Improving instruction? Time, not theory.

How will educators most efficiently improve instructional practices in the modern classroom in the years to come?

No question is more important to the academic success of children who attend the public schools. Strangely enough, we might take our lead from the world of sports.

Shortly after Tiger Woods won the Masters’ Championship in the Spring of 2001, a reporter asked his swing coach, Butch Harmon, what it was like to teach the best golfer in the world. Harmon replied, “It is not a matter of my ‘teaching’ Tiger anything; he is just too knowledgeable about his swing. Mostly Tiger tells me what he is working on and I just act as his eyes while he swings the club.”

Kindly note that nowhere does Mr. Harmon mention endless lectures on golf theory that Tiger probably committed to memory long ago.

No. That scenario is reserved for our educators.

Attend almost any school-based, in-service training session and one might not believe that the room is mostly filled with knowledgeable and experienced practitioners of the teaching craft. What passes for “teacher training” is almost invariably one-size-fits-all, mind-numbing presentations sprinkled with the latest jargon for recently re-discovered instructional protocols with which the majority of the participants are already familiar.

When it comes to staff development, management consistently confuses presentation of theoretical principles with guidance toward more proficient pedagogical practice largely because that is all that can be accomplished in a quarterly “drive-by” session of professional development.

So, experienced and successful teachers rail at the fates when compelled to listen for the umpteenth time to a few hours of educationalese first heard untold years ago. Many teachers perceive these exercises as a massive waste of professional time when in their classrooms sit 100 papers to correct, an assessment to prepare, tomorrow’s lessons to be refreshed, data to be entered, calls home to be made, piles of folders to be filed, a Web site to be updated, copies to be made and a couple referrals to be written to guidance and the administration.

Yes, certain foundational knowledge in pedagogy is an absolute necessity for all teachers, especially those just entering the profession.

However, it can also be vigorously argued that, to date, countless hours of seat time in college courses devoted to educational theory have failed to deliver adequate numbers of proficient instructors prepared for the travails of the modern classroom.

So, what makes us think that attempting to cram entire three-credit classes into three-hour presentations every other month, or so, will drastically improve the performance of classroom instructors? When fortunate enough to encourage attempts at implementation, the first attempts range between rough around the edges to abject crash & burns. Without follow-up and coaching, a promising new protocol is frequently abandoned out of frustration. Professional Development as an isolated event does little more than frustrate and annoy presenters and spectators alike. That heartfelt observation comes from a professional educator that has spent time on both sides of the podium.

So, what will dramatically improve instructional practice across the board? Allowing teachers to spend less of the schools day in front of students and more time in the classrooms of more experienced colleagues delivering instruction. Telling teachers how to teach is far less effective than demonstrating effective practices.

New teachers too often find themselves isolated and floundering in a classroom with who-knows-how-many-children for approaching 300 minutes each day. Call it what you will: “sink or swim” or “trial and error”.  At the very least, newcomers to the profession need time set aside to observe successful teachers in the act  of teaching to see the subtle tricks of the trade in practice. They also need to be frequently observed by other teachers who can provide prompt – and appropriate – feedback without the interference of what can sometimes be an “adversarial” relationship with a supervisor.

Experienced teachers would likewise profit from regular opportunities to observe their colleagues. It is impossible to know where a new insight or practice will be discovered and later applied. Decades ago, a certain foreign language teacher observed a renowned math teacher and adapted several of the observed techniques for use in the foreign language classroom. That math teacher later expressed wonder that “math” ideas could transfer into another discipline. Teachers will imitate effective instructional practice once they see it implemented effectively. 

Moreover, systematic observation should not be limited to new teachers and a few mentors. All teachers would profit from frequent collegial observations. First, teachers are far more likely to try a new technique when they have directly witnessed its successful implementation. Second, it is just human nature to put on a bit more of a show for spectators. Third, just as Tiger might have asked Butch if he is turning his wrists over too early on the downswing, one colleague might ask another colleague to look for certain behaviors and solicit advice on overcoming challenges.

Welcome to my pipe dream.

Instituting such a program would require a staffing ratio that would furnish adequate time for teachers to expand their pedagogical repertoire in a school system that has yet to furnish sufficient time for corrections and planning.

You may wonder why systematic observation of colleagues is so important….

