Sandwiching my fun reads -- Lynne Cox's Grayson and How to Survive Your New Siberian Husky Puppy -- this past month were a Wall Street Journal interview with New York City Department of Education chancellor Joel Klein (11/24/08) and a Time magazine article profiling the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, Michelle Rhee (12/08/08). From the titles of those articles ("Failing Our Children" and "Can She Save Our Schools?") on, I was captivated.
At first, I winced. Were those articles simply adding to the barrage of American-school bashing? As a current practitioner, an active principal in the American public school system, I bristle at negative press that propagates the assumption that our schools are broken, that the system is experiencing a cataclysmic meltdown. Can we please stop heaping criticism on perhaps the most delicate and vital component of our grander community?
Soon, however, I came to my senses. Perhaps it was my alarm clock, maybe it was my Siberian Husky whining at the door, or possibly it was simply the resurgence of reality. Shoot, our school system is struggling. Yes, there are pockets of excellence all around, but as a whole we find ourselves on the short end of the measuring stick many times over.
We've heard the statistics. American students score well below most other countries in international measurements of reading and math proficiency across grade levels. Our graduates are ill-prepared to enter a competitive global society. We lack the number and percentage of math and science experts to continue our position as intellectual leaders. Our dropout rates are staggering. Ad nauseum. It's enough to make a dog want to move back to Siberia.
So there I was, walking my pup down the snowy streets, considering the mess were in. I thinked and I thunk til my thinker was sore, so I stopped to train the heterochromiatic-eyed dog (one hazel eye, one blue). We worked on sit, stay, down, and get the neighbors' cat, and then it came to me. If we really want to fix the American school system, we need to approach it more like training a puppy or, rather, a kennel of puppies--a gigantic, 50-million puppy kennel.
Training Point 1:
Set up training sessions as often as possible.
China, Japan, Germany, and Australia all significantly outscored the United States in the 2006 Program for International Assessment (PISA) administration in math and science, and each country sends its children to school for over 200 days per year. America still follows the 1847 Prussian model based on the agricultural calendar, with a mere 180 school days (or fewer) per annum. Coincidence? Maybe. One piece of the puzzle? Surely. But if you want to teach your dog to stay or shake, or if you want to teach your kids to develop scientific thinking proficiency, you'd better devote some serious time to it.
Training Point 2:
Use each command consistently.
It's no surprise that the standards-based movement has met little resistance philosophically. Who could argue that we should have clear definitions of our learning targets for students, educators, and parents to comprehend? When I tell my Husky to sit, I expect him on his haunches sharpish, not lying down, crouching, or leaping. Every time, it's the same command, the same behavior, and the same issuance of a treat. Can you imagine his confusion, and the mass chaos that would ensue throughout the kennel, if my sit command were met with any sort of movement and rewarded as if the expectation were met (or withheld, regardless of the behavior)? And worse, if my daughters came over and repeated the same inconsistent training approach? Well, that's essentially what we're doing by allowing each state to have its own set of standards, its own assessment tool to measure student achievement, and its own criteria to determine success (i.e. Adequate Yearly Progress). It's time that we consolidated our massive knowledge base into a national standards document, with consistent assessment tools, and a common measuring stick. Then we can dig into the bag of treats with confidence.
Training point 3:
Get a good trainer.
I took my Husky to obedience classes, only to find the trainer negative, grumpy, and ill-tempered. As a responsible pet owner, it wasn't long before I realized this situation was headed nowhere, and we left for a new class and new trainer. The impact of a positive, effective, relationship-driven trainer is monumental, while the devastating effects of a negative trainer can cause irreparable damage to a dog. Funny, if the pup had been my son at the neighborhood school, I would have had far less leverage to remove him from an ineffective teacher's class, and we know the damage done by a poor teacher is debilitating at best. In what other profession is career tenure awarded after as little as a year or two? In what other profession is it so excruciatingly difficult to remove an ineffective practitioner? In what other profession is the pay scale set up solely on the basis of longevity, with nary a glance towards merit? In what other profession is the salary so meager, anyway? We need to keep and reward top-notch professional teachers and redesign our system to more easily remove the harmful, damaging ones.
Training point 4:
Practice operant conditioning.
We don't beat our dogs when they misbehave; we encourage them and reward them for doing well. Research from noted experts urges us to refrain from shoving a dog's snout in a living-room accident, informing us instead to provide the pooch with more frequent opportunities to go outside and rewards for doing his business in a designated spot in the back yard. Along the same lines, let's stop beating our schools when they under-perform. Let's see if we can get them the help and support they need to reach reasonable goals, then acknowledge their growth and progress. The theory behind operant conditioning is that we will receive more of what we expect when we reward it immediately, and those unwanted behaviors will dissipate if they are ignored, the reward is withheld, and the expectation is repeated. If my little Husky can get on board with this, I'm sure the well educated professionals in our schools can embrace it also.
Chancellors Klein and Rhee have a common mission, a goal that should be uniting us all: the drastic improvement of our schools and school system. Some of the ideas I've outlined in this column are congruent with their thinking, and I'm sure if they have dogs they would bark in agreement. If we really want to better our education system, we need to make it a priority and put our money where our mouths are.
It's not school-bashing or system-maligning if we point out our shortcomings and follow up by providing options and alternatives for growth, correct? As educators, we have an obligation to get involved. Write your senators and legislators. Contact an advocacy group. Get involved. Organize a march with your own puppy as you take a public stance. Millions of American students are depending on us.
Always strive to be a better you,
Article by Pete Hall
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