Sunday, January 2, 2011

Who's Schools? - Over-analysis and the Question of Who Makes the Decisions in Schools

This week is definitely dead week. So far, I've seen and heard a lot about nothing really special. Now, don't get me wrong, the woman who was killed by a neck massager is truly sad (the family is probably reeling), but I do not believe it warrants a 30 minute breakdown on the Fox News Channel.

But that is truly what US culture has become all about. I think that is why AP English Language and Composition has become such a big course in the past decade (including getting its own style of question). We are analysis junkies.

Critical thinking has become a part of our cultural raison d'etre (I apologize, I can't figure out accent marks in this format). I find it utterly confusing that a country that televises un-called for critical analyses of tragic appliance deaths should have such trouble educating and understanding its youth.

It has been a break from school, so I've been reading. So far, I've torn through The Hunger Games, devoured Dave Cullen's Columbine, browsed the first couple of chapters of The Geography of Bliss (I recommend this one highly), cruised through the first half of The Fountainhead, refreshed my Huck Finn, and am currently tromping through Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (also a fantastic read). For work, I'm reading Readicide ( and Kylene Beers's When Kids Can't Read: What Teachers Can Do (True Confession: I struggle with struggling readers). What Readicide and When Kinds Can't Read have taught me is that struggling readers don't struggle because they can't read, rather they struggle because they can't read anything under the text.

As a reader of text, whether it is composed of alphabetic symbols or visual images, I am looking for the big ideas so that I might engage in intellectual battle. Parker Palmer discusses big ideas in The Courage to Teach. Palmer says that we have forgotten how to center our classrooms on big ideas. The curriculum will be fine regardless of what we do to it because the big ideas cannot be submerged or destroyed. They are bigger than me, my department, my administration, my school system, Parker Palmer, Kylene Beers, Kelly Gallagher, and a partridge in a pear tree. They are not inviolate and pristine, rather they invite us to dismantle them and reassemble them; we are supposed to climb inside, get comfy, and find ourselves. In the end, that is what big ideas do. They show us the parts of ourselves we cannot physically see and challenge us to evaluate ourselves.

Struggling readers need to be challenged with the big ideas in the text. Why would I teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to a group of 21st century high school juniors? For one, if you think racism is dead, you must live in the wrong country. Huck's awakening to Jim's humanity is slow and occasionally heartbreaking. Consider the scene where Huck is appalled that Jim might get away and steal his own children away from their owner. I love milking this scene with my students because they can easily access it and it stands in such sharp contrast to the scene later on when Huck gives away his soul to save Jim. Did Twain blow the ending? Maybe. But I am with Francine Prose on this one: I cannot, I should not, think that my chronological standing gives me the right to shake my finger in the face of the great writers of the past. Those two scenes fromHuck Finn are rich with meaning and stylistically well-written. They are excellent teaching pieces from a novel that has parts that are, arguably, better off ignored. But I will not concede to Jane Smiley's view that Huck is somehow part of perpetuating Jim's (and other slaves') dehumanization. There is simply too much heart in that character to write off. Whether or not Twain chickened out in the end, there are overt statements and actions in Huck Finn that bespeak a certain striving toward equality for all men, one of the foundational big ideas of the US.

Since the junior-year English course is a survey of American literature, big ideas that are foundational in the US are extremely helpful. This idea, the push toward a more egalitarian country, is particularly rich. To briefly describe where I work: we are the fourth wealthiest county in the US, but the high school I work in has a fairly high percentage of free and reduced lunch. This division comes from all sort of interesting historical details, like we were the real terminal point of the North during the Civil War. There is a house in the county that served as a headquarters for the Union Army as it stared across the Rappahannock River at the Confederate Army. The community is a result of that forced blending of motley cultures: northern and southern, white, slave, and free black. The students bite so quickly when baited with this issue while some teachers, feeling unmotivated by a lack of salary and a lack of respect, don't even consider having these conversations; worse, they think there is no time to have these conversations before "the Test." Our discussions of progress are usually driven by SOL (Standards of Learning - VA's unfortunate acronym) or SAT scores. Our SOL results have risen considerably over the past decade; unfortunately, our SAT scores have remained stagnant. They are higher than the national average, but they haven't changed. Before people from states like New York and Connecticut get confused, I can say with the certainty of someone who has seen some of the other tests that the SOL is not even comparable with the Regent's exam or the Connecticut test (I can't remember the acronym right now). The SOL is the epitome of a "readicide" assessment (Gallagher, 2009). Big ideas are not alive in a redicide school, so finding them, capitalizing on them, and sharing the success they bring is huge.

Which brings me back to where I started. US culture as over-analysis. Everything has become a matter of quantitative breakdowns, of measurable outcomes, of a populist accountability that asks amateurs to judge the work of professionals based on the most superficial of metrics. I still love the statistic that shows that most people think education is in trouble but are still happy with their neighborhood schools. Talk about contradictory findings. Yet, since education became a golden goose for politicians, everyone has an opinion. Everyone, that is, except those who should.

Consider the reasons teachers leave the profession. The top three, according to Richard Ingersoll's analysis of the Schools and Staffing Survey and its supplement, the Teacher Follow-up Survey (SASS/TFS), are: family or personal reasons, pursuit of another career, or general dissatisfaction. Salaries are part of this dissatisfaction, but other reasons actually appeared more frequently: "student discipline problems; lack of support from the school administration; poor student motivation; and lack of teacher influence over schoolwide and classroom decision making" (Ingersoll & Smith, 2003). The last one is key. Teachers are tired of being judged, blamed, and condemned based on the decisions made by politicians or other equally detached persons. The frustration of other professional teachers, even in my own building, at the inability to use a pedagogy that engages and grows students, versus a pedgogy predicated on readicide, is palpable.

Thus, teachers feel torn; torn between the need to educate and the need to appear accountable; torn between big issues and ideas and narrowly defining what matters; torn between growing students as critical thinkers and letting them stagnate in the upscale public daycare centers our schools have become. Then, the filmakers of the world make documentaries on the heart-breaking state of education, then laud people who have not directly addressed the issues fueling our stammering system. Are schools in perfect shape? Nope. Are there teachers to blame for this? Probably. Yet, teachers are not being allowed to influence how policy decisions are made. Why? They don't know. Ask an administrator (well, to be fair, ask some administrators) at the school or central office level. Teachers are not employed to be consulted, they are employed to do as the system wishes. Unfortunately, I can't think of another profession (besides nursing) that demands such autonomy within such strict regulations (and even nurses can become nurse practitioners; what should teachers become?).

The over-analysis culture has hamstrung our public school systems from curriculum to staffing. Everyone has an opinion, but most do not have the expertise.

Maybe I am wrong. Public schools are supposed to be for the public. What do you think? I struggle with this question all the time and I am interested in hearing others' opinions.


gm said...

Jeff Kass' Columbine: A True Crime Story

Tom said...

Dan ... Who's?

Mrs. C said...

Yes, Dan...many of us are asking: @Tom's comment.

ReadingByLearning said...

Very well written and researched! The time that many insignificant topics get on the major networks is apalling. The girl that came forward claiming to be around when Michal Jackson died got way too much coverage. The trapped miners also ate up a lot of time.
I guess its all drive by advertising interests.

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