Last week I encountered two interesting stories on education.
The first, from the New York Times, talks about a middle school in Minnesota that makes what seems to be a radical leap in policy. They will evaluate students' academic achievements on the objective results of their tests. In the process, the whole spectrum of what we call "school" for students is parsed out -- what they've learned, with their behavior and performance in an entirely different category.
Maybe you're thinking "Duh -- how obvious." That's a natural initial reaction, I think. It was mine, until I continued reading, and then that ol' lightbulb came on.
What is school about? I remember my "brilliant" educational career. Ask nearly any of my high school teachers what they thought of me, and with very few exceptions, they'd give me glowing reviews. Why? Because I knew how to, quoting this article, "do" school.
In any situation where my objective knowledge of a subject had to exceed my ability to "do school," I was in trouble. I could usually find another student somewhere next to whom I looked better, either in terms of performance or personality, and this is what I comforted myself with. I wasn't a total loser, wasn't at the bottom of the class. But from this lofty place of middle-aged wisdom where I now stand, it's finally hit me straight on that my good grades did not come from academic achievement. They came from knowing how to do school. This is interesting, because I clearly remember how academic grades were shown separately from the "life skills" items (making good use of time, effort, following instructions, conduct, etc.). But I know that in many cases, the higher grades came from having a good rapport with the teacher.
If the American educational system as a whole adopts these new standards, which separate actual learning from "acceptable behavior," then this is going to be great news for the kids who feel like square pegs -- who don't fit into an accepted social group, or who don't feel like schmoozing with Teach, or who dress funny or have bad attitudes, but who DO grasp the subject matter and can hold their own on tests. It may also be a wakeup call for the students who are getting by on personality -- and even more so, for their parents.
The other story came from NPR, which had an update on the story of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, where the teachers were nearly fired en masse, but then got to keep their jobs. Now morale is low. Some of the teachers who fought hardest against the firing spoke to the reporter about all they had done for the students - coming in early, staying late, buying glasses, paying rent, buying food. They are resentful that these efforts don't count with the higher-ups who are pushing for educational reform.
One Deputy Superintendent put it this way: "Helping kids outside school is fine. But if they're not learning, you are cheating them. I want to see them teach the students. I don't want them taking them home for Thanksgiving. I want to see them delivering rigorous academic instruction. That's what I want from the teachers.
What I see from these two stories are two sides of the same issue. In Minnesota (and everywhere else), you have students who are given higher grades than they deserve because they are "nice." They do what they're told and the teachers like them. In Rhode Island, you have teachers who may not have great academic knowledge or teaching skills, but they believe they should continue doing these jobs because they're "nice" to students.
In both places, you see students who aren't learning. They are being cheated, and they are being short-changed.
But do we need people in the school system to look out for the well-being and everyday needs of the most impoverished students? Absolutely -- well, we need it somewhere. The school system, having the most contact with the students, seems like the logical place to start, but maybe it's not the place where we should expect all these things to ultimately come from. What would happen if a teacher discovered that a student needed glasses or didn't have food at home? Why don't we have a system in which that teacher could report it to a social service agency and then have that agency take action? I think we probably have some of that, in some places. But the anecdotal evidence is that in many cases, the teacher reports the problem, and then either nothing gets done (some agency discovers the family is above a certain income level and "doesn't qualify" for aid), or too much gets done (the agency removes the child from the home "for his own good" and the child ends up getting shipped out to foster care with an interrupted school year and still no glasses). In these cases, the well-intentioned teachers are doing something for the kids. The need for people to perform such functions is glaringly obvious. But none of this addresses the shortage of individuals who know how to teach.