Friday, September 9, 2011

The Problem, or rather Problems With Our Education System

A few weeks ago I watched a movie on YouTube called Waiting for Superman.  It was very interesting.  I particularly liked this clip:

I entered a master's program in education at the University of Colorado 13 years ago.  It was a program that was aimed specifically at preparing teachers for urban schools.  We were volunteering at an urban elementary school from the beginning and substitute teaching on our days off.  I saw first hand the struggles of teaching at urban schools.  The problems and struggles were very real.  Transience was a huge one.  Behavioral issues.  Lack of parent support.  Lack of curriculum resources.  We were told from day one of our program to begin building our classroom library.  We didn't expect to have books in our classrooms--we were to BE the books.   We gathered resources and tackled the state standards to figure out what we needed to teach.

After I watched Waiting for Superman, I was curious about Michelle Rhee.  In the movie, it was stated that she only had 3 years classroom teaching experience.  At no time in the movie was it explained what her credentials were aside from that short time teaching.  That made me curious.  

As I was clicking onto Yahoo today, there was one of those quick news flash articles about Michelle Rhee marrying the mayor of Sacramento, California, over the weekend.  The article reminded me that I had wanted to learn more about Washington, D.C., schools and Michelle Rhee.

This past year I have become more inquiring about people's credentials when I look to them for wisdom or ideas.  I don't want to become more cynical, though.  I want to be wise of the snake in the grass and trust when it is right to trust.

So, back to my search for the rest of the story...

I read several articles and discovered that Michelle Rhee has degrees in government and public policy.  She has no education degrees.  Her training all came via Teach for America.  Their program is a crash course in how to to teach--while teaching.  I once reviewed a book by Teach for America, Teaching as Leadership.  At the time I gave it four stars.  Basically, the content was solid.  But, it was an unrealistic picture of being a lifelong teacher.  I don't think the time required of teachers according to the book could be sustained long term.  Her other credentials are that she started a nonprofit that placed teachers in urban schools.  Then she became the chancellor of D.C. Schools for three years.  When she resigned because the mayor who supported her didn't get reelected, sh started a new organization called Students First, a political advocacy group which aims at reforming such policies as ending teacher tenure.  She is a policy maker, not an educator.
What I've noticed is that she talks a lot about test scores, but now the test scores she has touted have also been questioned.

Why does any of this matter?

It matters because many people in this country--policy makers and those who hold political office are listening to her.  

Michelle Rhee is about the same age as me.  I noticed something in my generation.  Many people want to skip the "work your way up" part of having a job.  I know it's traditional, but I think there's a great deal of value to the idea of "working your way up".  I watched it in the military. Officers are managers, but often they tell soldiers how to do a job that they don't know how to do themselves.  The ones who didn't understand or ever try to do the job the soldiers were doing were often not respected by the soldiers.  It doesn't help that soldiers and officers are separated in the way they are--there is a social culture that officers are superior to enlisted soldiers.  The best administrator I ever worked for was also an excellent teacher.  He did work his way up the ladder quickly, but he did each job up the ladder well.  In order for an administrator to be respected by teachers, they need to have been a teacher and worked their way up.  The best ones have done this.  

In Colorado, almost all school districts won't even look at the application of someone for the position of school counselor unless they have teaching experience.  Why?  Because if they haven't been in the classroom, how can they know what really works in the classroom and how to help students and teachers.

When I earned my education degree, I learned a lot.  All the ways people put down teacher education are simply unfair and untrue.  It is such a challenging occupation!  My education program was aimed at equipping us to be good teachers in an urban setting--and it did just that.  The old saying was that those who can't, teach.  I think the saying out to be, those who can't teach, don't teach.

I found a great post from a parent who's children went through the DC schools and then chose to become a teacher in the district.  Here's the post:  I thought it was very interesting and shed a lot of light on what it's like for parents.