If your child had serious legal difficulties would you seek out legal counsel that had never spent a day in the second chair observing other, more experienced attorneys navigating the intricacies of the courtroom?

If your child needed a complex medical procedure would you seek out a surgeon who had only listened to descriptions of the the medical protocol to be employed, or one who had observed and assisted more experienced colleagues with that procedure countless times?

Would you question the cost?

Does it sound reasonable that a teacher candidate can graduate from college one day, enter the classroom as a teacher on the morrow, assume total responsibility for the intellectual development of a room full of children and seldom, if ever, have opportunities to observe experienced and successful teachers?

It is only reasonable if your children are not accompanying their teacher on the long, solitary journey along the serendipitous path of trial and error.

 

Further Reading: Gates Foundation: Impatient Optimists

 

 

[The original “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in September/October 2001. It has been revised. ]

Nurturing in Infancy Prepares Toddlers for Success

What if the attributes of personality most responsible for academic initiative develop between birth and the age of two years? What if the confidence, courage and curiosity of children are the direct outcome of parental nurturing during the first two years of life? The implications for educators would be enormous.

In his book Why Children Succeed author Paul Tough presents a number of findings that seem to suggest that children become intrepid toddlers in direct proportion to the frequency and intensity of parental nurturing in the two years immediately following birth. Children who want for attentive nurturing during infancy, conversely, tend to be more fearful and unsure of themselves.

The former are more inclined to persevere when challenged; the latter more inclined to surrender when faced with adversity. The former seek to explore; the latter tend toward tentativeness.

For early childhood educators, compensating for this reality represents one more high hurdle to clear in meeting the needs of every child. As someone quite eloquently posted on Facebook recently, “We must cope with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs before we can hope to address Bloom’s taxonomy of learning.”

Initiating  children into age-appropriate educational settings at an earlier age is a categorical imperative if remediation falls, as of course it will, to classroom educators. Determining what interventions will ensure that all children begin schooling on an level playing field will be no small task. For too long we have been worried that schools are leaving children behind when in reality too many children arrive at school wearing the intellectual shackles of their socio-economic circumstance.

We must attempt to eradicate the erroneous concept – still held as certain, by some – that not much is happening in the mind of an infant. We now know that infants are actively engaged in figuring out their place in the world almost from the moment they are born, if not before. Rudiments of the ambient language appear in the babbling of infants at three months of age provided that speech samples and face time are ample.

Infants develop confidence in direct proportion to their perceived importance to the adult caregivers in their lives. Near-constant mental stimulation from birth to two years lays the foundation for the habits of mind to follow; training and encouragement furnish confidence and willingness to fail and overcome challenges. These traits are essential to future academic success, and they likely emerge at much earlier stages of development than previously believed.

Perhaps it is time for a series of public service announcements targeting young parents regarding the importance of active parenting for brain stimulation in those first critical years. Surely, the medical, religious and education communities could put together adult education programs that teach the foundational nurturing behaviors that infants require to travel the road to self actualization.

Some might interpret this as an intrusion into the private lives of parents. Still, the founder of the Children’s Defense League, Marion Wright Edelman, asserts that “… protecting today’s children, tomorrow’s Mandela or Mother Theresa, is the moral and common sense litmus test of our humanity…”

Further Reading:

[The original commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on 10/28/2014. It has been slightly revised.]

Expectations of heroic proportions are killing the teaching profession

In most instances, heroism should be reflected by isolated events and not the requirements of a job description.

Most acts of heroism occur in extraordinary circumstances when an individual overcomes normal fears and acts, usually involving considerable risk to self, to extract another soul from imminent peril.

Jumping into frigid waters to save someone from drowning, pulling someone from a vehicle fully engulfed in flames, falling on a grenade to save the rest of the unit from certain extinction, these are all most certainly heroic acts. In recent years, too many teachers have furnished that “last full measure of devotion” while saving children from demented gunmen or crumbling walls during a tornado. Each of these isolated instances reflects human pathos, not “other duties as assigned“.

Herein resides the dilemma for educators in the Age of Accountability. The only path to excellence and professional acclaim is tied, apparently irrevocably, to what has become known as the “Heroic Model” which demands total devotion of self to the profession. Selflessness has become the standard for assessing teacher effectiveness, and anything less has nearly become cause for disciplinary action. The altruism reflected in the résumés of most Teachers of the Year usually represents an unsustainable comittment across the span of a career.

