Sunday, October 17, 2010

Teaching with Our Own Wisdom?

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This oft-quoted poem has been used for many hopeful celebrations of life: graduations, college acceptance, internships, fellowships, study abroad, weddings, births; the list seems interminable. One thing many people do not know about Robert Frost is that he too was a disillusioned modernist. His adherence to form did nothing to alter his message. Another possible interpretation, one I think does the text more justice, is about the inverse relationship of power and intelligence in received wisdom. The “sigh” that Frost makes later in life is not necessarily the sigh of satisfaction. Rather, it is the sigh of momentary indecision, the what-do-these-youngsters-expect moment that characterizes later life. There is not necessarily any wisdom in experience. Living a long time means nothing unless it is examined. Frost echoes this sentiment in another of his poems, “Mending Wall”:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself…
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Between Waiting for Superman and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act [ESEA or N(o) C(hild) L(eft) B(ehind) for short], there has been a lot of talk of school reform, but little of it contains any wisdom. Aiding the sweeps of received wisdom about education are the counterarguments claiming that public schools are performing admirably; but what is our metric for admirable performance? I personally get easily confused when I listen to closely to this maelstrom, so let’s take a moment and rise above.

First, let us look at the current iteration of ESEA. Essentially, there are four pillars behind the Bush-administration-generated education agenda:
1. Raise Academic Achievement
2. Focus on What Works
3. Reduce Bureaucracy and Increase Flexibility
4. Increase Options for Students and Parents
The first pillar includes considerations of raised expectations for all students, closure of the various achievement gaps, and measurements and reports of achievement. The second pillar deals with topics like research-based educational strategies, funding proven strategies, and communicating findings of what works to teachers. The third pillar provides flexibility for teachers to do their jobs while moving away from a culture of compliance to a culture of accountability (whatever that means; a recent CCC journal article speaks in convincing and eloquent ways about the need to eliminate this word from our educational lexicon in favor of the word responsibility). The final pillar seeks to dismantle the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach to education through more choice and more parent communication. There is nothing specifically wrong with these goals, but there is a lot here that, eight years from implementation, seems laughable or frustrating to people in our position. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I presented information on a radically different, yet highly effective new approach to teaching that did not meet with some resistance, rather than the funding and support called for in NCLB.

We all have our frustrations with NCLB, but a lot of that frustration is misdirected. Much of what we see as difficulty created by the Act is really ineffective implementation. The states are still the primary sources of control in education and the localities are still the implementation arm of the states. It is the locality level that really needs direction. For example, at a recent meeting in my county, people were upset with the upcoming budget and the lack of funding we have. To make a long story short, people are afraid, as many are, that their jobs will be lost. The only solution is to advocate for funding. But, people think our schools are great. Just last week, I quoted an article that offers the same piece of received wisdom. Education is in trouble, we all say doing our best Chicken Little, but my school is fine. The reality is that our schools, while functional, are not necessarily great. At the high school level alone, only two of our five schools made their progress goals. The other three did not meet the standards they set the year before. Sounds like we could use funding to develop more effective ways to teach.

Now, we can agree that there are multitudinous reasons for schools not to meet there progress goals. I’ll even concede that the eventual 100 percent goal is, statistically speaking, impossible. The reality is that these are the conditions under which we toil. The problem is about the structure adopted by localities. We cannot look up to the national government, hands out like the mouths of baby birds, without first looking at ourselves. Are our policies at the local level truly effective for teaching and learning? Are our budgets balanced for the benefit of people or facilities? I don't care how many SMART boards you have, poor teaching is interactive, too. So it comes down to examining our practices and policies in localities.

In Virginia, the state test, or Standards of Learning—SOL for short (make your jokes…welcome back)—tests, are given at reasonable points in the school year. The problem is that my locality does not use a school year; they use a hybrid system. Some of the classes in my building are on a semester schedule—everyday until the end of January, four classes a day, eighty-seven minutes each—while others are on an alternating day schedule. This can be confusing. Some buildings use this hybrid schedule; other buildings have either one or the other. The SOL test in writing is given in the spring to year-long classes; for semester classes, it is given this week. Just over a month into the school year and we are giving the writing test. Not to mention, the testing happens on the National Day on Writing, a day designed to promote writing, not reduce it to a chore (irony, don't fail me now). Talk about setting people up for failure? At the local level, there was a considerable lack of wisdom used in this decision. Additionally, students from year to year may have English in the fall, then not again until the following spring. That is an entire calendar year between English classes. As teachers of English, we know the value of consistent application of skills and feedback of progress.

This poor planning is not the fault of high-stakes testing or NCLB or even George W. Bush. Short-sightedness is not partisan. The wisdom we have received tells us to vote with the union, point fingers at the federal government, and demand better for our children. I agree one out of three times. We should demand the best for our children; however, we forget that education is a matter of local importance: local funding, local boards, and local children. When we remember this simple fact, our view of the “problem” of American education can become, paradoxically, more complete. When a student’s essay is confused and jumbled, the source of the problem is usually too large a focus, not too small.

Like Frost’s speaker, we have occasion to use our everyday skills to speak for ourselves, show others the potential of our schools, and build systems that defy the expectations of cynical politicians and jaded directors. I can’t tell people what’s wrong with schooling, but I can certainly show them and let them awaken to the understanding themselves. I would be satisfied with “elves” or even “boogeymen.” The bottom line is that if schools in America are failing, it is because people have forgotten their responsibility (not accountability) for our children in lieu of some other, less reliable, source of wisdom.

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