Friday, April 15, 2011

FCATs - and state government's other silly ideas - are the real distraction to learning

The big challenge for bloggers - the way I see it - is that of maintaining a balance between immediacy and meaningful content. Nobody wants to read old material, prepared ahead of time and pasted in; but at the same time readers are also looking for substance and craft.

One way I try to stay fresh is to - usually - post by 10:30 in the morning (that's EST - I have no idea how or why "Blogger" time-stamps the way it does!). I use the exercise to jump-start my writing for the day, and the post quite often serves as a window into my devotional life. Editing and re-writing does not fit into my blogger MO.

This morning I can't get away from thinking about education. Teaching has been a huge topic in recent news. Then, yesterday, I received an interesting contact from a former student.

So I believe it's time for a few words about school. In recent weeks I've listened - mostly with my mouth hanging open in amazement - to an avalanche of unwarranted criticism directed at teachers. I'm astounded at the politicization, and the piling-on, and the repetition of untruth, and the ignorance... and then the aggravated ignorance.

My credentials to speak to this issue come from two decades in the public school classroom and a lifetime of teaching. I graduated UWF's College of Education in 1984 with top honors in the program, and then worked with both community mental health and middle school initiatives before joining the faculty at Turkey Creek Middle School when we moved to West Central Florida.

By now, I can see where many people in the process seem to have lost sight of what the conversation is really about. Education is - quite simply - about facilitating the kind of environment where learning both can happen and will happen.

Here's a great example: A friend has an elementary aged child with Type-I diabetes. Last week the kid was fitted with an insulin pump. The school wanted his mother to keep him home during FCAT testing because the pump - which needs new numbers dialed in three times during the day - "Would be too distracting".

Here's the problem. We are confusing standardized testing with actual education.

School is supposed to be all about learning. Fact is, having a kid come to school with a new insulin pump is an educational experience without peer. If anything is distracting kids from learning, then it's the FCAT testing.

The more that politicians meddle in the classroom, the further away from a learning environment school becomes. School has become - by necessity - a factory for conformity. Teachers are now expected to be technicians who churn out finished products, rewarded for producing kids who can check the correct answers on standardized tests! Give me a break!

My experience in the classroom taught me that the most important job a teacher has is to create an environment where learning happens naturally.

In one longitudinal study, researchers administered a creativity assessment tool to preschool children. Over 85% scored extremely high. The same instrument was given, periodically, over the next twelve years. Each time, the group score diminished, until - at age 16 - only 10% of the young people revealed much creativity at all.

Only one consistent variable could account for the decreased scores. It was education; these kids had all attended school and had been required (among many things) to do the following:
  • Color inside the lines (figuratively and literally)
  • Look for just the one correct answer (no matter how satisfactory/unsatisfactory) and then move on
  • Pace themselves with the herd who occupied their age-group and their classroom
  • Sit still and shut up
  • Only be interested in what they were told to be interested in....
  • etc. etc. etc....
What we don't need to do is to throw money at this problem (sigh). I'll concede that we do need to pay fair salaries, that we do need to attract top-notch people to this most important of professions, and that we really should give education a higher priority in state budgets - but it's not really about the money: it's about the freedom to teach, and it's about trusting the teachers to do a good job. And it's also about trusting our children to pick up the tools we make available to them, and to apply those tools to develop their curiosity and to learn... because that is exactly what whole, well-rounded children do; it's the way they were created and it works a hundred times better than teaching to some test that's possibly indexed to the teacher's next raise.

Parenting is Job One:
It's a family thing
OK-OK-OK, I understand that not all parents "get it". But that doesn't change the facts of how things work! We all know that learning starts at home, that the parent is supposed to be the "first teacher", and that mom and/or dad should own the role of team leader when it comes to moving a child forward...

 But the state legislature (and the federal government) are well aware they can't stand inside people's living rooms and tell them how to raise their kids. So what do they do instead? They legislate the heck out of the classroom because they can. They throw a million stupid rules at our schools because they need to throw something at someone - and the school is an easy target.

The problem is this: Now we're spoiling it for everyone. So stop it, legislators. Let the teachers teach. Then pray for America's families. Lord knows we could all use it.



abbi said...

Thank you for a great article!! You get it, and I appreciate you taking the time to enlighten others!

Derek Maul said...

Thanks, Abbi!