Almost invariably, educators enter the profession expressing the idealistic ambition of influencing, in a positive way, the lives of children. The community’s failure to furnish sufficient human and material resources has, however, a deadly  effect on those generous tendencies. Entry level educators saddled by student loan debt, and at a time when they should be devoting all their efforts to the perfection of their craft and addressing the needs of children, find themselves instead taking on a second job out of dire necessity.

Disillusion sets in quickly, and that can be measured by the nearly six out of 10 that decline to endure a sixth year in the classroom.

When a relatively inexperienced teacher recently complained to a colleague about feeling burned out, a colleague replied, “You haven’t been around long enough to be burned out, dear, you are just tired.” Perception, however, is often reality.

To the degree that the effort required to teach effectively is associated with feelings of exhaustion and despair, the children of any community will be disadvantaged. Demanding decades of heroic, superhuman effort, and adding ever more responsibilities to the job description for educators,  are no longer sustainable practices for the public schools.

Further Reading: Those Weren’t the Days, My Friend

[This is an expanded version of a  Commentary that originally appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette on October 24, 2013.]

Educating Youth as Survival Skill; or, the Needs of the Species

Perhaps erroneously, Albert Einstein is credited with the quote, “Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not yet completely sure about the universe.” It could be argued that institutionalized “ignorance“, not inherited “stupidity“, ranks as one of our greatest failings as a species. The former can be remediated; the latter is more problematic.

At times, the collective folly of our unintended consequences stretches the limits of credulity. Society must accept the challenge of forging intellects capable of well-reasoned deliberation on topics such as antibiotic resistant disease, planetary deforestation and the loss of bio-diversity. Humankind seems reluctant to dwell on the most salient imperative of our collective hierarchy of needs: survival. We are largely powerless to guarantee our individual survival even to reach our theoretical “expiration date”, but we can contribute to the needs of the species by reducing the risk of extermination for our progeny.

Otherwise, homo sapiens risks earning the distinction of becoming the first species to self-annihilate. It matters little to the dead whether Armageddon is accomplished knowingly or unwittingly. The tragedy is that the human race still devotes so much effort to self-destruction and so little to surviving the threats posed by nature, not the least of which are comet or asteroid impact, eruption of a super volcano, or Earth being the center of the bulls-eye for a coronal mass ejection, all of which spell existential doom for life on this planet.

Currently, industrial agriculture employs pesticides and fungicides that appear to be collapsing most of the bee colonies in North America. The loss of cross-pollination provided at the foundation of the food chain clearly endangers food production for those at the top. Lack of diversity in the agricultural industry risks the food supply and famine if a new pathogen is introduced to non-resistant crops.

Hopelessly addicted to the easy profits generated by burning fossil fuels, petroligarchs furiously deny the the risk of climate change and rising sea levels despite incontrovertible evidence that the polar ice caps are disappearing. The vanishing ice caps are adversely affecting the life cycle of krill one step above phyto-plankton as the foundation of the oceanic food chain.

If our ground water survives the loss of the glaciers, hydraulic fracking releases toxic chemicals into the water table, pours methane into the atmosphere and appears to be destabilizing geological sub-strata. If that is not sufficient risk, the citizens of Flint, Michigan have been exposed to lead leached from water pipes by the toxic chemicals in the water supply. There, children will be subjected to chelation therapy and hope for the best going forward. Flint, Michigan may just be the proverbial “tip-of-the-iceberg”.

Our decades-long flirtation with nuclear fission creates poisonous and deadly by-products that must be permanently entombed for a geological epoch while humans have built little that endures for more than a few generations. The entire Pacific basin is in immediate peril following the abject collapse of so-called “fail-safe” measures at the Fukushima Daichi power plant. Where is this century’s Manhattan Project to surpass the break even point in a fusion reactor and deliver energy to the world from converting hydrogen atoms into a harmless and useful by-product for industry: helium.

Perhaps, then, we could move more effectively to lighter-than-air vehicles and decrease the emissions from jet aircraft which were shown to be contributing to climate change by an experiment conducted in the days following 9/11 when aircraft were grounded for a number of days and the global temperature dropped.

