from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Why should school be One Size Fits All? 

My diary today will be on an educational subject. I am writing in response to an op ed in today’s Boston Globe. The piece is written by David Crane, who is a co-founder and teacher of the Josiah Quincy School, which is a “pilot” upper school in the Boston Public School System. I will use some of the words from his piece, which argues against a one-size-fits-all approach as a rationale for presenting my own point of view, which will agree with the thrust of his argument, but take it somewhat further.

If you wish to read his entire piece, which I cannot present here for copyright reasons, I invite you to read it in the Globe. It is entitled One-size-fits-all doesn’t suit our students.

Quincy begins his piece by talking about the “pride and excitement” he experienced while attending high school graduations at his son’s school and at the school where he taught. Most of these students are immediately heading off for additional education at college and universities. But he then wonders about those who do not graduate from high school and neither attend nor eventually graduate from post-secondary educational institutions. He quotes a study of the Chicago schools done by the University of Chicago that in urban schools some 90% of students fall into that category. Let me quote several paragraphs which present the situation:
According to this study, 46 percent of inner-city ninth graders will not graduate from high school. A third of those who do graduate have a D average. Only 18 percent of those ninth graders will eventually attend either a two-year or four-year degree program; only a third of those, 6.5 percent, will graduate with an associate's or bachelor's degree. For every 100 African-American males who enter ninth grade, only 2.5 will graduate from an institution of higher learning. These numbers become starker when we consider that, according to the study, 79 percent of inner-city high school students report they want to go to college.

Why are we subjecting these students to a one-size-fits-all, college-or-bust ethos and college prep curriculum when so few of our inner-city students either want what we are offering or want it badly enough to put in more than a minimal effort? In doing so, we create a culture in which dropping out is a norm, and we insure that the lion's share of our students leave high school with an indelible sense of failure.

Crane wants to change the goal of our education from being one exclusively of college prep to a broader definition of being a contributing member of society, able to earn a living and support a family. He asks
Suppose instead of a college prep curriculum that so many public urban high school students abhor, we gave all our students the skills in the areas they showed interest in, whether in automotive technology,, carpentry, computers, electricity, electronics, HVAC/plumbing, or medicine, to name a few, together with training essential to turning those skills into a business? What if we, unlike the for-profit technical schools that currently offer those programs, enabled our students to gain those skills for free? What if we helped our kids find hands-on internships and occupations in their chosen fields with as much fervor as we try to find them colleges?

He suggests that were we willing to do so, we might find that those students who drop out or put in minimal effort could find meaning in the work they do in school and thus have the possibility of leaving school with usable skills learned in real-life applications, and even possibility the offer of employment. He argues that we would rid ourselves of the
culture of failure that dominates our urban secondary schools and that is so damaging to teenagers' psyches.

And nothing would prevent a student with an understanding of electronics, as opposed to European history, from applying to and graduating from college.

Crane recognizes that we need to change our attitude about school for this to happen, that vocational type education is only for “dummies.” He recognizes that there are those capable of academic work who are bored by “the theoretical emphasis in college prep programs” who might be more focused had they opportunity to participate in real world applications of what they are learning.

While there is a bit more specifically relevant to the Boston schools in Crane's piece, I want to stop here and make my own remarks. And then I will of course invite your response, to what I quote from Crane, to what I offer of my own, or anything remotely related that you would wish to contribute to the discussion.

I want to start with the last part of what I have described, the idea of real-world application. I would suggest that this should be a far more important element even in most of our academic, college-prep programs. Many students who are headed for the most prestigious post-secondary institutions find much of what they study in high school boring and/or irrelevant. They are gifted enough, or sufficiently disciplined, that they are able to “successfully” complete such courses, but the lack of real-world applicability often means that as soon as the final tests are done the students effectively take a memory dump- they purge their minds of all that “useless” information. In a sense this is a logical response to our even increasing and distorted emphasis on high stakes testing -- the hidden curriculum which the students quickly absorb is that the real-world purpose of their instruction is narrowed to how well they do on the tests, and thus once they have completed the test further retention of the information and skill does not have a high priority. We educators may attempt to address this as many in our school do -- the state tests and the AP tests both occur in May, leaving several weeks during which we can direct the students in activities that are more individually focused and have a higher degree of real-world application. We call these “projects” in which students demonstrate how they can use what they have learned. For some students it becomes the most memorable part of the entire course. For those who do not do well on tests in isolation, it also affords them an attempt to sufficiently demonstrate mastery that they are able to persuade some teachers (including me) that the grades they have earned should reflect this demonstrated mastery.

Crane is focused on retaining those who are not on academic tracks. If public education is to be a public good -- as I think it should -- then it should be shaped in a way where our approach is not forcing students to fit into one model that is efficient in terms of delivering instruction and measure the effectiveness of that instruction, but rather is efficient from the standpoint of the student in that it does not present artificial barriers to that student learning all s/he can about the skill or intellectual domain.

Our current ESEA legislation is known as “No Child Left Behind.” The premise of that bill is that we need to have our public schools not abandon children. To that effect we have required disaggregation of test scores in the hope perhaps that shame or fear of economic and other consequences will lead schools and teachers to address the learning needs of all of our students. But our concept of leaving behind is limited by the instruments we use to determine if children are being left by the wayside. Further, because we have imposed this regimen on top of previous “reforms” of the past several decades of ever increasing “rigor” in the course of studies we demand students undertake we have in many cases created a double bind for those students we claim we wish to ensure are not being left behind. First, we impose on them a course of studies that may not necessarily be appropriate for the current level of knowledge and skill they have, or for their developmental status, or that invokes their interest. Then we punish both them and their teachers for the fact that they do not “succeed” by doing well on tests that are a narrow measurement of an ever narrowed curriculum.

