Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Gerald Coles: Why Bother Educating the Poor? - Living in Dialogue - Education Week Teacher

Gerald Coles: Why Bother Educating the Poor? - Living in Dialogue - Education Week Teacher

Reforming education has been a national pastime since my mother first started teaching - and my mother is now 97 years old.  But the recent (past 15 years) of reforms have been the meanest spirited at all.  In the guise of improving education, they have made it virtually impossible for teachers to enjoy being in the classroom.  There are ever increasing demands to cover ever more "standards"; there are significantly larger classes and therefore a much increased work load; teachers are required to accommodate an ever increasing list of special education students and practices; there is less provision for kids who are at the extremes of "normal".  It would almost seem as though people are determined to eradicate creativity and caring from the classroom.  Creativity is a waste of time and caring is monumentally difficult,  with so many students to take care of.

People who would have made excellent teachers are driven away from teaching or don't even consider it as a profession, because of low pay, low prestige, uncertainty in working conditions, and heavy work loads.  People who enter the profession with hope soon encounter the reality of the job and drop out of teaching in droves.  I read recently that teaching loses half of the teachers that enter the profession in 5 years. 

The increased testing regime has been discussed extensively in many places, so I am not going to address that.  I am going to discuss what I consider the most insidious of the reforms: differentiation.  On paper and in theory, this looks great.  Teachers are taught simple techniques for making lesson plans adaptable to the various ability levels of all of the students in the classroom.  What proponents of differentiation often fail to consider is the amount of extra time required to plan for a differentiated classroom and the fact that this increases with the increase in ability levels in the classroom.  A simple 5th grade lesson on the rock cycle can be an example.  There is a standard textbook, which is probably written at a 5th grade reading level.  Most of the students will be able to read it, but there will be a few who cannot.  The teacher has to find other ways of teaching the rock cycle for the students who cannot read the text - maybe an audio recording, maybe partner reading, maybe a movie, maybe a simpler book.  Each of these have to be checked to make sure they cover the standards and objectives for the lesson.  Then, there are the kids in the classroom who have special needs.  Each of their needs must be accommodated in the lesson plan.  And finally, there are probably a few gifted kids in the class, maybe even a highly gifted kid, who has studied the rock cycle extensively on his own, has a large rock collection at home, and is interested in comparing the difference in microscopic structure of granite and marble.  The teacher knows nothing about high school or college level geology and would have to struggle to find appropriate materials for this child.

All this might be do-able, if the class size were under 20, or if the teacher could count on teaching the same thing several years in a row and could gradually amass materials to use with outlier kids, or if there were a curriculum specialist would could gather appropriate materials or find a mentor.  But the recent budget cuts have boosted class sizes into the mid 30s, teachers are often reassigned year after year, depending on class numbers, the curriculum itself is redesigned on a regular basis, and the curriculum specialists have been eliminated by budgeting problems.

And, the fact of the matter is, elementary teachers are almost universally responsible for multiple lessons in one day.  When I was teaching full time, I counted 34 different lessons that I was responsible for in one week (grades K through 8, for me).  Planning for these lessons, teaching them, and assessing student progress took much more than the 30 minutes planning time I was allotted each day.  

Simply put, the job of teaching has become too much.  Teachers pay lip service to differentiation, to standards, to new technologies, but in my experience, they can't do it all.  Perhaps I see a biased sample of what most teachers are doing.  I am a substitute teacher, so teachers might, in fact, simplify the lessons they leave for me, so that a sub can handle them.  But, I look carefully for signs of differentiation or individualization or indications that the students think that the lessons I am given to teach are somehow different from what they usually do, and I don't see very much evidence for those things.  It seems to me that most of the teachers end up following the textbooks and "covering" the content they are responsible for.  There simply isn't enough time to do anything else.  Parents then wonder why their students' needs aren't considered.  They decide that the teacher is lacking or doesn't care.  And the stress piles up on the teachers. 

So what do the 1% do?  They send their kids to private schools.  I recently read the blog of a teacher who chose to teach in private schools.  She originally planned to teach in public schools, but couldn't find a job there, so took a job in a private school - and stayed in those schools.  She claimed in the blog that she was grateful for having stayed there, because they allowed her the creativity and autonomy to mold her work into an enjoyable career.

Monica Edinger's Blog

I am one of the co-founders of a private school and I helped establish that school because the public school wasn't serving the needs of my highly gifted child.  It isn't entirely in keeping with my support of public schooling, but, when it is your child, you do what you can to get them the best education you can afford.  And, people who can afford those schools often do - schools which often have smaller classes and more autonomy for the teachers. Meanwhile, the public schools are suffering.

No comments:

Post a Comment