Up On My Soapbox
I don’t know if it is because the Democratic National Convention is in Denver, or the candidates demand more attention, or there is more media coverage than usual, or just because I am getting to an age where I am more interested; but this election year I am following everything more closely and digging a little deeper into the different issues. One of the hot topic issues for me is education. I have to say, I’m not really compelled by either candidates “plan.” On the surface the plans sound really good. Higher pay for teachers= Good. Merit pay for educators who are going above and beyond= Good. Education that makes our students global competitors= Good. Education with a focus on 21st century skills= Good. High quality education for all= Good. More money toward education= Good. My problem comes in how this is actually going to play out. Simply throwing more money at the education system is not EVER going to solve the problem. I work in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. Our schools have money, technology, great teachers, etc. And yet, only about 80% of students are graduating high school. Granted this is significantly higher than the country’s average, but even with all of the advantages that money brings, it still isn’t 100%.
Paying teachers more is a FABULOUS idea and one that I hope moves forward, but just because a teacher is paid more does not mean that education will get better. Merit pay is a wonderful idea in theory, but HOW do we decide who deserves merit pay, a test, a popularity contest? Does the government know what a good teacher I am or how invested I am in my students success (I know that this will be delegated to people who may know but really, my own colleagues don’t know what a good teacher I am. They have no idea that I attend online conferences, conversations, and research. They have no idea that I update a blog daily giving teachers ideas for integrating technology in their classroom. They have no idea that I interact with teachers all over the world on a daily basis to learn how to be a better teacher.) And again, just because I am making more money does not necessarily mean that I am educating students better than I did last week. I am obviously a HUGE fan of 21st century learning and teaching and believe that it is a necessity, but I am not naive enough to think that just because I am teaching 21st century skills that it is going to change the education of America’s children. There are a host of reasons that kids come to school not ready to learn. Just because we are teaching the latest and greatest doesn’t mean that our students are ready to soak it all in.
A few weeks ago I was hit with an overwhelming sense that education is so much more than what happens inside the classroom and school. Kids aren’t coming to school prepared to learn. They have needs that have to be met before they can take in anything we have to give them (no matter how shiny, new, and expensive it is). If a child isn’t getting a good breakfast before school they aren’t focused on learning, they are focused on a hungry tummy. I have had students in my classroom who were being abused. A child with a cigarette burn on their arm is not concerned about the phonics lesson of the day, no matter how compelling it is. Kids who are made the “parent” in their home and are put in charge of all their brothers and sisters are thinking about that, not your wonderful math lesson. When a family member is dying of cancer students aren’t focused on the science lesson. There are a lot of factors outside the school that put a stress on education. None of them can be addressed by the school system alone. Then their are kids growing up in families and communities where education isn’t valued. This isn’t just happening in inner city schools where kids are practically raising themselves. I have students who tell me on a daily basis that no one in their family reads…not even a newspaper. I believe them. Kids who grow up in a community where education isn’t valued have no reason to succeed and continue their education. They don’t connect success in life with education and the ability to be a life long learner. I realized that whenever we hear a success story of a kid who beat all the odds, was the first to graduate high school; made it out of the slums, they always say the same thing…”my mom (grandma, aunt, uncle, dad, grandpa) told me that education was the most important thing.” Someone in their lives instilled in them the value of education. We have a large portion of the population who doesn’t value education. In the wealthier communities it may be because they place more value on the sports and activities that kids are involved in. In the poorer communities it may be because the parents didn’t get an education that they felt was of value in their lives.