There are so many parties weighing in on what "the source of the problem" with our education system is.  So, here's my two cents:

I feel like there's so many fingers being pointed at what they think "the source" of the problem is, but I think everyone's missing the point.  There's many sources.  1) Teachers need to be supported and empowered by administration to do their jobs.  2) Teachers need to be respected--their authority in the classroom needs to be respected by students and by parents (they need to be backed by parents).  They also NEED to be good custodians of that respect.  3) The Parents need to support  and value education.  They need to get their kids to school.  4)  Teachers need to receive training and ongoing continuing ed to tackle the unique challenges of urban ed.  5)  Testing IS NOT the answer.  Children are all different.  We need to challenge them to be the best they can be, but no every child's strengths are going to be academic.  I saw this when I taught 14-60 year olds math for a community college's GED preparation program.  The emphasis on testing is horrible, in my opinion and I grow more and more concerned about it.  6) Parents, students, teachers, and administrators need to work together.  The more I read about Michelle Rhee's policies, the more I realize that she didn't understand this.  You can't turn on your teachers.  I was in that situation one year.  I had an assistant principal tell me that I just needed to let a parent yell at me for 45 minutes because of something his child had done wrong in my classroom.  What???  Obviously, when we moved four months later, I was relieved and had no intention of ever teaching at that school again. That school burned me out in 4 months because I had no support from administration.  I cared.  I was trained.  I was a good teacher.  I tried.  I left.  I'm not sure if I could go back into the classroom again.  I home school now.  It's where I'm supposed to be right now--with my 3 kids.  I'm learning a lot and I probably would be a better teacher than I was if I went back.  We'll see what the Lord has for me down the road...  

You might wonder why I care so much about the public school system since I home school.  It's the way I am.  I care about my neighbors and I care about strangers.  I care about my community...  I was a teacher and I care about the profession.  I my not send my kids to grades K-12 in the public schools, but I do send them to the PK program at the public high school near me.  We took swim lessons this summer at the middle school.  I try to be involved and care how I can.  In the end, the schools matter to all of us.


Kim said...

I agree with many of your points, particularly about testing. I do agree that teachers need to be given authority and respect by students, parents and administrators. However, I also see a serious issue with dismissing a parents concerns because "the teacher is the expert." Well, yes teachers should be experts in their fields, but I am an expert on my child. And beyond that, I am her mother.

The article you linked to was very good. Particularly this part, "I argued for the type of involvement I routinely found in the majority white schools, though, even there, parents held no real authority, only inordinate means of applying pressure and generous fund-raising gifts." Schools can talk all they want about parental involvement, but what they really mean is we want you to help fund and run these extra things, but don't worry your pretty little head about the curriculum we use or the testing methods we apply. We are the education expert; you are just a parent.

And, just because this comment is already so long, I share the following concerns and frustrations: "How can the children of highly educated parents share space and a motivated teacher with the larger number of children of lesser means without triggering flight? How can the teacher corp be revitalized without dismissing the benefits experience brings, or reducing the art of teaching to a colorful IMPACT evaluation wheel? How can student progress be gauged without resorting to test worship and a skinny curriculum? How can low-income students be engaged without employing militaristic policies and lengthy days, as too many charters do? How do we truly involve parents, including the poor, in the education of their children without dousing them with paternalism and condescension? How can we ensure that parental influence, once empowered, will be constructive and not divisive? And, finally, what assessments do we use to decide if what we have done is even working?"

I wonder, though, if the problem isn't the methods we are using but the very nature and purpose of public education. We have set up a system that intentionally separates children from their parents.

(Sorry for the long rambling comment. I have so many things rattling around in my head, and I'm struggling to express them coherently. Thanks for indulging me.)

becky.onelittle said...

This has nothing to do with schooling, public or otherwise. Can you post or email your recipe for spring rolls? I remember eating them about 10 years ago :) I remember they were really yummy!

Anne said...

Becky--yes, I'll post it on Making Things Stretch :) because that's where I post most of my recipes. I'm glad you enjoyed them! I'll post my mom's sweet and sour sauce too.

Kim--I'm thinking about your comments. I think that's why I said everyone needs to work together. I think I need to write a post to respond to your comment :) I'll try and do that this weekend. Thanks for writing all of your thoughts down here. I love discussing things with you! You are an involved, educated parent and you have different experiences that you bring to the table than I do. I love to hear your perspective and what you see.