Sometimes it seems to me that we as a society have lost track of what education actually is. As an educator, that frightens me. On the one hand, as a teacher of Senior English using a dictated curriculum map and standards, I am heartened. Truly, the actual educators who designed the curriculum I currently teach have handed me an amazing set of literary works with which to guide students to be fabulous communicators. These are also works which I witnessed, last year, actually inspire nonreaders to become readers! Incredible. So, progress.
Now for the other hand. The frightening side. With the push to meet the increasingly muddled governing expectations of the state–graduation rates, school grades–and those of a lay population largely ignorant concerning the behind-the-scenes world of professional education, public school students are paying a dear, dear price. Most professions govern themselves, create themselves, design not only their own rules but do the work of building on the past to create the future. Not education. In education, while educators do the research and all of the work, politicians and voters make the critical decisions which end up as the day-to-day realities in classrooms across the nation.
What do I mean by all that? Well, specific examples are always helpful, right? When I was a junior at New Smyrna Beach Senior High School, an English teacher proposed to the administration a double-block of English, senior year, specifically for twelve students she felt had both a talent and a taste for poetry. This replaced my senior English class. As a result, when I was in grad school for poetry, my department chair said to me, “I am excusing you from Forms of Poetry due to the education you received at New Smyrna twenty years ago. I looked into the curriculum and that was better, as to forms, than what we offer here.” There’s no room for that sort of creativity in this other-driven profession, anymore. A shame.
A more current example is a conversation I had with a colleague last school year. We were working together with mutual students, and butting heads. We had to narrow it down and find out what the problem was, between us, and it turned out to be quite simple. My goal was to teach the students that fabulous curriculum I cited above. My colleague’s was to see the students cross that graduation stage, this year, no matter what. I saw this person’s point, just as they saw mine: we are squeezed between the boulders of actually educating students and spitting them out into the stream of graduates in a rapid enough fashion not to negatively effect such vital statistics as state, district, and school graduation rates. It matters. It matters to students; loss of funds due to retention is a real threat. But, so is ignorance.
At the school I teach at, we work together to meet all those expectations. I happen to be a big fan of the new push to make sure students pass each standard, each assessment. Because, where I work, it isn’t pencil-whipping. We actually do work to make sure they pass–they get the concepts, they demonstrate the skills, they master the curriculum. Then they move on. It’s an astonishingly team effort; students and educators. Parents, too, play a role, but at this age, frankly not really. Some students don’t have parents. Some students have parents they, the students, support and care for. Some parents are very supportive of students. But, I only have to pick up a newspaper or turn on the computer to see that this is increasingly rare, the teaming and the focus: many schools, many parents, and many legislatures are merely focused on getting kids out of school as quickly as possible.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could consider all of the factors which make up education, and allow those students who need to to slow down? I remember a story my father used to tell. He was a lead designer for NASA from the early sixties in Huntsville until he retired from Cape Kennedy in 1989. A truly wise individual, and a true pioneer. One of his stories haunts me in these days of rush, rush, rush K-12 (and even college) education. He was in an interview for the job of city engineer for the town of Bessemer, Alabama. The interviewer asked my father about a class he’d failed–I believe it was in surveying–twice at Georgia Tech before passing it the third time.
“Well,” answered my father, “I did take that class three times. I really know surveying.”
He got the job.
Part of the truly endangered value of education is failure. Learning from it. Remember kindergarten, where if you goofed, or didn’t get it, you tried again until you did? Can you picture that perspective being the case in March with a core class, senior year? Let’s just slow down and do this over until we’ve got it? Imagine the pressure which would be relieved. Imagine the shift in perspective. Imagine the confidence-building that simple rocket scientist’s perspective could inspire. Imagine the future with thinkers like that.
So, failure. It’s part of school. It’s part of learning, part of life. What if we took a new perspective on it, all the way up?
For students with Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, there is a federal law (of course currently endangered) which mandates allowing them until their twenty-second birthday to complete high school, if need be. It’s a good rule, seldom used for students in the Learning Disabled category, usually used for students who need intensive, wrap-around services due to severe disabilities. But. What if teams took the perspective of creative scheduling, and worked together to ensure success for these students–including shortened school days, a longer high-school career, and dual-enrollment classes at the local college? If that were the case, these students could get a completely-district-paid-for college degree (or two!) through dual-enrollement! The rationale in many cases would be very sound: students with auditory and visual processing issues, for example, do benefit from shortened school days, a slower academic pace, and tiered supports for acquisition. And by definition, students with learning disabilities have a normal, or higher than normal, I.Q. Imagine the levels of success these special students could experience with this plan. Now imagine the reaction of the district and state, particularly as regards cost. Ouch.
This article started as an early-morning musing on a conversation I recently had with a parent on mentoring students. Mentoring is a slippery slope. How do you vet mentors, I asked her. She didn’t understand. “Well,” I explained, “what do you really want students to learn from their mentors? How to succeed? If that is the case, then shouldn’t all the mentors have at the very least a terminal degree in their chosen field? Do you want these as you call them “at risk” students to stay away from drugs and alcohol? Will you vet the mentors to make sure they don’t smoke or drink?”
I don’t think she ever saw my point. I’m an English teacher. My job is not to guide students to moral high ground. That’s the job of their parents, their faith leaders, and if need be the professional guidance counselors at the school. It certainly isn’t the job of volunteers! If we are to get education back to truly being the foundation for success which it must be in this nation, we need to get the focus back on who needs to be in charge of education. Educators.