

I would like to think that there is a quick and easy way to measure how well students are learning and how well teachers are doing their jobs. Unfortunately, there isn’t. The only way you are going to know if a student has learned the material is to watch them use the material later, not three weeks after it was taught. And the only way that we will ever know if the teachers have done their jobs properly and effectively is a long time after the job is over.

Let’s start by making sure that our teachers know the subject and know how to teach it. Subject mastery without pedagogical mastery is meaningless when it comes to teaching. The record also shows that the excellent teachers are the ones who have been in teaching through all the hard times and the good times. The 1986 NSTA study showed quite conclusively that the excellent teachers had been in the classroom for long periods of time.

But we often times move such teachers into administrative posts and take them away from what they are good at. Second, it is becoming quite clear that many who could be excellent teachers are leaving the field because of the way education is run and the pay that they receive (see the comment to my piece “Have we learned anything?”). A radical thought would also be to revamp the pay scales of many school systems so that it is the teachers who receive the major salaries and not the administrators.

Then, we have to make sure that our classes are equipped, not for today’s situations, but for tomorrow’s situations. We need to make sure that the most recent computers with the most recent software are in our schools today and in all of the classrooms, not just one classroom shared by all the students. But many of these schools don’t even have computers in their classrooms because the wiring is inadequate for the load. We should rightly spend some of the money on new buildings, but let’s build them to be useful in terms of energy and space, not just a copy of a tried and true blueprint from the past.

Let’s make sure that the classroom sizes are reasonable. As a chemist, I can make the argument for no more than 24 in a lab for safety reasons (and nothing scares an administrator more than the threat of a law suit because of safety problems). But we also know that lab-oriented courses don’t exist in many high schools and that administrators routinely increase the number of students in a classroom to compensate for the lack of teaching staff due to cost-.

The best learning occurs on a one-to-one basis. It seems reasonable to assume that if you increase the student to teacher ratio that learning will be reduced. Monies allocated to school systems should and must go to teacher salaries, teacher preparation, and classroom materials.

Our textbooks are often outdated and lab equipment, if it exists, is limited in scope. The one thing that we learned from the 1960s was that classes equipped to do experiments showed real gains and the gains slowed when the funding was cut off.

The problems with American education are not going to be fixed overnight. They are not going to be fixed with new school buildings if what goes on in those buildings is the same old, out-dated policies that went on in the old school buildings. The problems are not going to be fixed if the monies given to school systems get lost in bureaucratic overhead and administrator salaries.

And let’s face it, school systems located in wealthier districts are going to have to start sharing their funds with school systems in poor districts. I know that there are going to be a lot of screams with that particular statement because no one in an effluent district wants to even think about the other districts. And that is the problem; they don’t want to think.

We will not win the war on terrorism with guns and fancy weapons; we will not win the war on poverty and homelessness with platitudes and food banks. We will win the battles when we can think of new solutions that involve everyone. Right now, we are losing the battles, not because the “other side” is greater but because we think that the only way to win is the same old ways that once worked. They may have worked once but they don’t now and until we come up with new solutions, fostered by educational processes that focus on thinking and problem solving rather than rote memorization of countless facts the battles we fight, will never be solved.

In the meantime, I am suggesting that everyone buy their children and grandchildren copies of “Trivial Pursuit”. That will be the best study guide they have for school in the coming years. It might even put curiosity back into learning.


3 thoughts on “The Grinch In The Classroom

  1. Pingback: The State of Education – 2012 « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  2. Pingback: “Observations of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite” « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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