A test is never going to improve education on its own. Students don’t need to learn to memorize random facts and regurgitate them on a state mandated test. All that a test shows is superior short term memory. We live in an age where any information you could ever need to know is at your finger tips all the time. Any child will tell you “I can just Google it”. They are right. Memorization is not necessarily a prized skill any more. Kids need to learn how to search out information, how to evaluate, how to communicate, how to solve problems, how to think critically, how to work creatively. Teaching has to be relevant to students or they aren’t going pay attention. What good is education that doesn’t involve? Technology opens many of these doors to students but what good is all the technology in the world if we don’t have educators who know how to use it? Technology is changing daily at an ever increasing rate. How can we expect educators to teach with technology if we aren’t offering continuous training, state of the art tech support, and the infrastructure to allow it all to happen? Kids need education that is relevant to the world they are living in. A test, by the way, is NOT relevant. Kids have enough factors pulling them away from learning, we don’t need to help the situation by making education irrelevant. The problem is that schools are run by tests.
No Child Left Behind makes me absolutely crazy. When you listen to the concept it is great, the problem is that it doesn’t play out realistically in schools. So, all this to say that no matter how good the words sound, education is not going to be an easy fix. Ever. I’m not sure that the government can really change the education system. Communities need to get involved, let kids know how important education is. Families need to come together and support each other in all of their struggles. Schools need to decide that teachers are going to be provided ongoing education that is relevant to the current global climate. Teachers need to create lessons that are engaging and teach kids how to learn. Education is something that everyone has to be “in” on. Schools can’t do it alone. Teachers can’t do it alone. The government can’t do it alone. It is going to take everyone working together with a common goal to fix this problem.
I recently heard of a local program that I LOVE and must learn more about. The idea behind the program is to take kids who don’t have wonderful educations, because of all the reasons listed above, and to house them, commune with them, teach them how valuable education is, provide them with a state of the art education, and mentor them. The students in this program go back to be leaders in their communities. They take what they have learned and bring it back to their community. I love the idea of making kids leaders in their communities. It is programs like this one that are going to change education. (I will post more about this program for those who are interested).
One last thought: I was recently getting my hair cut (on the cheap because I’m a teacher). The gal that was cutting my hair was about 25-30 and carried on a very lively conversation with me while she chopped away. I was stunned at the lack of grammar, vocabulary, and common sense. She was telling me about her cheating on-again-off-again boyfriend. He sounded like a miserable person to have in her life and she seemed to know that he was poison in her life. But two sentences later she said “I want to have his baby.” What? Wait, I just sat through 30 min. of this woman telling me what scum this guy was and she wanted to have his baby. I asked her why. I thought maybe she would tell me something like “well maybe if I have his baby he will settle down and want to marry me.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. What she told me was, “I really, really want a baby. My friend just had one and it is so cute.” Absolutely no thought to how difficult it would be to raise a child making minimum wage, without a father, without a support system, etc. To me this is common sense. As I was listening to this woman I couldn’t help but think that if she did have a child, it would most likely end up in the same cycle she was in. She complained to me while I sat there, about how she was always going to be poor, how she hated school, and how bad her current situation is. She has no idea that she could change the whole course of her life if she would continue in education. Heck, I am pretty convinced that if she could learn to speak using proper grammar and better vocabulary she could get anywhere she wanted in life. (Please understand, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this woman wanting to cut hair forever, that is a nobel goal if it is her goal…but she is always going to be frustrated with men, feeling like there is nothing she can do to better herself.) I think that 90% of my success in life has come in the ability to speak intelligently…I could fool a lot of people into thinking that I am more intelligent than I actually am. (You may disagree as I write this at 11:30 pm after a full day of teaching AND back to school night *smile*). My point is, no one told this girl that she didn’t have to stay with this course of life. She has the ability to do whatever she wants in life but she has to be willing to learn. I think we live in an age where a degree isn’t as important as the ability to think critically and a willingness to learn. I don’t have a degree in educational technology, instructional technology, or technology at all. My degree is in elementary education. I found my passion and make an effort to learn all I can each day. Somehow we need to get the word out to kids and families everywhere, education is important and does make a difference.
Hopping down off of my soap box to get 7 hours of sleep so I can teach again tomorrow What are your thoughts?