It was right around this date in 1996 when I stood outside UConn's Gampel Pavilion with my newly-minted Master's degree in English Education firmly clutched in hand. I had no job, a lease that was due to expire, thousands of dollars' worth of student loan repayments looming in my future, and the kind of firm belief in my professional capability that only can be felt by someone who has no earthly idea what she is doing. Regardless, even though I didn't have a job yet, I had a definite career trajectory in mind:
- Get a position as a high school English teacher
- Become the best, most beloved teacher ever
- ummmm.....that was it.
Seventeen years later, except for the fact that I don't teach English and I don't teach high school and I'm certainly neither the best nor most beloved teacher ever, I seem to be right on track (she said, rolling her eyes sarcastically).
The real world tends to do a good job of putting those convictions to the test, needless to say. Take the issue of homework. The pre-service Caroline had a very sincere belief that ... oh, I forget, I'm sure it was whatever viewpoint was considered the most progressive and cutting-edge at the time. What I have learned over the years is that no one philosophy about any educational issue survives contact with the enemy, to paraphrase the old saying. For example, depending upon which research you follow, homework is a necessary part of the educational experience, except when it consists of pointless busywork and crushes students' interest in learning. We shouldn't give homework to students from disadvantaged backgrounds because it simply exacerbates the educational gap between the haves and the have-nots except that not giving students homework puts the ones who go to college at a higher risk of failure because they don't know how to do the homework they're assigned once they're there. The homework we give should consist of simpler tasks students can complete independently, unless you're trying to encourage higher-order thinking, in which case assigning rote learning doesn't challenge students enough. Follow enough of these trains of thought to their logical (and contradictory) conclusions and pretty soon you'll have a nervous breakdown. [For the record, I give homework because I have to in order to get through our curriculum. In an ideal world, the school day would be long enough that we'd have a 'reading period' or some such block of time that would allow all of us - students and teachers - enough time to get ALL our work done at school AND LEAVE IT THERE, instead of forcing us to drag it over hill and down dale, but this is not an ideal world and so that is neither here nor there.]
So that brings me to the heart of this post, which is to ask, what is missing from education in this country? In the words of one of the many (many, many, many) reports specifically detailing the many flaws and failings of our educational system, why can't Johnny read - or write, argue, compute, demonstrate basic knowledge of his government's workings, spell 'definitely' instead of 'definatly' or 'defiantly', or for the love of all that is holy, remember to bring a pencil to school? Well? Are you ready for the answer? Are you ready for The Answer? Are you ready for THE answer?? Are you ready for the one-time, final, definitive, be-all and end-all, all-capital-letters ANSWER?!?!
There isn't one. So stop looking.
Okay, I know that's a cop-out to some extent, so I will elaborate: There is not a single "answer" because there is not a single "problem" with our educational system. I'm not saying there are NO problems, because our position in the world rankings of educational attainment (and teen pregnancy and basic literacy and child poverty) certainly indicate otherwise. What I mean is, what ails my suburban middle school of 1300 is not the same thing that ails a rural elementary school of 120 or an inner-city high school of 2000. What's critical in Montana might not be a problem in Massachusetts. Yet we insist on looking for quick-hit, single-shot fixes, as if a magic formula exists that will make public education in both Montana and Massachusetts outstanding. This naturally leads us right up to the touchy subject of the Common Core State Standards. Depending upon which guru you follow, the CCSS are (pick one): a) A plot to enrich Pearson Educational Testing; b) A left-wing conspiracy to make all education hopelessly PC and non-substantive; c) A right-wing conspiracy to force students and families into charter schools; d) Our last, best hope to get American education on a par with that of other developed nations; e) All of the above; f) None of the above.
[Do you really want to know what I think? Really? All right....heavy sigh. I think the CCSS is ... almost beside the point. I've lived through about eighty bajillion educational 'movements,' from multiple intelligences to standards-based assessment to interdisciplinary education to the ever-so-ridiculously-named "brain-based learning," and the reality is, no matter what the buzzword du jour happens to be, I still find myself trying to accomplish the same goals with my students. I want them to be better readers, better writers, better reasoners, and better people. I want them to be able to tell when something sounds legit and when they're being sold a bill of goods. I want them to look at our nation's history - good, bad, and ugly - and recognize that actually behaving as a society in which "all men are created equal" with "inalienable rights" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is a hard thing to achieve, but it's worth a try. And you know what? I can do that regardless of nomenclature, whether it's competencies or standards or good ol' fashioned A's and B's. What concerns me is the herd mentality that these trends engender. CCSS hasn't been around all that long, and yet dozens of states encompassing thousands of schools have signed onto the CCSS with minimal discussion of the best ways to implement and assess these standards logically over a period of time. It's as though all of a sudden, Bill Gates woke up one day and said, "Walp! Everything Microsoft is outre now - let's create another software program to replace it on the fly, as users are in the middle of getting their work done, and let's just see if that works!"
And also, I still think Michelle Rhee is a big ole self-important egocentric windbag. Let me just put that out there.]
So if I had my druthers, then, what would I do? As my friend Sarah often asks fellow teachers, "if you could change one thing about your job - just one thing - what would you choose?"
