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Grown-ups like numbers

Since there has been an education system, there has been a debate amongst administrators, policy makers, students, teachers, and concerned citizens about the best way to educate and motivate children.  In American politics today, education reform receives a huge amount of attention because of the overwhelming statistics that rank our public education system poorly among the countries of the world.  So, what is wrong with our schools?  How can we improve current practice?

A host of responses has arisen identifying problems and offering solutions to administrators and policy makers.  Some suggest practical solutions like reducing class sizes, starting school at a younger age, improving technology, standardizing curriculums, increasing funding, or buying better textbooks.  Others believe theoretical changes like using positive and negative reinforcement in the classroom will help, or that maybe we need to change our cultural norms, or give students the opportunity to facilitate their own learning.

After years of testing all of these variables (and others) only a few solid conclusions can be reached.  First, not one of these solutions is a cure-all for education.  It is evident that these solutions are interlocking and by manipulating one variable, another would be affected as well.  Second, education is a difficult thing to quantify.  Different people learn in different ways and most are better at one thing than another.  Trying to place absolute solutions on something as complex and gorged with economic, political, cultural, environmental, genetic, and social issues is impossible.  It is easy to see why on the whole, the system has not changed a lot from when it began in America.  If repeated analyses produce mixed results, is there really a solution?  Is it possible that the answer here is “none (or all) of the above?”

In the past week, I went to listen to E.D. Hirsh speak about his newest book, The Knowledge Deficit. I read his older book, The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them last semester and enjoyed a lot of what he said.  Particularly his ideas about beginning school at a younger age and building more detailed curriculums.  Well, the speech Tuesday did little but bother me. First of all, the majority of the talk was glorifying our education system as a “secular institution” where the Pledge of Allegiance is simply a pledge to our beautiful conglomerate melting pot as a society of great acceptance and diversity. (Ironically I turn on the TV today and find that Arizona now believes it is acceptable to pull over citizens who look like Mexicans just for looking like Mexicans.) Second, he oversimplified the issue and overgeneralized. He basically said that if we standardize our curriculum, all of our students will be magically become super smart via osmosis.  He believes we have forgotten how to instill just plain, simple knowledge in the minds of our children. Not once did the man mention socio-economic issues as a possible cause for the “achievement gap.” Nothing about pedagogy. Nothing about the tenure system.

Anyway, I much preferred listening to Bill Ayers the terrorist tell me that we need nurturing teachers that understand how complex a classroom is- teachers that seek to improve their arsenal of methodologies so that they can address individual academic needs.  Which, lets face it, no person learns exactly the same way and we can’t exactly quantify intelligence truly.

What it all reminds me of is The Little Prince:

“Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: “What does his voice sound like?” “What games does he like best?” “Does he collect butterflies?”. They ask: “How old is he?” “How many brothers does he have?” “How much does he weigh?” “How much money does his father make?” Only then do they think they know him.”

It is a difficult thing to be the first to write in this blog.  But, I’ll cut the dramatics of placing an insightful quote or life story here, because I suppose introductions are in order.

My name is Natalie Sheeler. I am a Graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh in the area of Education.  Specifically, Social and Comparative Analysis in Education (SCAE).  If you are unfamiliar with this field, it is fairly new and burgeoning.  Don’t be alarmed if you haven’t heard the title.  Without a doubt, it’s precise definition will be shared, but for the moment I am going to characterize it as Jennifer Asmonga did when she initially sold the program to me at Propel Montour Charter School- “it’s kind of like an international education thing.”  More discourse will be needed here.

Myself and my friends in the program decided to create this blog with a hope of not only finding a space to purge our ideas and frustrations, but to do so publicly, in a sort of dialogue with other budding experts.  In fact, I haven’t gotten a chance to run this by all of my fellow SCAE colleagues, but I would guess we will welcome guest experts to share as well.

I am beginning this dialogue where I began it last night at Hemingway’s bar in Oakland, PA, with the article from Newsweek from the week of March 6, 2010 titled “Why We Must Fire Bad Teachers.” The narrative is generally pleasant, agreeable, and easy to read, making it acceptable to readers from most tracks of life.  This phenomenon- this trickery- was explained well by Bill Ayers last week during his visit to the University of Pittsburgh’s CGSE conference.  He proposed, who would disagree with the notion of getting rid of bad teachers?  Of course we want good teachers in the classroom.  But, why do we have to frame it so negatively?  Why are we discussing firing bad teachers rather than hiring good ones, or improving the student teacher ratio- a concept shown to improve student performance repeatedly?

I could not find a picture of the cover of Newsweek, but instead I found this image that is from The Simpsons.  I like it better, after all I am a substitute teacher. 🙂

In the article, the author explains that in Finland hired teachers come from the top 10 percent of their graduating class, but in America teachers come from the top 33%.  Could it be possible this is because of the wage?  Well, this is something I can investigate easily.  This website ranks starting salaries of teachers internationally.  America ranks above Finland.  However, this does not take into account the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).  Regardless, I am no economist, and the answer does not seem to lie here. But it is certain that the least desirable schools to work in, that need the best teachers, pay educators the poorest. I doubt that Finnish school systems have this problem, though I am unsure of how they fund schools in general there. I do know however, that district-based funding certainly does not place American children at an equal starting position.

What’s more interesting is the gender roles suggested by the author.  They explain that since the women’s rights movement, females have taken jobs in higher paying atmospheres – draining lower paying jobs (such as teachers) of highly qualified female employees. I certainly hope the author is not suggesting that only women should be in educator positions, or that the women’s right movement is to blame for our disheveled education system.

Anyhow, Newsweek, I’m disappointed.  Rhode Island, I’m disappointed. Obama, I’m disappointed.  Why is our K-12 system so hard to improve in America?  Maybe it’s the lack of advocates on the positive side of the street.

-Natalie