PSA: Education is Not Just About Teaching

I am tirrrrrreeeeeeddd of explaining to people that professors of education do NOT just ‘teach teachers’. And that no, education is not ‘what all professors do’. All professors educate; they do not teach education. Education, like any field, is theory driven. Music professors teach music theory; dance professors teach the history of dance; chemistry professors teach scientific concepts. To perfect a practice, you must first understand its origins, its purpose, its social influences. Professors of education teach all of that, not solely ‘how to teach’.

In fact, most undergraduate education programs do not have ‘methods’ courses (classes where you learn how to teach) as a part of their course offerings. Methods courses are reserved for people who’ve decided they want to teach as their career. In those classes you learn pedagogy, not theory or content.  Those courses are often accompanied by practicums in local schools or educational organizations. Their intent is to provide you with the required coursework and teaching experience necessary to receive a teaching licensure in your state.

That is not what I do (primarily). 85% of my year is spent teaching undergraduate courses like Intro Education, Urban Education, Educational Psychology, Policy and Politics in Educations, and Education Reform. I even throw in some cooler classes about educational cinema and sexuality in schools. Courses such as these are meant to provide students whose primary academic interests lie in other areas with a foundational understanding of the social and political influences on—and outcomes of—our educational system. Pretty cool stuff.

Education is indeed found in all aspects of life. One of the reasons I chose this field over psychology is because it is applicable everywhere and accessible to everyone. It is historical and futuristic; it is constant and dynamic; it is personal and universal. Though often viewed as a ‘soft science’ it is one of the most difficult fields in which to research and teach. Where else do theories guiding practices change with the publishing of new studies across four disciplines? In what other fields do policies passed over 50 years ago still affect the content of syllabi? Who else must watch the international, national, and local news, follow tweets, and read multiple newspapers on a daily basis just to keep up with issues that have direct effects on your lesson plan for the day? I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from a reading I came across in graduate school:

Easy-to-do science is what those in physics, chemistry, geology, and some other fields do. Hard-to-do science is what the social scientists do and, in particular, it is what we educational researchers do. We do our science under conditions that physical scientists find intolerable. We face particular problems and must deal with local conditions that limit generalizations and theory building–problems that are different from those faced by the easier-to-do sciences.
-David Berliner (2002)

10 Things for which I’m Grateful

As we celebrate Thanksgiving 2012, I thought I’d take the time to identify the aspects of our educational system for which I am thankful. Here we go:

I am thankful because…

1)      Children have a right to education in this country

2)      We actually HAVE a free education system

3)      Our education system is far less gendered than those in many other countries

4)      We have many educational options that fit diverse student interests

5)      We have the money to send every child in this country to college

6)      Parents, to some extent, have a choice where they send their child to school

7)      In general, we have free transportation to school

8)      We have laws that prevent discrimination and abuse in schools

9)      Schooling generally comes with after-school, extra curricular activities

10)  We have the knowledge, finances, and drive to have the best educational opportunities in the world

I’m thankful to be a teacher in this underperforming-weakly veiled segregated-potential having-screwed up system of the United States of America.

Mostly, I’m thankful for the opportunity to change it.

Race-Based Education Goals

Race-based Education Goals in VA

Yep, it’s happened. Virginia (who like 32 other states opted out of NCLB) has done it. They are the second state to institute race-based testing goals (Florida did it too, but their bar wasn’t quite so low). In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 10 years, let me summarize: Asian students outperform White students who outperform Latino students who (sometimes) outperform African American students.  Using that very consistent data, Virginia has instituted passing rates that are different for each demographic. Asians must reach the 82nd percentile, Whites the 68th, Latinos the 52nd and African Americans the 45th.

Their justification for this: We must meet students where they start and develop realistic expectations for their academic achievement.

Now, I bet some of you are waiting for me to be outraged. To declare like many others that this stinks of racism, segregation, and Jim Crow. It does. But what is marginally different here is the reasoning. This decision has not been made off the basis of skin color; it has been made off the basis of data. Now, here is where I get upset (you knew it was coming).

The ‘data’ they are using to determine new student standards is not what I call ‘clean’ data. It is derivative of standardized tests which we all know lack reliability in ethnic minority groups. In other words, we decided decades ago that most of these tests are culturally biased, so they have been, and are, an inaccurate measure of Latino and Black students’ knowledge, skills, and abilities. Problem one.

Problem two. Not EVERY Asian child performs well and not every Black child performs poorly. By altering these expectations we will see a plethora of floor and ceiling effects in which some Asian children will perpetually be failing and some Black children will perpetually appear to be ‘gifted’. We already have an awful ‘special needs’ diagnostic system wherein children are tracked from second grade through twelfth with no hopes of ever losing whatever poorly measured label has been placed upon them. This will make it worse.

Problem two point five. Fast forward 10 years and imagine the other 32 NCLB-rejecting states do this. What we see now are racially segregated colleges. Because Latino and Black students had lower expectations, they were given less rigorous and fewer learning opportunities, and are therefore less prepared for college than are Asian and White students (see The Miseducation of Generations for a discussion on educational opportunities).

Problem three. This is an emotional problem. The developmental psychologist in me is SCREAMING. How dare we tell our children we don’t believe they can perform as well as their friends? How dare we tell other children they are just better students than their friends? Anyone familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on motivation knows that when we praise students for being ‘smart’ instead of praising them for effort, they lose intrinsic motivation to learn and don’t challenge themselves for fear of finding out they really aren’t ‘smart’.

Problem four. This policy exacerbates present cultural biases. We already have very little understanding of the ways in which cultural variables (most notably language, behavioral expectations, and gender norms) affect students’ academic behaviors, and this policy is giving us a written and legal excuse NOT to care.

