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.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Another New Direction For Education

In breaking news from the "Correlation Implies Causation" department, New York State Commissioner of Education David Steiner and New York City Schools Chancellor Cathleen Black have announced their resignation, immediately following my post yesterday calling Steiner and his staff "micromanaging b-b stackers."

Besides making me feel like perhaps I should be a little more careful who I insult, Steiner's unexpected departure has me worried.  It's not, as you might imagine, because I'm fond of Steiner or his policies; it's more because I'm afraid we're in for another U-turn.

"A Vision" is an unfortunate part of the personality of many administrators.  Please note that there is a difference between "vision" and "A Vision."  The former implies an awareness of the both the big picture and the details, and a deep understanding of how to run a school.  Certainly, there are many administrators with vision; I'm pleased to say that my high school's current principal appears to be one.  The latter, on the other hand, tends to take the form of a single-minded commitment to a particular set of goals, wisdom-be-damned, and often followed with a zeal that would do an Old Testament prophet proud.

A vivid example of the distinction occurred during the tenure of our previous commissioner, Richard Mills.  Shortly after Mills was appointed, he came up with A Plan To Improve Education.  This involved rewriting all of the curriculum used in New York State, and was ushered in with countless meetings.  In one of the first ones I attended, a curriculum specialist was called in, and we endured a day-long meeting with her in which we were supposed to design our ideal curriculum in the field we teach.  "Anything," she told us, "is fair game."

I responded that I kind of liked the one I had.  Biology, I told her, is biology; you can use different strategies to teach it, but the science is what the science is.

A frown appeared on her face.  "There must be something you'd change if you could," she said.

"I'd like more money from the state to buy equipment," I said.

"Not money!" she said.  "That's not what this is about.  This is about designing your ideal curriculum in your field."

"Okay," I said.  "I choose not to change anything."

And this sort of went on all day -- her trying to maneuver us into buying in to the idea of change for change's sake, and me (and several others) digging our heels in, asking her why on earth we were supposed to change something that already worked just fine.

We later found out that she informed our superintendent that we were "the rudest science department she had ever worked with."

And, of course, it was all an exercise in futility anyway.  The opinions of a bunch of silly teachers would never change the direction of The Vision Of An Educational Leader.  At enormous expense, the entire curriculum was rewritten.  The results?  I can find two:  (1)  They changed the name of the course from "Biology" to "Living Environment."  (2)  They made the statewide final exam much easier.

So, now that Steiner's out, after under two years in the position, we'll have someone else take his place.  And in all likelihood, it'll be someone with A Vision, because you don't get that far in the field of education unless you have one.  Meaning that we'll take everything we've always done, pretend we're jettisoning it and taking off in A New Direction For Education, the policy wonks will spend millions of dollars generating Draft Protocols and Mission Statements and Program Timelines, teachers and administrators will waste countless hours in meetings, and in the end we'll get back what we started with, maybe under a different name.  (You'll probably be amused to know that after the change from "Biology" to "Living Environment" ten years ago, I flatly refused to use the new name, and all of my course handouts and lab manuals and so on are still labeled "Biology."  I wonder what the new name will be?  I'm guessing it'll be something like "Our Amazing World Of Nature.")

I realize this sounds cynical.  That's because I am cynical.  Not about the act of educating children; the day I'm cynical about that should be my last day on the job.  What I'm cynical about is the motives of our leaders, who often seem more concerned about putting their personal stamp on the educational system they're running than they do about sensible, practical policy that benefits the kids we're serving.  And my attitude toward NYSED and the Federal Department of Education reminds me of the quote from Lily Tomlin:  "No matter how cynical I get, it's just never enough to keep up."

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