Monitor Board of Contributors: Teachers are the experts, not bureaucrats
We’ve heard a lot about the new “Common Core” being imposed on schools and the high-stakes testing that comes with it. This seems like the federal government addressing a problem by instructing schools to do what hasn’t worked, and do more of it. If you want a good solid wall, you consult an experienced bricklayer. Consult a bureaucrat, and you’re likely to wind up with a flapjack doghouse instead. This is essentially what is happening in education.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan does not have a degree in education and has never taught school in his life. In fact, he couldn’t get a job as a teacher in any state; he lacks the basic qualifications. Most of the people who created No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top (ah, the irony!) hadn’t been in a classroom since they’d occupied a student’s seat. The Department of Education is remarkably shy of educators. No wonder the results have been a disaster. Common Core is only the latest flapjack on the doghouse.
I have the privilege of living with an expert, someone with an advanced degree in education and years of experience in the classroom, observing what works and what doesn’t. My husband teaches language arts at Barrington Middle School. There’s a separate reading teacher on the team, so his focus is on writing and public speaking. Middle-school kids mostly read fiction for enjoyment. Nonfiction means schoolwork. Boring. And until somebody can come up with a biography or history book that reads like Harry Potter, that isn’t likely to change.
So fiction is what they write. Fantasy and adventure, horror stories and poetry. Yes, poetry. Because that’s a great way for middle-school kids to express their angst and anxieties. At this developmental stage, it’s perfectly appropriate for them. The more they write, the more they use language, the better they get at it. As they go through high school, they can refine the skills acquired by writing fiction and poetry and apply that to the nonfiction essays they’ll be required to write. By college, they will be solid, competent, even eloquent and interesting writers (at least their professors fervently hope so).
This is where Common Core standards, at least in my husband’s field, become a joke. It is as if the previous New Hampshire standards (which were in fact created by teachers) were strung up and gutted. The student should be able to “write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.” The single most important tool for teaching middle-school kids to write well, relegated to one point in a subset of a list of Language Arts standards, and even then only implied by the two words, “or imagined.” Writing poetry is not mentioned at all.
Now we get to the part I think is positively surreal. Coming soon to a school near you, the new Smarter Balanced test, currently in development. This test, on which the fates of schools and teachers’ jobs will be balanced (not to mention the educational future of the hapless students), is planned to be evaluated by computer. This includes samples of student writing. What soul-dead technocrat could believe that an essay can be fairly evaluated by a series of algorithms?
Something else my teacher husband pointed out to me: Educating a child is a process that starts in kindergarten and builds through the grades. Any radical change to the way we teach must begin at the lowest levels and roll out gradually, following the students as they grow. It is ludicrous to walk into an eighth-grade classroom and announce that all the students must now fit into some set of standards thought up by a gaggle of suits sitting around a table in Washington. It’s like announcing that as of next Tuesday everybody in the country has to convert to using the metric system. You’ll be tested on your proficiency in metric measurement and risk dire consequences if you fail, even if your whole life you’ve achieved great results using inches and feet.
There’s a saying: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. American pubic schools have turned out generation after generation of brilliant scientists, thinkers, writers and leaders. Teachers were respected and supported by their communities, and they worked hard to give each class of children the tools they needed to succeed. The United States did not become a world power by having lousy schools. Our schools weren’t labeled as broken until poorly designed methods and badly flawed tests announced that they were. A nonexistent crisis was fabricated.
But if we keep letting bureaucrats define education policy instead of teachers, that crisis is going to become very real. And our kids will pay the price.
(Justine “Mel” Graykin lives in Deerfield and practices free-lance philosophy on her website at justinegraykin.com.)