Problem five. Students perform well when they are given the tools and environment to do so. With lower expectations, we are giving Latino and Black students lesser tools and weaker environments. I predict that these students’ test scores across the board will dip to even lower than the new expectations. Data shows that raising expectations raises performance (though it often removes the mediating variables that actually improve student performance). Less popular data shows that when you lower the bar, you lower students’ performance.

I could go on, but I am out of steam. I get that administrators want to set realistic goals for students. But this is not the way. Why not set more realistic incremental goals and scaffold their learning opportunities so they can achieve them?

This is a short cut. Laziness. An admission of defeat. Hopelessness. Divisive.

My heart hurts for the children who will unknowingly be given less before they’ve had the opportunity to ask for more.

Education in the Presidential Election: What They Skipped Over

A couple of months ago I posted outlines of Obama’s and Romney’s education plans. I promised then that I would update the posts closer to the election. So here we are. Both candidates have added a bit about education to their websites (though none of this was mentioned during any of the debates). To avoid repetition, please look at the prior posts in addition to this one. Let’s begin with President Obama. He has added two dimensions to his education plan:

President Obama

1)      Emphasize career-training by investing in community colleges.  This is kind of a big deal. I am torn on how I feel about this because our country has a tendency to be so black and white about things. A shift to vocational training means a shift away from liberal arts and interdisciplinary education. On the one hand, I firmly believe that too many students are graduating from college with no applicable skills. These students have majored in History with a minor in Studio Art and have no idea what they want to do with their lives. That’s because they were too busy exploring and didn’t dedicate enough time trying their hand at different fields. There was a time in our history when the sole purpose of education was to prepare students for the workforce. With the advent of liberal arts schooling and the introduction of 21st century skills, we are now focusing more on students’ thinking skills instead of their working skills. As a result, we have some deep thinkers who are ill qualified to actually be productive members of the workforce. On the other hand, I am afraid we may lose out on the wonder that comes with deep thinking. We have a generation of students who understand the intricacies of social, economic, and political functioning nationally and globally. They get the ‘big picture’ and are passionate to effect change in their communities. They are excited to travel the world and learn more so they can figure out how to solve the world’s problems. There is value in such community-centric thinking. I don’t want to lose that.

2)      Expanded the G.I. bill for Veterans. Living in a very military city, I’ve seen the direct results of this. I’ve personally met and communicated with members of the Air Force and Army who are presently taking advantage of the expanded bill. Some Officers are thrilled at the ability to transfer the bill to their children or spouses. Others are glad that the statute of limitations has been expanded so they have more time to go back to school. Some see it as a statement of faith in our country’s serviceman as more than protectors of our country, but also contributors to our country. I am always a fan of increasing access to education for segments of the population we have traditionally ignored or considered disinterested in education.

Governor Romney

1)      Require public schools to publish report cards of their yearly standardized test scores. Schools that are ‘failing’ will be shut down. Teachers that are ‘failing’ will be fired. I’ve commented multiple times on my feelings about so much emphasis placed on standardized tests (why the achievement gap has little to do with students, the miseducation of generations) instead of being placed on the teaching and learning process. The Governor says that by publishing school report cards, parents will have more information with which to make decisions about education for their kids. Now, like most of his rhetoric, this sounds good in theory. But how many of you can define a standard deviation? Or nominal and ordinal scales? Or p-value? Or standard error? Even more simply, how many of you know the scale score ranges of standardized tests? I am not sure who Governor Romney thinks will be able to interpret this data besides statisticians and those who use stats on a regular basis. The general public has no idea how to read test scores. Hell, most K-12 teachers don’t. Another façade of ‘access’ and ‘opportunity’ offered by Romney.

2)      Give teachers salary boosts and grant money when they have good test scores. Governor Romney and President Obama agree here. Both of them are foolish to believe that financial incentives will increase teacher quality. All you are doing is forcing teachers to teach to the test. I mean, if you offered me money if all of my students got As, I would make damn sure they got As. Even if that meant lowering my standards, cheating (see my post on cheating), or doing nothing but test preparation all year. Which is exactly what happens.

3)      Eliminate ‘unnecessary’ teacher certification requirements. Uhmmm, who decides what is necessary and unnecessary for a teacher to know and be able to do? I pray to God it is not YOU Governor. You who have never been a teacher at any level. You whose children went to private school. You who are a business man with very little understanding of the teaching and learning that happens in schools. I find it riotous that the Governor is firing teachers whose test scores are low, but is simultaneously advocating for lower teacher entry standards. He must really enjoy firing people. Perhaps that’s why he and Donald Trump get along so well.

4)      Decrease regulations on public colleges. Currently, public college funding comes in part from state funds (see my post on why college costs so much). When any entity receives government funds, you also receive government rules. Romney would like to continue to give them government money, but decrease the rules they have to follow. Specifically, he wants colleges to be able to accept private money from businesses because in the long run, he thinks if their money comes from private businesses, then it won’t have to come from the government. This is true. But what he fails to mention (because of true ignorance or political deviance I don’t know), is that with private money comes private rules. These companies are not philanthropists; they want something in return. Colleges may become marketing vehicles, students may become guinea pigs/beta testers, teachers may become pawns used to disseminate a business’ latest curriculum designed to increase the quality of their prospective employment pool. The outcomes are endless; like Romney’s belief that privatization will magically improve education.

In essence, neither of these candidates is focused on improving teaching and learning. Both are more concerned with improving educational outcomes. President Obama wants more people to go to college (not necessarily graduate college) and have marketable skills. Governor Romney wants higher test scores on paper. At least President Obama’s plan will positively affect traditionally marginalized groups (most notably, students from low and middle class income families). Governor Romney’s plan will only benefit those already in the ‘know’, those with investments in the private sector, those who already have—the 53% of the country he deems deserving.