I want to emphasize several things. First, I am not insisting on overall tracking which will permanently remove some students from all academic focus. I would hope that as we explore how to change our system of education we could recognize that there will be students who will be a mix - that is, they have some ability to handle pure academic work in some domains but not in others. These can include students from upper middle class background who are not currently ready nor interested in a pure college-prep program, and can also include those from less privileged backgrounds who may be quite skillful in one or more academic domain but are also confronted with the need to be able to immediately support themselves and/or economically contribute to the family during and upon graduation from high school. If we do not address this economic reality often the only choice will be to go into the military - I think our students are entitled to a broader range of choices than this.

Further, I believe our current approach is forcing us to determine winners and loser while our children are still adolescents. Crane is in part trying to address this mentality. But he also warns us that pure academic preparation may not empower our students for an affirmative future. I want to give you his final brief paragraph, but then somewhat disagree with it.
Let's create a culture of achievement for our students, letting go of artificial notions of success and achievement. Perhaps someday college grads will look with envy at Boston's high school graduates who have achieved successful careers that enable them to raise and support families, while those grads, armed with degrees, wonder what they are going to do with the rest of their lives.

I don’t know if Crane realizes how these words can be taken. His words remind me of the criticism I often heard of those who chose to be liberally educated, majoring in philosophy or English or History or - my case - music. How does a BA in any of these fields, people would argue, equip one to earn a living? My response would be that one liberally educated has learned one discipline to a fairly high degree, has through distribution requirements been exposed to multiple disciplines, and as a result has learned how to learn, how to organize, and how to recognize what one does not know and how to address that.

I also want to apply the basic idea of not imposing one approach of education on all of our students far more broadly than Crane addresses in his op ed. In fairness, the space which he was afforded does not give him such a luxury as I have electronically. I return to this basic principle - for me the purpose of education is to empower the individual student. In order to do that, I have to start where the student is, and I will as an educator be most effective if I use the interests that student has. I also know - as we probably all do - that learning is far more effective when we have the opportunity to attempt to apply what we are learning in situations that have some real-world meaning to us. I would argue that were we willing to take such an approach, we would find a real efficiency from the standpoint of the student: it would take far less time for most students to develop competency in the particular domains. I mean this on an overall basis. Even for very gifted students there may be some domains for which they need more time, but I would argue that for less “gifted” students there would also be cases where they might grasp - and apply - particular ideas and skills in far less time than that to which we currently subject them in semester or yearlong 45 minute classes.

I also think we would be far better off as a society were all of our students exposed to a broader range of disciplines. Here as one trained as a musician I think we impoverish our children if we do not care out the time to allow them to explore music, art, poetry, dance and other arts. I also think we impoverish them if they do not learn something about practical skills such as cooking, carpentry, electricity, plumbing, sewing. I would argue that we can combine these practical skills with “academic” work quite successfully at the elementary level - after all, cooking involves chemistry, carpentry involves math and physics, and similar connections can be made with the arts. And by exposing our children to a broader range of domains at the same time as we are helping them to develop the basic academic skills we will accomplish two goals. First, it is far easier to get reluctant readers or math-phobes to learn to use those skills when they are being applied to something that interests them, and once the basic skills are learned we increase the probability of academic success of all kinds. Also, even though a student may easily learn the skills and domains of what we normally consider an academic course of study, that does not mean that their life work will necessarily be defined by such a traditional academic path - I know far too many unhappy lawyers and more than a few unhappy doctors and businessmen who finally recognize in their forties or even later that their real joy is cooking, or carpentry, or something else, and that if they let themselves they can have a very good life following their passions. I think immediately of one man I know who left his successful veterinary practice and apprenticed himself in the kitchen of a fantastic restaurant, picking up on what had been his passion as an adolescent. He now makes more as a top chef than he did as a vet. I also think of a college classmate who got a doctorate in philosophy and taught the subject at a highly prestigious university but left that life to go build houses, a career change that has led to his becoming a highly remunerated owner of a company that builds luxury houses.

I believe that our approach to education is that it should be a right that is not limited to K-12, and that it should encourage people to explore how they can best be contributory members of our society. I do not in the two examples I just cited mean to imply that the measure of someone’s success should be their income: were that the case I would be considered a failure, since my current salary as a teacher in nominal dollars only now matches my 1994 salary as a supervisory systems analyst working for local government, and that salary was far less than I could have made working for a governmental consulting company. Likewise I do not think our measure of educational success should be limited to the GPA students achieve or the number of letters (BA MA, MD, JD, PhD) they can put after their names.

I want all of my students to succeed, but I cannot define for them what the word success should mean. Nor should we as a society narrow the possibilities by the way we offer public education.

I do not believe that only one model of schooling can meet the needs of our students, and if it does not meet their needs, ultimately it will not meet the needs of society at large, Further, I would apply the idea of varying how we do education to a greater individualization of instruction within the school. I cannot fully explore that idea in this already too long piece. I know that I want to be known and appreciated as the absolutely unique individual I am. As a teacher I want to similarly empower my students. Because of that, I struggle to find a way to reach and teach each one as the unique individual s/he is.

So I conclude with the following --- I do not believe that it is morally acceptable to have an educational system that denies that individuality in interests, in abilities. It is not morally acceptable to take young children and adolescents and forced them to fit into a model of learning that is not effective for them. They should be the subjects of our instructional efforts, not the objects. Insofar as we fail to recognize the absolute uniqueness of each individual, we are abandoning one of the underlying principles that enables us to maintain a democratic republic, which provides an opportunity for people to achieve beyond the circumstances of their birth. To me that is not acceptable. It is why I teach. it is also why I participate in discussions such as this.

Thank you for reading. I await your responses.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
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