The US not the only country battling with school improvement
If you are wondering why education is floundering in the United States, why stop here? I just listened to British school Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw discuss how changing the United Kingdom’s school inspection form will lead the charge to change education in the UK. His talk can be found at RSA under the title “The End of Satisfactory Schools.” I suggest you listen to it. Hopefully the talk will dispel the myth that UK schools are better than their counterparts in the US, or that their leaders are any wiser than we are in our approach to school improvement. They have similar issues. Their leaders advocate being harsher as a method of improving schools.
Haven’t we heard enough of this? Beating up the teachers, the administrators, the unions, and the communities they serve will not improve education. Changing a form so that struggling schools are given a more negative category will not help either. If there is to be real reform, we have to get out of the mindset that just being harder on employees will win the day. We already have a high turnover rate in classroom teachers. We disrespect them in every political race, and yet we keep going down this cul de sac hoping that it will lead us on the long path to “excellent” schools filled with “highly qualified” teachers and “high-performing” students. We imagine that proper categorization will generate students happily engaged in their communities who are preparing for profitable and productive lives once they leave school.
Yep, changing an inspection form will accomplish great things, just like painting your car a different color will make the engine idle smoothly and fix that annoying shifting problem in the transmission.
There are two aspects of a successful classroom. Students memorize what they need to know, and they are able to apply what they have memorized to accomplish tasks involving higher level thought processes and continually advancing skills. Basically, they learn some facts, and then do something with those facts that both advances their knowledge and skill while reinforcing them at the same time. You are familiar with this process. It is how math courses are taught.
It’s a simple process, so why are we having so much trouble with it?
That’s simple too. We are looking to the wrong processes to make it happen. We expect math teachers to pass their students. If the students don’t pass, we blame the teacher. This makes sense. Let’s fire the teacher and find a replacement to get the job done. When we finally go through the maze of school politics, blaming unions along the way for all the faults in education, we manage to get a new teacher in the classroom. Everyone is happy, but over time it turns out that the results are the same. Solution? Fire the new teacher and get yet another one. But wait . . . maybe it’s more systemic than just the teacher! Let’s fire the department head, the principal, the superintendent. Let’s throw out the school board and put in fresh new clear-thinking people and start over. Surely that will work.
Nope, it doesn’t work. All the yammering about unions, teachers, administrators, school boards, and test results does not fix what is wrong with schools. Painting the car doesn’t fix the engine.
Look at the process again. Memorize, then apply. If we expect students to memorize until they learn something, if we demand that happens, and if we don’t blame the teacher when it doesn’t happen, then we might get somewhere. If kids do memorize (and yes, they can memorize!) then they have something to think about and apply. If not, they sit bored in their classrooms and gain little. They pass through the system with limited ability to achieve all of the dreams we have instilled in our school systems for them.
The teacher is a pitcher in a weird kind of baseball game, one where the object of the pitcher is not to strike out the batter, but to help the batter hit the ball into fair territory. The administrator is the coach. The community is in the seats cheering and booing. Politicians are announcers shouting into their microphones telling the fans what to think. Sound familiar?
But it is the kids who have to step up to bat. If we encourage them to do so, if we teach them that practice is important, indeed it is mandatory–no exceptions, if practice becomes the rule of the day, then they will step up and swing at the ball with all their best skill and all of the effort they have put into place in their practices. They might not hit home runs, but they will gain skill every time they go to bat.
Unfortunately, we are spending a lot of time sending the coach out to the mound to tell the pitcher it’s about time to hit the bench with the comforting admonition: “Better buck up and do the job or you’re outta here!”
Think about it. In this weird game of baseball, the goal of the teacher is not to strike out an opponent, but to have the kids hit the ball into fair territory, to aim for the home run. If kids don’t achieve this, we put in a new pitcher. The kids, however, look at the teacher/pitcher and see the same old opponent of real baseball. This is a person who is trying to strike them out. After enough failures at bat, many kids simply quit getting out of the dugout. Some of them don’t even bother showing up for the game.
The best coach encourages the pitcher to get the ball over the plate. They give advice and resilience in the face of adversity, not threats. Oh, did I mention? Giving threats in the face of adversity is counterproductive? Don’t think so? Go ahead and try to do something complicated and let me guide you through the task with threats and belittling comments while you work. See how well you do.
We need to change the system, not the form we use to grade the system. We need to find ways to get the kids to step up to the bat and quit giving them excuses to sit on the bench in the dugout. We need to get the announcers to turn off the microphones and get the crowds out of the stands so the coaches, pitchers, and batters can do the work they signed on for. We need voters who energize their school boards. We need school boards who energize their administrators. We need administrators who energize their teachers. We need teachers and parents who energize their kids. Energizing is our job in the school community.