Vast stockpiles of 20 megaton hydrogen bombs still threaten to rain down on our cities what Carl Sagan described as “…an entire World War II every few seconds for the span of a lazy afternoon.” Over the centuries, our species has shown little restraint when it comes to waging war or utilizing horrific weapons.

To halt a descent into apocalyptic chaos in the coming century, we will require competent scientists, engineers, doctors and geneticists following the sage counsel of ethicists, philosophers, clergy and statesmen. The very survival of our species depends on vibrant educational models that nurture a universally well-informed citizenry. As Isaac Asimov pointed out so cogently, “If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we solve them.”


[This original version of this commentary appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette on June 05, 2014. This version has been revised and expanded.]

No room for error on the education “assembly line”

The assembly line must be counted among the most important innovations of the industrial age. This revolution in manufacturing created jobs for the labor force and supplied affordable creature comforts to consumers, elevating the standard of living to unprecedented heights.

It is impossible to measure with precision the effects of mass production on our daily lives. So, it is probably natural that we turned to the assembly line model when deciding how best to educate our children while overlooking the reality that children are not uniform little widgets.

Elegant it its simplicity, the model moves the units (children) from workstation to workstation (classroom) where each worker (teacher) installs a new part (knowledge).

Few could have predicted the shortcomings:

  • First, this model ignores the widely varying aptitudes and cognitive styles of students that exponentially increase the challenges confronted by teachers.
  • Second, the assembly-line model offers no direct “profit” motive for those investing in schools since their is no saleable product at the end. Altruism fails to persuade as an argument for adequately funding the public schools. Americans prefer the relatively immediate gratification of dividends and profit statements.
  • Ultimately the system fails because bureaucrats learned nothing from the hard-earned lessons of the industrial age.

Relatively early in the industrial revolution, managers of assembly lines figured out that setting the line at too high a speed meant that workers were more likely to make mistakes. Furthermore, endless repetition of even a simple task inevitably led to boredom and error. Consequently, assembly lines were slowed and workers periodically exchanged workstations. This resulted in fewer breakdowns and higher, not lower, production of the product for the markeplace.

Regrettably, this wisdom has yet to find its way into the public schools. The conditions that teachers face in the classroom today frighteningly resemble the conditions confronted nearly a century ago. Today, however, a much higher percentage of students remain in school.

Sure, a few more tools exist for increasing productivity. Still, it mostly boils down to just one teacher responsible for the care and instruction of nearly three dozen clients at a time for around 275 minutes a day.

For “on-stage” instruction to be engaging and optimally effective, each minute of direct instruction requires at least one minute of planning. For children to be held accountable for their learning, teachers must allot a similar amount of time to the evaluation of student work.

Teaching is really three jobs in one. The schoolhouse assembly line continues to run full-bore every day, from start to finish. Then, the “behind-the-scenes” work begins.

In the meantime, the line forms at the rear for stakeholders and bureaucrats assigning new tasks to be performed, new initiatives to be undertaken, new programs to be implemented, new accountability measures to be administered, new advice to be considered and new students to be included.

Today the school day summons up the memory of a favorite episode of “I Love Lucy.” Each of us remembers the plight of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Murtz in the candy factory. As the conveyor belt speeds up, Lucy & Ethel fail to keep up with wrapping and boxing the candy at the desired speed.

She stuffs some candy in her pockets, conceals some in the folds of her dress, eats a few pieces and discards others. Her short stint on the assembly line is hilarious and the skit rightfully belongs in the annals of classic comedy.

That we routinely subject teachers and students to such treatment is a tragedy for modern times.

Further Reading: Dismissing the Factory Model School


[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct The Prince George’s County Journal on June 4, 2003. It has been revised for readability. This still is from the Lucille Ball on-line archive.]

An education dream left in the shadow of an eternal flame

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy has come and gone…

My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Turner, steps out of the classroom for a minute and returns, visibly shaken and distraught, to announce that we will be dismissed to the buses and sent home a little early today because President Kennedy has been killed in Dallas.

