Stakes Too High to Wait
Ah, yes. There’s Sammy, half-asleep on his desk as the sun begins to climb into the winter sky. It’s been common knowledge for years now. Adolescents do not perform well in the earlier morning hours; younger children do. And yet I can’t think of a single school system that has reversed the bus runs to bring the kiddies in earlier and the teenagers in at nine. In fact, my old district pushed the starting time for high school back, from 7:30 (homeroom, 7:40 period 1) to 7:15 (without a homeroom). One more example of the disconnect between reality and beaurocracy: studies show that adult brains need a break after about 40 minutes of an activity. My district is now the proud sponsor of 78 to 90 minute classes – traditional classes where kids who couldn’t focus for five or ten minutes are now – for use of a better word – trapped.
Who made the decisions to do away with our attendance policy, give 50 points for work never performed (instead of 0), institute an uneven and unexamined retake program, and the logistical nightmare/abject failure known as ZAP (Zeros Aren’t Permitted), and instituted “common time” so that kids who refuse to do work or make up work outside of school have time to do so during the week? While teachers and students were on the committees that examined some of these options, most came out against them. It didn’t matter. These decisions were made unilaterally from the top – often by one person who had absolutely no business or training making them. Teachers who disagreed (as in those who refused to give the 50 points for 0 on the grounds it was fraudulent) were told they would be disciplined.
Why were these decisions made? Two reasons, of course. Appearances trump achievement, and these procedures make those grades look good. All we have to do is coach, and coach, and coach, the middle school kids (who receive much of this enabling) to do well on the CMT – coach beyond all acceptable levels of preparation. If we aren’t then able to coach them quite the same way for the CAPT, we’ll blame the high school teachers (exactly what happened in my district: the New Haven Register quoted our acting superintendent — now assistant superintendent – as saying that while our middle schools were doing a fabulous job, our high schools were “collapsing”. Any high school teacher could tell you (and him, and probably did) that the kids came in woefully unprepared precisely because of that feeble middle school “pedagogy,” but of course they’re just teachers (or as a former superintendent referred to us, “factory workers”).
What makes these supposedly well-meaning decision-makers make such execrable decisions? First, the top tier of educational theory is usually rife with those who have never set foot inside a classroom. They come up with ideas that schools are businesses and that teachers are assembling a product the same way an employee of a manufacturing plant produces a widget or of an office a spreadsheet, never taking into consideration that the material the teacher works with is a feeling, acting, free-willed (and often unprepared) human being. They decide that technology is the answer and stuff our schools with smart boards, computers, laptops and on-line textbooks even though it’s pretty much proven these “shiny objects” (I quote Amanda Ripley, from her new book The Smartest Kids in the World) don’t improve our kids’ scores – or their chances at bright futures. They come up with more and more ideas to punish good teachers, now in Connecticut allowing administrators – often with personal and less-than-sterling objectives, as well as often having a lack of suitable experience or training themselves – to judge whether teachers are effective based on a few limited, 15-minute visits that provide only a brief snapshot of a lesson. They make policy, formal or informal, based on educational and psychological fads (didn’t we prove memorization is an unnecessary trial in the 60s? As well as geography? And isn’t the whole idea of education is to be enjoyable and fun? Shouldn’t children learn by playing? And come on – the whole edifice of child-rearing rests on self-esteem, doesn’t it? Isn’t it harmful for children to fail?)
There are no stipulations that those who make policy for or administer our schools have any classroom experience whatsoever, which explains so many of the failed initiatives and boneheaded decisions affecting our youth and our future. And yet many of the poor decisions made, in my experience and I am sure in many others, are made by those who were indeed teachers, sometimes good ones, and for many years. What in tarnation is happening there? Two things, I suppose: fear and ego. These folks move up the ladder, take a salary spike, and start hobnobbing with the buffoonery at the top. They may not agree (at least at first) with the bad policies, but fear of losing their position keeps them quiet at best and acquiescent at worst. Then it seems to become a matter of ego: the power, the prestige (such as it is) – they seem to convince themselves that they are part of a wondrous hierarchy with equally wondrous ideas, one of which is to keep those pesky teachers in line and get those grades to look good – and they follow that broken, discredited road, probably convincing themselves they’re on the right track.
How can we start to remedy these unfortunate realities? Of course superintendents, consultants, publishers, and administrators should be required to have valid classroom experience – but a simple requirement isn’t enough. Unfortunately the other necessity- that, once out of the classroom, these people do not forget what being a teacher is like, and continue to support good teachers – isn’t something one can legislate. There has to be ongoing classroom experience. Also, teachers should be able to evaluate their superiors, the way students are now able to evaluate their teachers. Believe me, if this were possible in my district, things would be better there today. As it is, teachers won’t stand up, won’t speak out and won’t take a vote of no confidence, all out of fear. This needs to change also. Until teachers are indeed able to formally evaluate administrators (the twelfth of never?), they have to have the courage and integrity to speak out. I found it necessary after 18 years in my current district to leave. Most teachers I spoke to wouldn’t go beyond complaining and cynicism, usually from fear of losing their livelihood. That has to change.
Also, those making policy must be required to read, and act on, books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed and the aforementioned The Smartest Kids in the World. What’s wrong with education in the United States, according to these slender and very readable tomes, can be stated quite succinctly: we fail to teach character (i.e., teaching kids to fail and persevere, which prepares them for life), and school here is not taken seriously enough, it is too easy, and the philosophy of self-esteem above all has bankrupted rigor. None of the recent or current government initiatives address any of these realities. The United States spends more on education than any country except Luxembourg and has mediocrity to show for it.
Where does it start? At the very top, clearly. I wrote to George W. Bush when No Child Left Behind was first making its appearance, exhorting him to look at the realities in the classroom. Laura Bush sent me a form letter extolling the virtues of the now-repudiated program. NCLB was right in pushing for high standards, but the pedagogy in place was not designed to produce them, and this pedagogy was not replaced, nor was the entrenched beaurocracy that perpetuates it. NCLB was doomed to fail.
When Bill Clinton was running for president the first time and had made his infamously ludicrous statement about not inhaling marijuana, he was asked by a flippant young fellow on MTV if he would, if he tried pot again, inhale. Like some of the poorer teachers we see, those who just want to be liked by their students and nothing else, Clinton’s answer was that of course he would –
“I tried the first time!’. To say this to young people everywhere was, of course, irresponsible. But it also shows that Clinton had no concept of what it was like to be in front of a classroom facing stoned kids, like the kid I was trying to get to practice speaking basic Spanish and failed because he was busy licking the inside of a potato chip bag. Clinton had, evidently, no inkling of the issues rampant drug use causes for schools.
When will we begin to see that there are answers and that we need to begin implementing proven and successful strategies before it is too late (although considering that many of our kids are graduating without skills sufficient to hold a decent job or succeed in higher education, it already is late -very late).
And the first thing on the agenda is to find leadership that works, that cares and that can implement the vision – from those on the front lines or with their continued input. The stakes are too high to wait.
Christine Sullivan was born in Albany, NY. She went to college in Connecticut and returned here to teach, and thus has lived here for forty years. She taught Spanish in Catholic schools in Hamden, New Haven and Fairfield and ESL in New Haven. For the past eighteen years she taught Spanish for the Milford School District.