Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Education in America: May not be the sexiest topic, but it's crying out for your attention

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I used to teach middle school. After working for many years as a writer and editor, I enrolled in a sort of Boot Camp graduate program designed for career-changers like me, which helped me get certified to teach in a relatively short, but intense time. I ended up teaching for only 6 years before moving off into adult education, but those 6 six years were the most rewarding and challenging years of my life.

I went into teaching hoping, thinking, that I could make a change in some kids' lives, and I think I probably did. But it just drained the life out of me. It takes a certain type of person to be an effective teacher and maintain your sanity. Oh, there are plenty of people who can do one or the other, but keeping those two things in balance is a rare gift, I've found. You see, teaching can be the easiest job in the world — if you don't really care about it. But if you do care, it is the hardest job you'll ever do.

I felt an enormous amount of guilt when I decided to go into adult education: I felt I was abandoning a sinking ship. You see, the American education system is in big trouble. If you have any doubt about it, look at the level of debate in this primary season — there is none. Instead of exchanging ideas, the entire population is engaged in name calling and repeating unsubstantiated rumors as "facts." Instead of celebrating that we have different opinions, we harass and intimidate those who speak out with ideas different from our own. This has become obvious in the blogging world, but is just as true in our schools, where 15-year old Lawrence King was bullied and then finally shot because he was gay. As a teacher I always felt it was my duty to teach my students not only to accept our differences, but to value what we can learn from each other — but who has time?

The biggest reason why I left teaching when I did was the No Child Left Behind Act. I began teaching just before this legislation went into effect, and so I had a taste of what it's like to teach when you are respected as a professional and given some small amount of room to be creative to meet established standards. You see, I taught Special Education for 4 years, and that requires an enormous amount creativity. But once NCLB became law, we were expected to follow strict guidelines. Any sane person understands that teaching math to students with learning disabilities might require an extra day in, say, fractions. But our eyes were not on teaching the concepts. Our eyes were on the testing in March. We have to move on, Billy. Come after school and we'll work on it some more. Every day. Along with the rest of the class. Because we learn differently.

It wasn't any better my last 2 years when I taught computer technology to the entire middle school. You might think every student would take this class, as it seems like a basic skill they will need to be successful. But no. At my school, the administration decided that Computers, Health, and Family Studies classes would not be available to students who scored unsatisfactorily on the state assessments — those students would instead have an extra period of either reading or math. Yes, that's right. The students who were the lowest performing ones, the ones most in danger of dropping out, would not be getting the basic life skills of typing, cooking, or sex ed. But dammit they will pass that test!

The point of this rather long post is to ask you to really pay attention to the state of education of America and to call on our politicians to take a strong stand for change. One of the reasons why I support Hillary Clinton is that she is calling for a complete end to NCLB. Reforming it will not work, because the entire basis of it is misguided. We cannot have national standards unless we have national funding. And you cannot compare our national scores with other countries which do have one state-run education system. So please just stop doing that.

Education is the foundation of a strong society, and I think this election cycle is beginning to show the cracks in that foundation.


donald said...

sue, you have once again hit the nail right on the head. NCLB is not about educating, but is about memorizing facts and testing scores. i bet 90% of the students leaving school could possibly debate an issue intelligently. and the political process shows this lack of ability to debate. it is "i like him or her, i am right, you are wrong, end of discussion." guess that is how we ended up with 8 years of bush! keep this debate alive.

Sue J said...

you have once again hit the nail right on the head

And when you're nailing jello, that's REALLY hard to do! thanks Donald!

Mary Ellen said...

Oh, this is a subject that I am very passionate about..wait, I say that about a lot of things, but I mean it. I'm on my way out the door but will come back to this later, I promise.

Sue J said...

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this, Mary Ellen!

Sara said...

in the last presidential election, education was 10th on the list.

it is now off the list.

we are in deep shit. not only will the divide between have and have not get greater, we can not possibly have a democratic government.

oh, don't get me started...

schools where 70% of african american boys fail. that's a system that's WORKING and designed to fail them.

standards? why have standards when there are no supplies? we can preach about the level of academic achievement but when there are no books... literally... what is the point?

small class sizes are important but if there is not a qualified teacher teaching? it does not matter if there are 10, 20 or 30 kids in the classroom.

oh, I said don't get me started...