The baby boom generation’s first so-called “flashbulb” memory, virtually everyone alive on Nov. 22, 1963, remembers, with almost photographic precision, the moment they heard the news. Indelibly burned into my mind’s eye is the image of my mother, Kleenex in hand, her eyes swollen from an afternoon of weeping in front of the television waiting on every word from Walter Cronkite, then the news anchorman for CBS. Given the vivid nature of the memories, it is difficult to comprehend that half a century separates us from that dark hour of American history.

It is fraught with unintended irony that, this fiftieth year after his loss, the end of American Education Week will coincide with a landmark anniversary of such a deep scar on our national psyche. Is it not worrisome that, in the intervening decades, we have never again focused with such laser-like intensity on achievable national goals such as landing a man on the moon and returning him safely? Is it not disturbing that political agendas now seem most intent on erecting roadblocks and barricades to noble and visionary causes?

My generation, the one called to commit itself to national service and the common good, will forever wonder whether JFK might have inspired this nation to achieve his goal of giving all children “the right to an education to the limit of their ability.”

As we celebrate our educational accomplishments and set our goals for the future, it is abundantly clear that this nation possesses sufficient resources to meet the needs of every child. It is not clear, however, that we will ever muster the political will to render ZIP codes irrelevant to educational opportunity so that we create a world free of the concept of disposable children.

Further Reading @ The Prince George’s Sentinel

 

[The original of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on November 21, 2013. It has been slightly revised for the purpose of rendering more current.]

Read early and often for more successful children

In Broca’s Brain Carl Sagan offered the following wisdom, “We are an intelligent species and the use of our intelligence quite properly gives us pleasure. In this respect the brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we feel very good. Understanding is joyous.”

While our brain has served us well in comprehending the world, only recently have we begun to understand the marvelous machinery of the human brain. In the coming decades understanding its workings will prove invaluable in altering the educational process.

Apparently, the brain is hard at work seeking order in the world much earlier than anyone previously believed. It is now known that a mother’s recorded heartbeat will pacify a distraught newborn while a stranger’s recorded heartbeat does not.

Record the babbling of six-month-old infants in their cribs and anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of linguistics can likely determine which language is spoken in the ambient culture. The sound production of babies is clearly not random noise. The phonetic system of the surrounding language is unmistakably present in the utterances of infants.

It is clear that the acquisition of spoken language begins almost immediately after, if not prior to, leaving the birth canal.

One method of teaching music to toddlers, the Suzuki method, involves training toddlers and parents, taking the lessons together, to play a musical instrument by ear. Typically, the children enhance their self-esteem as they quickly outpace their parents in the acquisition of musical skills. Brain researchers have recently established that children who start this method at three years of age exhibit an extra lobe on the brain by adolescence. An intellectual stimulus inspires a physical growth response!

Ninety percent of those possessing this extra lobe “acquire” perfect-pitch, or the otherwise rare ability to name any frequency they hear.

We can only wonder if the extra “fold” in Albert Einstein’s parietal lobe grew as a result of his precocious contemplation on the nature of electro-magnetism and the “invisible” force of gravity…

On the other end of the brain-function spectrum are found so-called “feral” children. Across the centuries several children have by unfortunate happenstance arrived at adolescence completely deprived of familial nurturing and social intercourse. Despite decades of remediation, none have learned to communicate anything meaningful by speech beyond the level of the simple mimicry of sounds.

These anecdotes from disparate sources, and others too numerous to be treated here, suggest that there may be finite windows-of-opportunity for optimizing brain function in certain domains. Many of those windows open and close in the years between birth and the current age for starting school.

Do you want to see improved performance in our public schools? Do you want to make the most important investment that can be made in the lives of children? Do you feel the need to do really good works and serve others?

  • Read to children.
  • Read to your children.
  • Read to your grandchildren.
  • Read to your neighbor’s children.

Tell everyone you know to read to every child they know every day for as long as possible. Start conversations with children by asking them what they have read lately.

Start reading to children when they are in the crib. Give infants your “face-time”. Let babies watch you form sounds. Watch them try to mimic the movements of your face. Imitation is the first learning skill. It is how children learn to operate their speech equipment.

Sit beside them and read the newspaper, or even your bills. Play with your voice and make it sound like a story. At that age the meaning is not as important as the stimulation of the sound of your voice.

As they get older start including rhymes…

  • Read to children at your school.
  • Read to children at your pool.
  • Do not let children play the fool!
  • Teach your children that reading’s cool!

