Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

If you can't teach...

Last week, I was the unfortunate victim of a science department meeting at my school.  I loathe meetings to begin with, so I already had a bad attitude going in.  (Although in the interest of fairness I will admit that I have attended interesting, productive meetings.  I believe there was once in 1988, and that one time in 1997.)  The focus of this particular meeting was Reworking the Standards for Science Education in New York State.

The very title given to this meeting set my teeth on edge.  It's not that I'm against high standards; it's just that every time I have been part of a campaign on the part of the State Education Department to rework the standards, the standards have gotten weaker.  The last big overhaul of the science standards in New York State resulted in the New and Improved Regents Exam, which features questions like:

42.  In what organ in the human body does the embryo develop?  (a) liver (b) pancreas (c) stomach (d) uterus

What always makes me laugh, in a bitter and cynical fashion, is the way that NYSED and other government agencies give these initiatives catchy,  buzzwordy names, presumably so as to trick all the teachers into supporting it because we don't know how to read the fine print, or presumably, to think.  The last one was "Raising the Bar."  Given that the "Raising the Bar" initiative generated questions like the aforementioned, it seems like they Raised the Bar High Enough for Everyone to Walk Under It.  The current push is part of the federal government's Race to the Top, which mandates (among other things) using increased standardized testing as a way of improving student learning, because we all know how well that works.  To make someone a better driver (for example), all you have to do is administer the written driver's exam over and over.  Right?  Of course right.

The Race to the Top initiative is a competitive game (thus the "race" analogy) to garner funding by acquiescing to whatever damnfool thing has become the Flavor of the Month at the US Department of Education.  And desperate for funding, we've all rushed headlong into the race, accepting whatever deals with the devil we've had to make along the way, thinking, "It'll be all right in the long run.  We need money."  And after all that, I found out that the federal grant money our district got from winning the Race to the Top was... $41,000.  Only a little more than the starting salary of a single first-year teacher.  For this, we compromised our own standards, accepted the standardized testing, the tying of teacher evaluation to student test scores, and the rest?

Of course we did.  We were cornered.  Our superintendent, for whom I have a great amount of respect, said to me, "If we don't join RTTT, we're going to end up having to acquiesce to the new rules anyway, and get no money at all."  I think she's right.

In the end, of course, all of these initiatives end the same way; life goes on.  We go on teaching what we've taught, in the way we've always done.  Why?  Because, for the most part, it works.  All of the Vertical and Horizontal Alignment, and so forth, that NYSED is currently requiring us to do, will make not a point's worth of difference to student learning.  What makes the most difference to student learning is, and always has been, having a passionate, committed teacher, who knows the subject thoroughly and cares about it deeply, and can instill a sense of enthusiasm into his/her students.  These aren't my words; these are the words of the students in my Critical Thinking class last year, when we discussed the educational system, where it works, and where it falls down.  And they were unanimous in agreement that the first and foremost determiner of student success in a course is having an outstanding instructor.  And if you can show me how Raising the Bar and Race to the Top accomplishes that end, I would be much obliged.

It puts me in mind of the old quip.  You know it?  "If you can, do; if you can't, teach."  Understandably, I've never agreed with that.  But if you add a third clause, I'm more likely to agree:  "If you can't teach, join the Department of Education and tell the teachers how to do their jobs."

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Gordon! If only bureaucracy would get out of the way of passionate, committed and knowledgeable teachers like yourself.