Larry said...

Education in America is declining by design, in order to usher in phases the coming North American Union, as a prelude to the New World Order.

Declining education will cause poverty, uncontrollable unemployment and millions more jobs exiting overseas.

Thus the emergence of America becoming a third world nation.

Sue J said...

Sara, I agree completely. The opportunities are never the same -- even within school districts. The county where I taught had some very affluent areas, some poor and working class areas. I was in the latter.

My computer lab consisted of 30 donated pcs in the old shop room (no air conditioning, cables running across the floor, dust everywhere, etc.). When I went to professional development mtgs in the affluent areas, I found computer labs that had ac, carpeting, an entire media room where the students broadcast the morning announcements over tv in every classroom, AND, those schools had both Computer Tech AND Tech Ed (shop), meaning those students were doing CADD and then actually building their designs.

Until all students have the same opportunities, how can anyone expect them to achieve the same standards?

Sue J said...

Larry, I don't think it's by design so much as by pandering of politicians. I mean, look at the name of the legislation: "No Child Left Behind" -- who could vote against something called that?

I do agree, tho, that we are headed for big trouble if we let the American education system continue on this decline. But that will take an honest discussion. We suffer from what's called "The Lake Wobegon Effect," where we expect all children to be "above average."

Now, I'm no math whiz, but even I know that's impossible.

Mary Ellen said...

My daughter is a teacher...or was. She's now working on her Masters Degree and will go on to her PHD because she just couldn't take the No Child Left Behind restrictions any longer. She was licensed to teach Middle School or High School, she was a History teacher. Like you said, you have to be creative in order to teach most students, and that she was. She incorporated music and dance into her classes, and cooking. With every history chapter, she used the music of that era to help the kids to see not only the lesson in history, but what those living in that time listened to, danced to. She would also bring in samples of the food they ate...nothing big, sometimes a loaf of homemade bread, beef jerky, or a dessert. It didn't take much time from the class, but the kids couldn't wait to find out what the next era would be that they were studying.

Then came NCLB, and those days ended. She moved and began teaching in a school in Colorado. It wasn't until two months of teaching students in an "alternative school or reform school", that the kids were showing great improvement in their studies. After that, the old principal was fired and the new principal decided that SHE would write the lesson plans for the teachers. She didn't have a degree in History or Political Science, and oftentimes her information was incorrect. My daughter wasn't allowed to stray from the lesson plan given her. The kids were falling asleep in class, their grades began to fall, and they began acting up in class. They even yelled at her for being a lousy teacher. She tried everything, even going to the teachers union to get back to writing her own lesson plans. They said she had to "teach the test" and that's it. She quit.
She said she would rather not teach at all than be a bad teacher and failing her students.

She's living in PA now, working on an advance degree and will probably teach college level classes when she's done. The kids she left behind in Colorado....they're still "left behind" thanks to George Bush.

Sue J said...

Mary Ellen, your daughter sounds like a wonderful teacher. Her students were very lucky to have her.

One of the many problem with having national standards is that it keeps exceptional teacher like your daughter from doing exceptional work. There is nothing in NCLB to acknowledge that good teaching often means changing the lesson when it's not working, bringing in something new to the lesson to engage and excite the students, or seeing something on the nightly news and spending the rest of the evening putting together a lesson around it.

These are all things that good teachers regularly do, but they're not allowed under NCLB. Instead, NCLB assumes most teachers are inadequate and requires them to follow strict lessons planned by administrators and the like, who are no longer teaching in the classroom anymore.

If you think back to who your best teachers were when you were in school, I can just about guarantee they wouldn't be allowed under NCLB to do 95% of what they did in the classroom. (And no, I don't mean the discipline!)

Oh, I could write a book ....

Mary Ellen said...

suej- I think in ten years we are going to be seeing the fruits of the NCLB Act, we are going to have universities lowering their standards in order to accept the children who have been taught the test instead of learning out to think for themselves.

I just hope this could be corrected before we lose too many more students to the system.