Monday, April 12, 2010

A Mid-Term Review and Anticipation

Let's leave the training of a classroom teacher for a moment.  Many things have happen in the last month in education in general.  An important step for me is that I have finished Diane Ravitch's book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.  I finished reading it on my Kindle.  And to celebrate my reading of Ravitch's book, I downloaded a long ago favorite, Democracy and Education by John Dewey.  I read Professor Dewey's book look ago while working on my Masters degree.  I'm looking forward to reading an old friend.  

But before I go into an analysis of Dr. Ravitch's thinking we also have to deal with the March 15th issue of Newsweek, with the cover title, "The Key to Saving American Education," by Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert.  The background cover is a blackboard covered with the sentence, "we must fire bad teachers." While Mr. Thomas does teach journalism at Princeton, neither writers have ever taught in a K-12 classroom for any significant amount of time.  For those who regularly read this blog you will know that I am extremely tired of people outside the profession of education telling us how to teach and what is wrong with education.  I think this article is poor journalism and bad reporting about our public schools.  And the Newsweek editors should be made to go back to grade or high school school for at least a month.....

There was so much wrong with that edition that I wanted to scream and yell but I was told by my cardiologist to keep stress at a minimum so I read Diane Ravitch's book to help me through this crises.  I was surprised by my reaction to her latest book.  Dr. Ravitich has been my nemesis for years--I have been against mandatory testing, indeed, I dislike I.Q. testing as it is culturally biased.  And I am firmly against vouchers as it damages to a great degree the public school system which I think is essential to the greatness of this country.  Vouchers were away around the church/state issue in that families were given tax supported vouchers so their child (children) could go to any public school or...private or religious school.   

But Charter schools pretty much eliminated the voucher system by making some of the public schools separate from the system and given over to private companies to run as they saw fit provided they would increase learning.  Charter schools were run on the business model and if children did not increase in test scores, teachers could be fired. The principals and administrators had not taught--they were business professions, lawyers, or whatever, but not teachers.  But I finally realized what was troubling me about Charter schools--It was snobbish to a fault.  I can't think of another word.  Charter schools could accept who they wanted and not take those that might not succeed.  Even if they took poor risk students they were quite often sent back to the public schools for not doing well.  So we have in some communities charter schools taking the brightest and the best and kicking out the at-risk students.  The strange thing is that some research shows that the difference between public schools in the area and the charter schools show little difference in test scores by grade level.  And the graduation rate has not improved.  Yes, you can find positive research on the charter school but guess who did the research--the charter schools.  

So I was interested in Diane Ravitch's latest book when she reviews what has been happening the past three or four decades.  And it also revealed to me why I had been unhappy with Professor Ravitch all these past years.  She is an educational historian who writes about what has happened.  When I read parts of her other books, I was unhappy with what she wrote although it was in all likelihood accurate.  I just wanted to shoot the messenger.  I'm happy to clear up my thinking and to clarify this point.  Ms Ravitch is a historian and writes about what has happened.  Probably why I am looking forward to re-reading John Dewey who is a philosopher and writes about "what ought to happen."  An important difference.

Meanwhile Ravitch says that the voucher systems, the charter schools (both give parents choice) and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) of the last decade have not worked.  If one looks at the overall effect of these programs there has been a decline in the efficiency and effectiveness of the American Public Schools.  It is what I have been ranting about for the past thirty years.

The latest approach to fire all the bad teachers is not going to help as well since we can't agree on what is a poor teacher.  Ravitch says the same thing and in her last chapter (11), she makes suggestions for improving public education.

Which is why we need to review my comments about philosophies of education.  Are you with me still?  If you will forgive my forgotten use of Apple Works drawing program we can commence.

Pasted Graphic.pict

The outer circles represent our society--you and me and everyone in the neighborhood.   The letter "I" represents collectively the student or individual.  Under Idealism, society tells the individual what he/she needs to learn to be a successful member of society.  That why we need schools.  The adults know what should be learned or taught.  The Great books....or... the classics.  And don't forget the times table.  And geography.  Also great Art and music classics.  Idealism suggests that this is the culture of society.  Sit up straight, pay attention.  Don't cheat.  NCLB is a product of this philosophy but it is limited to only Reading and Mathematics.  "I'll tell you what you need to know."  

Probably the best example of Idealistic education is the Catholic schools.  It is top down.  And the classics are the curriculum.  

The second set of circles represent realism.  In this example, the individual or student selects what he want to learn and in some cases how he wants to learn.  The readiness program that we had in the lower grades in the sixties and early seventies was a spinoff of this philosophy.  Children had to be ready to learn but you could teach them at the right time.  The French school system appears to be a supporter of this philosophy although I haven't been in one of their schools for some time.  But it works--students keep being interested in the world around them.  My bean plants growing on a revolving turntable is a product of this philosophy.  "What will the beans do when they sprout?"  "Which way will they grow?"  "Will other plants do the same thing?" The world around them becomes the curriculum for the individual in this philosophy.  

There are a number of academies and private schools that favor this philosophy.  One that comes to mind is the Lakeside school in Seattle which has a number of alumni who have gone on to greater things--Bill Gates and Paul Allen among them.  "Here is an IBM 360 computer, kids."  "Figure out how it works?"

The last circle system is the representation of the pragmatic philosophy as was suggest by John Dewey in Democracy and Education.  Adults suggest to the students what to learn and students suggest to adults what they think they need to learn--two way street in communications.  Change is the big word here--no one's education is the same as the next person.  For a class to decide on what to study would be acceptable in the pragmatic philosophy of education. 

 Recently there were forty students who were acknowledged to have done very exacting and exciting science projects in their high schools.  The students did the selecting but the teachers did the assisting--what to learn, how to do it.  Although there are many pragmatic teachers teaching our students I cannot think of a school system using this approach entirely.  Pity.

Why did I make you review all of this?  Yes, I know I've been over this once or twice before but it is important in your study of education in this country.  Dr. Ravitch at one place in her chapter eleven (Lessons Learned) says, "Furthermore, I suggest a short reading list--not more than ten titles--of indispensable literary classics for each grade."  As I suspected reading her entire book that Diane Ravitch is an Idealist.  That is probably why I have had problems with her in the past--I sense the top down approach to education.  

I need to close this lecture and instead of Diane Ravitch I want to quote another American professor and author, Margaret Mead who once wrote, "We are now at a point where we must educate our children in what no one knew yesterday, and prepare our schools for what no one knows yet."

Thank you, Margaret Mead.  You were one of my favorite teachers although we never met.  Thanks to all of the teachers who have an influence on us.

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