Saving our public schools (or…. how I read a book for my book club that made me stabby and angry)

I just read the book Waiting for “SUPERMAN”: How We Can Save America’s Failing Public Schools.  This is a companion book to a film by Davis Guggenheim.  I have not seen the film, so this post is based solely on the book and discussions therein.

First of all, two massively huge assumptions are made in this book:

1) Public schools suck.

2) Public schools suck because of bad teachers.

Yes, there’s more to it than my SWEEPING GENERALIZATIONS above, but I am making these generalizations to demonstrate the problem with this book.  When discussing the current quality of education, no other factors appear to be taken into consideration other than the quality of public schools.  That is not to say that public schools don’t need some help.  And this book also takes liberties in defining what “success” is.  Improving standardized test scores seems to be the benchmark measure of what it means to be a “successful” school.  If there was ever an embodiment of “sweeping generalizations”, it’s standardized tests.

So, let’s look at these two ideas (and the focus here, and in the book, is on middle/high school students):

1) Public schools with inadequate teachers are the reason why students are not successful and do not move on to higher education.

2) Successful students are those that “pass the tests” and go on to college, so that they may one day contribute to the global marketplace.

Okay.

Let’s refer to Chapter 5: The Difference is Great Teachers, contributed by Eric Hanushek.  Without going into detail, the chapter highlights how a student with a “good” teacher will fare better in class than with a “bad” teacher.  The chapter (Mr. Hanushek) does not adequately define what a good vs. bad teacher means, but does say that a good teacher will “engage” students.  Immediately, this question popped into my mind:  Is it possible that the ability for a teacher to engage students has been impacted by the advent of technologies that overstimulate children?  Just a thought.  Because I think we may ask too much of teachers (who, by the way, do not get paid HALF of what they should – why don’t we have professional sports players teach our kids, ok? then they may actually be worth what they make) when we require them to keep the attention spans of students who need a barrage of images thrown at them every second in a computer-esque way.  And where’s the personal accountability on the part of the student to remain engaged?  To seek out the learning?

This chapter suggests that to motivate teachers to be better at their jobs, we need a reward system.  BUT.  But… we should not be rewarding (or penalizing) teachers for changes in a student’s performance that are based on external factors.  For example, a student is well prepared by parents at home to come to school.  This will improve performance but should not be attributed to the teacher.  Likewise, a student comes to school unprepared and without parental help, and the teacher’s performance should not be judged if this student is unable to be successful that day.  Ok….Not only does this highlight why we have not had such a reward system in place before (I mean, wouldn’t this require knowing every facet and detail of a student’s life??) it brings up a whole other issue that BUGS THE HOLY HELL OUT OF ME.  And that is, if we recognize that there are external factors that impact a student’s performance, then it must be concluded that a student’s overall success could be contributed to these factors…and therefore, perhaps the teacher’s performance is not so much a cause as a contributor.

All kinds of statistics are used in this book to prove the point, but, as a former sociology student, it’s important to consider that the “cause” and “effect” are not always directly related.  Which is why I was delighted to get to Chapter 6: Calling All Citizens, contributed by Eric Schwarz.  This is the one part of the book that made me excited because it proposed improving students’ performances by involving citizens to assist with teaching.  Want to teach kids about science?  Have a scientist in your class.  I am not sure how feasible this approach is because you still need parents engaged to influence their children to get involved and you need citizens who will do it, but it was the most CONCRETE idea in the entire book.

I am a firm believer in the idea that learning starts at home.  And it does not matter how much, or how well, children are taught at school if that is not upheld, reinforced, or encouraged at home.  If it’s not, then any teacher – good, bad, whatever – will have an uphill battle with students.  This book only touches briefly on the idea that the home environment is a contributing factor to learning.  I personally think it plays a larger part in “saving” our schools.  I think students would be more “successful” if parents were involved and participated.  I have seen too many students whose parents’ attitudes have completely colored their behavior in school to think otherwise.

This book also talks a lot about the charter school as a model for success and that we should lean this way with public schools.  I do not entirely disagree.  I think administrators, principals, and teachers should be held to job performance standards.  But I also think parents and students should be held to standards.  And we need to think really long and hard about what those would be.  As I mentioned above, I think we ask a lot of teachers when we ask them to be able to fully engage, teach, and elevate students who frequently come from different walks of life, have different personalities, have varied home lives, and maybe don’t learn the same way as someone else.  It’s sort of like asking someone to go to the zoo and train all the animals (bear, zebra, eagle, etc) to do tricks, in one day, the same way.  Not that high school is like a zoo…well….  You get my point.

So, it’s obvious that education cannot be pinned on any one entity.  All things must work together.  Parts of this book talk about this idea, but the focus on BETTER TEACHERS makes it impossible to discern any call to action here other than “get rid of unions so we can fire bad teachers”.  And the definition of what makes a teacher “good” remains defined by students test scores.  Raised test scores imply a student learned, and with this learning comes the ability to be “successful” and go on to college.  There are two problems with that last sentence.

The first problem is assuming test scores accurately measure and/or capture what a student knows.  Tests are like games, really.  They can be figured out and beat.  But that does not mean you know anything.  Me – I am an excellent test taker.  This is because my mind is analytical and I work in a linear way.  But not everyone is like that.  This book does not mention the validity of standardized testing.  This book does not propose revamping testing to account for the drawbacks of standardized tests.  So, when it states that raising test scores is indicative of good teaching, I think it is utter BULLSHIT.

The second issue is that this book also heavily emphasizes that a measure of true success is being able to go on to college and join the job markets where there will be the greatest demand (such as in technical fields).  The assumption here is that students should go to college or should want to go to college.  As a previous blog post of mine points out, this poses a whole other debate.  Also, this book does not account for the rising costs of college.  Are there any statistics around how many students did not go to college because they could not afford it?  Success is also defined in this book as having really good high paying jobs.  And I could debate that until I am blue in the face, but… is success really about having money and stuff and contributing to the economy so everyone else can have more money and stuff?  Is it?  How sad.

So, are America’s public schools failing?  Maybe.  It’s possible.  But this book did not demonstrate that.

Is a student’s success dependent on having good teachers?  Probably in part.  But not to the extent that this book’s call to action would have you think.

Is success defined by going to college?  That may be a personal choice.  But it’s a choice not taken into consideration by this book when assessing public schools.

All in all, this book’s logic is flawed.  I guess I could see the movie to compare, but I think it would just make me feel more stabby and angry.

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