So I’m completely hacked off tonight.
You see, I’ve spent a few hours wrapped in the criticisms of public schools found in the first pages of The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner’s bit on how schools need to change if our kids are ever going to survive in tomorrow’s world.
Wagner—like many of the educational, political and business leaders who chime in on the “crisis” in public education—fills his preface with the kind of “sky-is-falling” rhetoric that dominates most of today’s #educonversations.
Now, maybe I wear my emotions on my sleeve, but I took Wagner’s criticisms personally and I felt attacked.
You can understand that, can’t you? I mean attacking teachers HAS become a part time job for many politicians and pundits after all.
Worse yet, I felt like a few of Wagner’s teacher-centered criticisms were just plain misdirected.
Here’s a few specific examples—followed by my reflections as a full-time practitioner.
Wagner writes: “Computers and the Internet were becoming essential tools in every workplace—but from what I saw in schools, students rarely used technology as a part of their learning in classrooms” (Kindle location 207).
My response: I love it when people who don’t work in schools take shots at teachers for not integrating technology into the classroom.
What they often don’t realize is that many of us haven’t even GOT technology in our classrooms.
Take my affluent suburban school as an example: Despite having a highly connected student population, I’ve got two working computers in my classroom.
Sure, we’ve got a mobile lab of laptops that I can sign out, but they are six years old and almost all of them are running outdated versions of everything.
Sure, we’ve got three full computer labs (about 90 total computers) that I can sign up to take my students to, but they’re being used by the other 60 classroom teachers—and 1,000 students—in our building, too.
That means if we were to divide lab access up equally between every teacher, I'd have access to a lab for about 7 days each school year.
How EXACTLY am I supposed to integrate more technology into my instruction under those circumstances?
My solution: Either districts need to jump feet first into Bring Your Own Device programs—tapping into the digital resources that kids already own—or communities need to fork over more cash for digital hardware.
Until then, harping on the lack of technology in instruction is just plain disingenuous.
Wagner writes: “Finally, I have observed that the longer our children are in school, the less curious they become” (Kindle location 323).
My response: Tony’s right, y’all: Kids really DO lose their natural curiosity after spending years in our school system.
How sickening is that?
And to be perfectly honest, I don’t know a ton of teachers who do a great job encouraging natural curiosity in their daily lessons.
There’s no point, really.
You see, curiosity isn’t measured by the standardized tests that our nation have embraced as tools for holding students accountable.
Those tests—which, by the way, carry increasingly high stakes for teachers—measure nothing more than simple mastery of basic facts. There’s nothing “higher order” about them.
Do you see the dichotomy?
We complain that teachers aren't helping kids to develop their natural curiosity while simultaneously uber-emphasizing tests that have NOTHING to do with curiosity.
We threaten to publicly shame and/or fire teachers who fail to produce results on tests that don’t even measure the kinds of skills that we CLAIM to care about.
My solution: If all y’all really care about sophisticated skills like curiosity, adaptability and leadership, you’d better start demanding that the cheap assessments that our country has embraced are pushed aside in favor of more sophisticated alternatives that measure the RIGHT skills.
To criticize teachers for spending time preparing kids to ace the very tests that YOU are promoting as a part of YOUR “accountability movement” is ludicrous.
Wagner also writes: “One of my biggest concerns is that most high school educators do not feel a real sense of urgency for change—perhaps because their work isolates them from the larger world of rapid change and they’ve lived through too many failed educational fads” (Kindle Location 179).
My Response: Or perhaps, Tony, because many educators have no real control over their work anyway.
Here’s an example: In our district, teachers in core subjects are given a pacing guide to follow. This guide maps out the day-to-day instruction that we’re supposed to be delivering to kids.
Not only does it spell out the objectives that we’re supposed to be addressing on a given day, it also includes lessons to use with our kids.
The district is also developing a series of benchmark assessments that we will be expected to give and are laying out an assessment calendar that tells us when those assessments are to be given.
Now, I’m lucky enough to work for a principal who trusts my professional judgment.
So if I think a sequence of lessons needs to be adjusted or if I see that my kids haven’t mastered a concept in the time that the district pacing guide specifies, he supports my professional choices.
But officially, we’re supposed to submit a formal request if we plan to give an assessment outside of the required window or if we want to teach content out of sequence.
Think about the subtle messages that this pacing process—which is increasingly common in school systems across America—sends to teachers.
“You’re not in charge,” we are saying. “You can’t be trusted to make pacing or content choices. You are a replaceable cog in our content delivery machine.”
In those circumstances, can we REALLY be surprised that teachers “do not feel a real sense of urgency for change?”
My solution: Ditch the rigid commitment to pacing the work of ALL of our teachers and students. Instead, spend some time asking teachers to explain the professional choices that they are making.
Here's an example: I’m about two weeks behind in my pacing guide right now.
Want to know why?
My kids struggled to master what I would consider to be an essential skill: Identifying the impact that independent variables can have on a science experiment.
Because I thought that skill was essential, we did an extra experiment in our scientific method unit.
That took extra time, though—which means I’m not where I’m supposed to be.
My guess is that Wagner—and the dozens of business leaders that he interviews in his book—would find that to be a responsible decision because it prioritizes a skill that really DOES matter.
But I’m honestly worried because I’m not as far along in the curriculum as I should be.
How crazy is that?
Have you spotted the common thread running through each of the challenges that Wagner spotlights and each of the solutions that I’ve suggested?
Teachers have NO control over the choices that are being made and NO organizational juice to make the tangible changes necessary for driving real change.
I have no influence over technology budgets or over the policies that govern whether students can bring their own devices to school, yet I’m the one criticized when there’s not enough technology integrated into my classroom.
I have no influence over the kinds of skills tested on the standardized assessments given to my kids, yet I’m the one criticized when those assessments fail to produce students who have a mastery of the RIGHT skills.
I work in a field that has embraced pacing and scripting, yet I’m the one criticized as not recognizing the urgent need for change.
Wagner’s central argument is legit, y'all: Schools DO need to change.
But as a classroom teacher, I’m just plain sick of being the nation’s punching bag.
The truth is that the real levers for change rest somewhere just out of my reach.
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