No one can argue that education has changed. Something that is pretty noticeable to me is this shift in focus on creating the best schools we can to spending money on marketing events to recruit students. This idea was sparked from a blog post written by a colleague – Todd Bloch. He spoke about how School of Choice has actually hurt many schools, particularly those in urban centers as the suburbs have more appeal for many families. Those who can afford to transport their students to a (sometimes) better school outside their district do so. What happens of course, is that local districts lose students, which means they lose money. This has, of course, set up an impossible situation for schools, who are already tightening their belts and cutting all the “fat” they can – and have been doing so for years.
More and more it seems to me that schools are operating like businesses. There are pockets of really innovative schools where students are emerged in technology-rich, critically focused, problem and project based learning experiences. Here, these schools are able to share what their students are doing every day via social media and other mediums. They don’t have to spend top dollar creating catchy slogans and commercials. Parents hear from their students how great their school is. They share this with other parents. Students are excited about school and tell their friends.
Unfortunately, the majority of schools are not utilizing this new way of teaching. In classroom after classroom, you still see students being taught to be compliant: walk in rows, don’t speak until called upon, make sure your packet is stapled and in the correct order, etc. We are still pushing students through each grade, often treating them as empty containers that need us (the experts!) to fill them up. It’s so similar to the same way we educated students 100 years ago. Why, when we don’t treat injuries, solve crime, communicate, etc. the same way we did 100 years ago, are we still teaching students that way?
Between the focus on standards, high-stakes testing, performance pay, evaluation confusion, and the myriad other challenges schools and teachers face, it can be difficult to redefine learning in a way that is meaningful for students. Why take a risk when doing so could potentially generate failure? Before, failure was okay and you learned from it. In today’s evaluation-driven schools, failing on a project could be the difference between effective and minimally effective. When it comes down to making hiring and firing decisions, those evaluations matter. A lot.
So what’s the answer? It’s a pretty big problem.
First, we need to reform the current School of Choice policy. You can read the official policy here, but there have been many negative impacts on schools, especially in terms of funding and creating budgets. Beyond that, students miss out on a comprehensive education as they are often going back and forth year after year. The impact on students of Michigan was the topic of a recent MSU study.
Secondly, if we can change the idea of School Choice, that will take some pressure off of schools to spend money on marketing campaigns, fairs, and giveaways that many times just get pitched, and really take a look at where money might make a difference for student achievement. Can we hire more coaches to help with literacy and math? Provide smaller class sizes for teachers to be able to work with smaller groups in a more effective way? Maybe we would have more latitude to be creative with scheduling to provide opportunities for enrichment, re-teaching, challenges for students above grade level, and non-traditional learning opportunities.
Teacher evaluation is also an area that needs to be cleared up. Right now there is no standard for evaluations. School districts were able to choose from a variety of models and the implementation of those models is still convoluted and not clear at all. Implementation of the same model can look vastly different across school districts. The state has not explained what student growth measure should be used for deciding the level of effectiveness of a teacher. This school year, 50% of a teacher evaluation is based on student growth. But it’s not clear what assessment will be used to measure that achievement – M-STEP? District assessment? Grade-level content assessment? It is unacceptable that teachers are held to a standard that is constantly changing. A complete lack of leadership and too much playing politics has led to an unsustainable situation where no one is clear on what the expectations are.
Lastly, I think it would be valuable for university schools of education to work to partner with area school districts to provide the same kind of on-the-job-training similar to doctors and residents in a medical program. I believe this will help new graduates be more prepared for the day-to-day “stuff” of teaching and will also be useful for universities and schools to share resources and access.
While these are not easy solutions and will involve a shift in how we view education at a lot of different levels, I believe it is crucial for education to shift if we are to truly change the focus, improve student engagement and achievement, and actually modify the types of learning students are involved in.