I would choose to have every kid show up every day with his or her own pencil.
That may seem like a silly wish about a minor issue, but really, it stands in for a number of deeper problems I see. We live in one of the wealthiest nations with one of the highest standards of living ever known to human history - and in my nice, suburban middle school, a shockingly high number of students show up to school every day without bothering to bring the most basic tool they need to participate in the educational process. On top of that, when we start working on an assignment, their first reaction is to look around with an expression of SURPRISE on their face, as though we don't put pencil to paper in some form just about every single day, and then ask, in tones of wonderment, "Do you have a pencil I can use?" Now really, is that the behavior of a person who is determined to put his or her best foot forward? Need I say, this makes me eye-crossing, steam-from-ear-ejecting, red-face-flushing irate??
Having been in this gig for almost two decades, my automatic reaction is to qualify my own thoughts: There are some kids who honestly are so disorganized and so overwhelmed by their issues (mental illness, homelessness, abuse or neglect) that thinking about a pencil before they bolt out the door is too much to ask. But in reality, that should be a small subset of my students in any given year. I was starting to write something about my middle-class bias (which is another automatic reaction), but let's be honest, a packet of pencils costs $1 at the dollar store. To me, the fact that a significant percentage of my students show up to class day after day without a writing utensil, and they don't seem to feel any embarrassment or remorse about it, shows a lack of investment. What we pay attention to defines us, as the saying goes, and a lot of students just don't pay attention to school.
Now, I'm not delusional enough to think that adolescents naturally will be enthralled by everything they're learning. However, for whatever reason, our society seems to accept (and in a way, even condone) that a fair portion of students will be largely uninterested in academic pursuits. We don't even ask them to fake it! By way of comparison, I remember talking to a teacher on a year's exchange from China. Officially, her students were supposed to be solely focused on academics and were not allowed to date. In China, boys and girls are kept apart as much as possible, and fraternizing is frowned upon by parents and teachers alike. This teacher observed wryly that, now that she was not in the country, her students were emailing regularly with updates about who liked whom and what was new on the dating scene. We could look at this as proof that kids are kids no matter where they live, but when her students were in school, they were expected to be focused on what they were there to do: Go to school. I would be willing to bet my teaching certification that every one of that teacher's students, every single one, whethey they had ADD or a neglectful parent or no heat or running water, made sure to leave the house in the morning with a pencil.
So how do we, as a society, change this dynamic? I have no idea. Our current efforts are centered around testing kids every which way and evaluating teacher effectiveness based on those results. Other countries, most notably Finland, have focused on setting higher standards for teacher education and giving teachers more prestige and autonomy. Some countries, like Germany, set up more competitive educational systems that direct students into career vs. technical vs. academic tracks. Would either of the latter two approaches work in the US? I have my doubts. Unlike countries with centralized educational systems, we can't prevent private universities and colleges from offering their own teacher education programs, which would make standardizing teacher education a challenge. As a society, we are notoriously unwilling to give anyone the message that they can't do whatever they decide they want to do, which is, in effect, what tracking does (I have grumped in these virtual pages before about how bogus the whole everyone-should-go-to-college message is, and I stand by what I said). What I do know is that we, as a nation and as a society, have experienced greatness before. We've put a human being on the moon. We've raised the standard of living for millions of people in the space of generations, not centuries. We've cured polio, invented modern computing, established the expectation of equal treatment under the law for all citizens. We created the first modern government based solely on rule of law over inherited power (although we seem to be doing our damnedest to undo that one). If we really wanted to, we could change this. We could establish expectations for high achievement from both students AND teachers, in a way that reflects our unique culture and mores.
When I think about this issue, I keep returning to the home front efforts during World War II. During that era, Americans of all ages worked hard to do what had to be done in order for America to prevail. People, including young people, were willing to sacrifice, delay gratification, and go without as part of the greater good. Now, we don't expect students to do anything that might be uncomfortable or unexciting in expectation of a later benefit. Regardless of which approach is in the ascendancy, teachers are constantly urged to 'engage' students, to make learning 'relevant' and 'motivating' (most of which talk is code for the oft-cited canard that "learning should be fun!"). What if we, as a society, could rekindle that WWII sense of urgency and mission, at least in regard to education? What if our students felt that what they were doing in school was important, not because of the usual litany of reasons around being ready to go to work when they're older, or not being doomed to repeat history, but because learning is important, period? What if our students were unwilling to do less than their best, not because there's a bogus trophy involved that everyone gets to 'win,' but because they don't want to let down their country, their town, their families, and ultimately themselves? What if we decided that schools should focus on learning, and split off all the other ancillary functions, like mental health counseling and, hey, even competitive team sports, and put those back into the community in some form? [Whoa - let's not get crazy here.] What if we, as members of one of the most flexible, dynamic, innovative economies ever created, actually decided to treat education as a serious pursuit, practiced by competent professionals, that is necessary in order for that economy to continue to exist? What if we believed - actually, seriously believed - that there should be "liberty and justice for all," and got kids to believe that participating actively in their learning is the first step toward achieving and sustaining that goal?
I bet I'd have to scrounge up a lot fewer pencils if we did.