A few days ago, I came across a rather interesting article by Shayna Pitre on the Huffington Post about education reform. Her post seemed to be a concise summation of education reforms many media outlets have offered as effective ways to save education in the United States. At first, I enjoyed her quick to the point writing and its seeming viability, but as I continued to read I lost faith in not just the points of the article, but her as a writer. Allow me to explain my case.
Ms. Pitre begins her education reform talking about the necessity of highly trained teachers, “For example, in Singapore, aspiring teachers must either score well on a very hard exam to get into teachers college or have a diploma equivalent to a high level degree in the United States” (Pitre 2014). For one, this argument implicitly supports standardized-testing (“score well on a very hard exam”), which she later criticizes, as an accurate means of someone’s intelligence or competency. Considering the kinesthetics, decision-making, and problem-solving skills needed as a teacher, a “hard exam” seems trite. Adding on top of this the diversity of each student, a standardized test doesn’t seem the best model for identifying teachers for development.
Additionally, I would argue that this belief undercuts a fundamental belief in American education, or at least seemingly fundamental idea, that all can succeed. She promotes a selective process, one fostered by Finland, that only accepts 1/10 applicants to be teachers, but by limiting access to the profession through a selective process, the idea is promoted only some Americans can grow up to be teachers. I do not believe this is necessarily a bad thing, but it does change the mindset of our country’s education system: education can help any student achieve his/her dream, but not all dreams are for all people. After all, what is the difference between this selective process and tracking students? This is not an attack on Ms. Pitre but an elucidation of contradiction that festers in education and development of children in the United States. I support a more rigorous process for better teachers, but I also think it creates a philosophical conundrum, I’m not sure we’re ready to answer.
Ms. Pitre goes on to talk about the importance of continuing professional development and training of teachers, and the importance it plays in teacher development. She promotes a model where incoming teachers work a year under the tutelage of a veteran teacher. I could not support a model of teacher education more; in fact, University of Michigan’s MAC (Master of Arts with Teaching Certificate) Program, where I attended school to become a teacher, engages incoming teachers in that very practice. The difference between a first year teacher with that level of training compared to average eight week student-teacher period is remarkable.
However, she goes on to talk about professional development as a necessity for teachers and argues that it is not done in this country. The only problem with her argument is that professional development occurs and on a regular basis, but it is generally ineffective. The problem with professional development resides in incompetent consultants, who have moved away from the classroom and lack connections to the locality of the teachers he/she is instructing, and are, therefore, unable to connect and help those teachers in the ways most needed. Professional developments are also usually unconnected to teacher needs and more connected to district and state demands. Additionally, professional developments are rarely, if ever, implemented as a continuing process, meaning teachers are given a complex idea once and expected to create educational gold, which, anyone who respects the educative process, knows is impossible; and maybe most importantly there is little to no time for teacher implementation and learning from the new professionally developed methods. Simply put, the root of professional development problems is not an issue of access but quality.
As Ms. Pitre builds momentum in the conclusion of her educational reforms, she creates a paradox of practices that leaves at least someone in my position perplexed. Ms. Pitre argues for problem-solving learning and choice combined with gateway testing. She promotes gateway tests to gauge students progress and the effectiveness of schools. “These standardized tests are based on the country’s curriculum. In other words, these standardized tests use the instructional material, textbooks and all, to develop test materials. The teachers often learn this instructional material in training. The test, curriculum, teachers, and students are all on the same page. In other words, there is a unified system” (Pitre 2014). This may be because I’m educator, but if you have a prescribed curriculum with standardized testing, textbooks, and pedagogical uniformity, how much room do you have for student choice?
Yes, analytical skills are transferable as Pitre argues, but prior knowledge has to be developed. A student may be fantastic at synthesizing historical knowledge to understand a text as a cultural artifact, but if on the standardized test they lack that cultural knowledge, they are judged as inadequate. Similarly, if a student has developed an acumen for determining the meanings of phrases and words in fictional texts because that’s what the student wants to study, then the gateway test uses texts from specific content areas, where select words have very particular meanings, the student’s evaluation will suffer.
I also would argue, as I did in a previous post, that this sort of testing creates a stagnant curriculum that minimizes innovation in favor of analysis and other Common Core skills. That being said, I support Common Core, but, creativity is not a Common Core State Standard.
However, the development of the education industry with companies like ETS, Pearson, and others raises more issues for this kind of gateway testing. Because, if history has shown us anything, these companies will make the assessments, the remedial materials, and teacher guides to implement this nationwide curriculum. It does beg the question whether or not these private sector companies would have an influence, and if that is the best thing . . . Alan Singer, a professor from Hofstra, seems to disagree. If these companies control the products, don’t they in essence control the results? Have you ever thought about how an educational company creates supply and demand?
These questions raise larger issues about the cultural differences and views of education in the countries where she pulls these education reforms from. In China, Japan, and Finland are corporations creating the education materials? Are American students as obedient and self-disciplined as Chinese and Japanese students? Would any American feel comfortable tracking students as some of these countries do?
The social differences between the US and the other countries are something to consider in education reform, yet she doesn’t. Which brings my frustration with her as an author, her educative experience, at least according to her Huffington Post Bio, is limited to being a student and, I assume, dealing with legal cases involving education. Her lack of experience in teaching, in a way which I’m sure she doesn’t mean, demeans those in the profession trying to make a difference. I wonder has she asked any teachers for their input? And if she has, has she asked teachers from Detroit? Compton? Charlevoix? Macon? Bozeman? Atlanta? Bloomfield Hills? Ozark?
Ms. Pitre ends her post, “We can change education, the lives of millions of children, and our future economy with the right starting place.” Besides being cheesy and oversimplified, the ending excites the anger I try to quell whenever education reform is brought up. That being said, my anger and frustration is not with Ms. Pitre, but with all those that claim to know the cure for education without walking the school hallways everyday, those that don’t see each student struggle with identity, academics, and home life. I once had a student tell me she had “good news” because her mother was stabbed twelve times instead of being in the hospital for another drug overdose. I wonder if gateway testing is the best way to help that child?
The discussion on education reform always seems to start from top down, but why not bottom up? Why not, start with the students? Why not listen to those who work with the children on a daily basis?