Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Responding to Op-Ed

[ originally posted to math-teach, hyperlinks added, typos fixed ]

>> Business leaders certainly have the right to make their voices heard in the ongoing debate. But public schools do not exist exclusively to meet their needs. The crisis they have manufactured to justify their criticism is nothing new. To understand the basis for this assessment, I refer you to my op-ed that was published in the international edition of the New York Times on Jan. 14, 2008 ("The 'crisis' of U.S. education" -- see http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/14/opinion/14iht-edgarddner.1.9196672.html ).

This op-ed piece seemed somewhat full of non sequiturs.

Yes, these documentaries and reports showing the relative quality drop are disturbing and stir up anxiety.

What doesn't follow is that these were phony, fake or manufactured 'crises'.

Rather, these concerns gave rise to many responses, including some challenges to authority and adventuresome departures (e.g. Bill Gates from Harvard).

A lot of skeptics said the personal computer could never take off.

We needed risk takers and we got some. New Math made a difference, even if the name and branding were quickly buried.

In other words, if you go back over the same events and say the crises were real, and people responded (at least some of them did), then you might still get the same outcome.

This outcome is nothing to wildly celebrate. The USA is still mired in poverty and is apparently unwisely consoling itself that its curriculum must actually be OK because other countries are even worse basket cases. Another non sequitur.

The author is quite correct that the support of teachers is needed, and also the support of students.

Of each other.

It's not like threatening politicians with a loss of votes is going to change the situation on the ground, vis-a-vis whether much teaching and/or learning is really happening or not.

I thought the analysis from Singapore was pretty good: the USA system is less fixated on exams (although ETS works in that direction), depends more on creative risk taking.

OK, so where are the teachers willing to take risks and challenge authority, and what does that look like?

Or are we thinking it's students who should take all the risks?

Accusing businesses of manufacturing a crisis seems like a cop out to me. The economy is very clearly in a bad state and probably one of the most galvanizing things we might do to pull out of it is overhaul the education system in a way that gets a lot of people working in new roles i.e. institution building is in order.

No, I'm not just talking about "charter schools" (don't all schools have a charter -- some more recent than others?).

For the sake of debate and argument, I might also take the position that approximately no schools in the USA are "world class" right now.

That's just not what we've got, based on the curriculum I'm seeing.

I'm not saying this as a simplistic way of blaming teachers though.

Perhaps it's those same business leaders who just aren't being clear enough?

If all that's coming across is a sense of "fake crisis" then maybe the business community needs to spell it out in a lot more detail -- perhaps by sponsoring some showcase schools and showing directly and immediately what it would like to see more of.

We'd hope for a lot of diversity, with attainable reforms on display, not just pie-in-the-sky. The newer curriculum itself should start to come through, not just images of students working with it. Adult viewers could use some updates as well. Am I just talking about PBS then? Is the BBC planning anything similar?

Like why not make it a TV series? But maybe not fiction this time, and less scripted? We've got this "reality TV"genre going, but just use it to play silly games. Does anyone want to risk something more real? One school might be inner city somewhere, another in the hinterlands,
another built from scratch in the course of the episodes. Could we convert some spare aircraft carriers, even if just moored in harbor, make them into boarding schools perhaps. Just an idea -- other ships?

I'm thinking of Disney's bold vision of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). What would the school be like, in said community? Jet packs? Probably not. More use of GIS / GPS, better spatial geometry? Probably.

The Japanese likely have ideas and talents to contribute. This idea that we're all divided up into nation-states who viciously compete, like in some Olympics, is itself a bit dated (a lot dated). The business community does a lot of problem solving trans-nationally, out of necessity.

Maybe that's a next step for teachers too? Again, some creative use of our shared media (not just the Internet) could start moving us in a more positive direction.

In the meantime, I remain thoroughly persuaded we're in something of a crisis. Lots of homeless, lots of tents, lots of FEMA trailers... you don't need me to spell it out for ya do ya? Oh yeah, lots of wars, lots of preventable deaths by starvation... I'd say by definition the curriculum is broken, or we wouldn't be so messed up.

Perhaps it sounds "idealistic" or "utopian" to want to address serious economic problems (which all fall under the category of health care, broadly interpreted) but from a business point of view there's pressure to find life supportive investments, stuff to do with time/energy that isn't just empty squandering.

An educated population is more likely to self-organize around such projects, whereas an ignorant one will just sit on its duff and blame the King, falling into some prehistoric pattern, of treating presidents like monarchs, then as scape goats -- not what the USA's founders had in mind (too immature).

Basically, it's complacency which has no appropriate role in this picture. If you think the status quo is OK, you're on the fringe, out to lunch. Change is needed. Risk taking is needed.

The only questions involve what, when, where and how, not whether, and many of these questions may be closer to answered than we'd like to admit sometimes i.e. it's convenient to always postpone doing the right thing, but at some point impractical.

So I'll end with an appeal to pragmatism, and a question: what shall we do now?

Maybe you don't like my TV-related proposals. So what are your better ideas. "More funding and smaller class sizes" should go without saying.

Be more specific. Talk about real changes to what's being taught, and how. Talk about how you might teach American History for example, up to the present day.

What if you couldn't rely on that textbook you teach from, what would you teach instead? What full length documentaries might you assign? What YouTubes might you project? What, you don't have a clue?

Yes, I'm walking this talk, as are many teachers I respect. I enjoy comparing notes with peers.

Remember, take risks.