Any questions?

As soon as children are willing and able, have them read to you. Make it fun and praise them mightily. Make it a priority to spend a lot more time with, and a little less money on, the children in your life. Shoes and toys will be discarded; memories and knowledge will endure.

Children, like everyone else, do best what they do most. Their future success, like it or not, will likely be determined by how well they read. How well children read will be determined in no small part by the importance the adults in their lives attach to the act of reading. Make sure that children see you reading. Lock the television in the closet and bring it out on special occasions; make books a part of daily life.

Or, television could be used for a higher purpose. Perhaps the Prince George’s County Public Schools could produce a show for cable called Bedtime Stories. It could spotlight a different teacher every night reading a story to a small group of children settling in for a nap. The show could be subtitled, or the text could be displayed on split screen. The teacher would model the behaviors of effective readers. Teachers in the schools could assign it as homework, and perhaps little brothers and sisters would be caught up in the fun.

Perhaps this would help reach into households where the marginal literacy of adult caregivers precludes children from achieving their innate potential.

The intellectual stimuli that induce the reading explosion must occur well prior to registration at school. An introduction to the foundational precursors of reading must occur long before the introduction of a  kindergarten teacher. Preschoolers who lack reading skills arrive way back in the pack at the starting line, unprepared for the race to come, and condemned to more than a decade of trying to gain ground on the more advantaged.

Some years ago a bumper sticker declared, “If you can read this, thank a teacher!” A new message is needed for a more enlightened age. “Help a teacher, read this to your child.”

 

 

[ Originally appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on 07 November 2001. It has been slightly revised for style and readability.]

It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature, especially in school

Mother Nature is not kind.

The travails and woes of the individual are irrelevant to the remorseless devices of nature. Except for those currently being schooled in Kansas, nature is about the business of improving species through competition for resources in narrow ecological niches. Compete, or be replaced by the more competitive, such is the fate of most living organisms.

Only humankind purports to have improved systematically on this protocol. The horrors of war and indiscriminate violence notwithstanding, humanity claims to cherish the individual. Perhaps it will be our legacy that even those perceived as “weak” were nurtured. Even those that would surely perish in nature contribute, and sometimes mightily, to the common good.

Still, Mother Nature cares not a whit.

Designated wetlands surround my sub-development. There, at least to some degree, flora and fauna grow in accordance with the laws of nature. The seeds fall where they may on the nearly impenetrable clay that is prevalent in this area. The trees are seldom separated by more than a few feet.

These are not the well-ordered orchards of my youth where each tree was given ample space to dig deep into the earth for nutrients and spread ample foliage to collect sunlight. Those fruit trees were not compelled to overwhelm their neighbors to survive. Those trees were placed in circumstances where each could prosper.

Not here in my neighborhood, though, because here the competition begins almost immediately. Most of those trees sprint skyward on tall, thin trunks. First tree to gain maximum altitude wins. Their adaptation is to deny other trees sunlight by creating a canopy. To survive in the forest, trees are forced to choke the competition.

Even this is a shortsighted strategy, though. For later on when those harsh nor’easters arrive in winter, those trees fortunate enough to have won the race to unlimited sunlight find that their roots are not deep enough to hold agains the fury of nature. It is often the highest trees that we see knocked down come spring.

Nor are the trees grown in this scenario good for much but kindling small fires. There is no stout lumber here, no future shelter to be constructed, not even much shade for sultry summer days. The trees here survive, but they do not thrive. Overcrowding does not work for trees, nor for much else in nature, for that matter…

How have we come to think that it will work for our children?

Welcome, once again, to a classroom.

The year starts with classes that number in the mid-thirties crammed into a room that was designed to seat 25 comfortably. Optimal nurturing is not an option.

Teachers are directed to be up-and-about, always among the students, guiding their efforts, supervising their activities, and reinforcing desired behaviors. Too frequently, it is impossible to take a step between the rows without stepping on a foot, jostling a student, or kicking a book bag. It is impossible to turn to one student asking for help with invading another student’s space. Hence, activities are directed from the front of the room, not from preference, but from necessity.

Unlike the indifferent sun, teachers must concern themselves with every soul in their care. Teachers must not allow the academically gifted to prosper at the expense of the weaker students in the class. Nor can the stronger students be allowed to arrive at maturity with shallow roots lest they succumb to the first real difficulty they face. Conversely, the teacher must also impede the unruly behavior of students who would disrupt the education of their peers.

Teachers must not arbitrarily dismiss the weak. Ultimately, teachers must ensure that each student has access to the light of knowledge. The job requires the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon, and a tacit understanding that “disposable income” will remain forever at the end of some distant rainbow.

Three dozen children compete for the attention of one oft-frazzled adult. Some seek attention by standing out academically, but some challenged students choose other less-productive ways of gaining attention. The half of the class closest to the “mean” decides, often haphazardly, which option to exercise.

So many students – so little time. Our children need a host of resources that our school system is conspicuously lacking. Take your pick: space, teacher-time, time-on-task, current materials, timely feedback, personal security, adequate furniture… Prince George’s County has yet to prove itself a “can-do” jurisdiction when it comes to educational effort; rather, it is the home of “make-do”.

When the bulldozers came to clear the land for my house, the vagaries of construction spared one middle-aged oak. Some 40 feet tall and scarcely a branch below 30 feet, the trunk of this tree basked in sunlight for the first time in decades as the neighboring trees were felled. A few years have passed. Now that tree sports thick foliage along its entire trunk. This tree has nearly completely recovered. I like to think I have much in common with that old tree.

Over 40 years ago this young Prince Georgian succumbed to the combined stresses of a low socio-economic status, unbridled competition and societal indifference by joining the ranks of high school dropouts. The years that followed were enlightening with regard to the importance of a formal education. Decades later the anger about being allowed to slip through the cracks has dissipated. At that time, mine was just one more mind to feed.

Classes were overcrowded even then. Teachers were overworked and underpaid even then. The caseload for administrators and counselors was overwhelming even then. Nearly, half a century has passed and it is clear that little has changed save the quadrupling of the amount of information today’s students must absorb and a virtual universe of e-skills they must acquire in order to compete in a post-industrial economy.

Given the increasing number of tasks the schools are expected to perform in the same eight hours a day, where are the extra resources to accomplish them?

After decades of mediocrity in education, is it not time for our schools to resemble orchards more than forests? Is it not time for the community to provide the resources necessary to nurture all children? We had best strengthen our resolve, or to paraphrase George Herbert, we shall have no harvest but a thorn.

 

[The original version of this “Viewpoint” appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal on December 20,1999. It has been slightly revised and updated. ]

Testing companies are the ‘real winners’ in Race to the Top

 

[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on April 12, 2012. It has been slightly revised.] 

Teachers’ realities clash with career perception

In social settings the topic of discussion will frequently turn to public education. Soon, acquaintances will discuss teacher compensation, class size, academic apathy, non-stop standardized assessments, or inadequate resources. Almost invariably, some arm-chair educator will admonish even the most-committed, career educator by observing, “Well, you knew what you were getting into when you became a teacher!”

Nothing could be farther from the truth!

A wide chasm yawns between the heartfelt desire to teach and actually learning what it means to be a teacher. Prior to entering the profession, few teachers ever anticipate the travails they will confront. That knowledge must arise from cumulative experience.

In methodology class, teacher candidates will learn that meaningful homework is critical for reinforcing recently-introduced academic skills. In real life, after scolding a student for not having his assignment, they might discover that he has been living in a van with his family for months.

A professor of pedagogy might warn that future students will face self-esteem issues and that “praise of desired behaviors” is a critical part of the instructional program. In no way does that prepare for the day you notice the multiple scars of self-inflicted mutilation on your first “cutter”.

Most teachers are simply looking to “pay it forward” for a teacher that changed their lives, but the glow of altruism fades a little with each report of suspected bruising, peer bullying, neglect, altered-consciousness, or sexual abuse, especially when followed by the realization that that sufficient resources to intervene effectively on behalf of every child will not be forthcoming.

The blogger, Alan Kazdin, recently opined, “When someone is drowning, that is not the time to teach them to swim.” It may not be time, either, to expect them to pass a swimming test.

One thing is clear. The pandemic of disenchantment with careers in public education is the direct outcome of the hopes of practitioners not meshing with the reality they encounter.

Further Reading: The Prince George’s Sentinel

[The original version of this commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on January 30, 2014.]